What do you do when you don’t have to do anything?
Do you stay in bed? Watch television? Read a book? Go for a walk? Call a friend? Cook yourself a meal? Go out to dinner?
How do you feel when you don’t have to do anything?
Do you feel anxious? Excited? Blissful? Bored?
What should you do when you don’t have to do anything?
This is a question I ask myself a lot. I ask it at work, when there’s nothing that requires my immediate attention. But I also ask it when I’m not working: what would be the most fun, most rewarding, most enjoyable thing to do right now? I waste more time wondering what would be the most fun thing to do than I spend actually doing it. Anybody else ever do that?
Okay, so maybe I’m weird. But I’m not the only one: I was recently at Leslie’s brother’s college graduation, and one of the student speakers described how he would sometimes spend a half-hour scrolling through options on Netflix before giving up and going to bed. The speaker’s main point was, in life and in late-night TV watching, it’s important to pick something and commit to it.
Okay, so maybe my entire generation is weird. But I think there’s an echo there of the question that activates the Gospel lesson for today: what if you not only don’t have to do anything, you have to not do any work? You’ve got some time set aside during which work is definitely not happening…now what?
God gave the Israelites, and their descendents the Jews, a law stating that on a certain day each week they were not to do any work. It’s written out clearly in Deuteronomy and Exodus. The version in Deuteronomy, which we just heard, is crystal clear in a certain sense:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
OK! So, nobody works. Not the adults to whom the commandment is addressed. Not their sons our daughters. Not their slaves. Not their animals — not their animals of any kind. Not anyone who lives among them. Everybody gets to rest. Everybody must not do any work. Clear enough?
But “not doing any work” — well, still we wonder: what is work? How should we honor this commandment? This is a question that Jews have discussed for thousands of years. Today’s Gospel reading shows us two episodes from that millenia-long argument, from the pen of an early Christian.
Now, I’d like to pause for a moment and say that nothing in these two brief stories should be generalized to make statements about Jews and what they believe and how they act. It is very, very easy for Christians to tell a simple story where the Pharisees, and their descendents, our Jewish neighbors, are legalistic killjoys trying to dot every i and cross every t and losing sight of basic human compassion. It’s easy to tell a story like that; if we’re only looking at the Pharisees in these particular stories, I guess it’s true, if not an especially interesting insight; but if we try to apply it to Judaism generally, it’s flat wrong. It is a longstanding principle in Jewish law, for example, that danger to a human life allows, and indeed requires, the breaking of any ritual laws that might prevent the saving of the life. And if I can spend a moment on a favorite hobby horse of mine, I really wish we Christians had a day each week that we honestly devoted to rest in the presence of loved ones and of God. In my experience there are very few Christian rituals for the home. We have nothing like the songs and prayers of the Sabbath, and nothing like the kind of commitment to Sabbath, that our Jewish neighbors have. In our eagerness to avoid legalism and use our Christian freedom, we have lost a great deal, I think.
But here I am: I’m preaching a sermon on a text where religious leaders tell Jesus’ followers they’re doing the Sabbath wrong and Jesus tells them off for it, and now I’m a religious leader telling more of Jesus’ followers that they’re doing the Sabbath wrong. So forgive me.
The question of how to observe Sabbath, in the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees, quickly becomes a discussion of why observe Sabbath and what is the Sabbath for?
And there are a number of ways to answer that question. When the Commandment is given in Exodus, it has a very straightforward rationale: God rested on the seventh day, and hallowed it, so you should too. In Deuteronomy, as we’ve just heard, it has to do with the memory of slavery and of God’s liberation.
Once the Christians were gathering on the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath, rather than on the Sabbath itself, they had to figure out how and why to observe the Sabbath themselves. Martin Luther applied the commandment to the preaching and hearing of God’s Word: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise or neglect preaching or God’s Word, but keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
Blue laws went into effect in many places, trying to enforce the holiness of the day by prohibiting certain activities. I actually have no idea what the blue law status is in this part of the world. In Minnesota, when I was going to seminary, liquor stores were closed on Sundays. That law was repealed last year, and now the only remaining blue law in my home state is that you can’t sell a car on a Sunday. This law may remain for some time yet; my understanding is that car dealers tend to support it, as a way of enforcing one day off a week. If one car dealership started opening on Sunday, everyone would have to do the same in order to compete and they’d all be worse off. The law is also supported by the even more powerful constituency of people who want one day a week to go to car dealership lots and wander around and look at cars without being harassed by salespeople.
It’s generally agreed that people can’t work all the time: they need some rest at some point or they won’t be able to keep working, they’ll lose productivity. I’m sure there’s been a lot of research done on how much rest time people need in order to be maximally productive. However, I didn’t look for any of that research when I was preparing this sermon, because human productivity is entirely beside the point of the way God interprets the commandment in Deuteronomy and Jesus interprets the commandment in our Gospel lesson.
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
“Is it lawful to do good or evil on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently sees human beings as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. Jesus’ disciples as they wander through the fields are hungry people who need to eat, not an opportunity to score points on either side of a legal controversy. The man whose hand is withered is a human being, in God’s image, in need of healing and wholeness; not an opportunity for anyone else to prove their piety.
The answer to the question “What is the Sabbath good for” is that it’s good for human beings. It’s good for you, it’s good for your neighbor, it’s good for your employees, it’s good for the staff at your favorite restaurant. It’s good for everyone. Everyone needs rest. God’s gracious will is that all should have time to rest. It’s a call to us as individuals to take that time for rest in our own lives, and a call to us as a society to make it so that everyone has space and time for rest.
Thanks be to God.