These deceptive words

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.

One thread of the tradition traces the sabbath all the way to the basic patterns of creation, the rhythm of six days of work and a day of rest. Another thread of the tradition traces the commandment to keep the sabbath day to a labor conflict between the lord of Egypt’s brickyards and the Lord of heaven and earth.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and asked for time off for their people. “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”

Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will certainly not let Israel go.” There were cities to be built, store houses to be erected, roads to be cleared. “Why are you making the people slack off from their labor? Back to work!” Pharaoh shouted, and that same day he commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, “Don’t supply the people with the straw they need to make bricks like you did before. Let them go out and gather the straw for themselves. But still make sure that they produce the same number of bricks as they made before. Don’t reduce the number! They are weak and lazy, and that’s why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifices to our God.’ Make their work so hard that it’s all they can do, and they pay no attention to these deceptive words.”[1]

In Pharaoh’s mind, talk of rest was talk of unrest; talk of worship and sacred time was talk of wasted time, and talk of slaves honoring any Lord before him or beside him – who had ever heard such a thing, fake news, sprung from idle minds, such deceptive words! Crank up production! Keep them busy! Let them gather their own straw, and don’t you dare lowering the brick quotas!

It was the clash of two economies – God’s economy of gift and grace and sabbath praise and Pharaoh’s economy of oppressive, relentless, and exhausting toil.

In the divine economy, sabbath is the crown of creation, the end and fulfillment of all work.

In Pharaoh’s economy, sabbath is a waste of time.

In the divine economy, human beings are made in the image of God, persons of dignity, partners in caring for creation.

In Pharaoh’s economy, human beings are means of production.

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.

The sabbath is not merely a day off for “recharging the batteries.” The sabbath is a day of remembering, practicing, and living into an order of time in sync with the rhythms of God’s creative and redemptive work. As human beings made in the image of God we are invited to work with God and to enter into God’s rest, the completion of creation in unending joy and peace. “Rest in peace” is not just one last wish for us to write on each other’s grave markers; it’s what God does on the seventh day and we are meant to do, and God will not rest until we have been set free from all that keeps us in bondage.

How does one keep the sabbath? How does one keep this holy day holy? “Jewish liturgy and law say both what should be done on Shabbat and what should not,” writes Dorothy Bass.

What should not be done is “work.” Defining exactly what that means is a long and continuing argument, but one classic answer is that work is whatever requires changing the natural, material world. All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews let it be. They celebrate the created world as it is and dwell within it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all, and in gratefully receiving the gift of the world they learn to remember that ultimately it is not human effort that grows the grain and forges the steel. By extension, all activities associated with work or commerce are also prohibited. Indeed, one should not even think about them.[2]

The debate over what should and should not be done on the sabbath began long before Jesus was born. The prophet Amos attests that eagerness to get past the sabbath is not a recent development, and that the sabbath has always been a gift God’s people found difficult to receive. “Hear this,” Amos writes, “you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’”[3] Why let sabbath memories disrupt valuable market days? Why let talk of divine purposes and God-given human dignity disrupt the selling  of goods and services to consumers?

Again Dorothy Bass,

Within the rhythms of the global marketplace, work, shopping, and entertainment are available at every hour. As a result, work and family life are being thrown into new and confusing arrangements, not only among the technological elite, but very widely indeed as the United States moves steadily toward a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year economy. Meanwhile, the free time people do have comes as fragments best fit for channel-surfing. It is not the lack of time but rather its formlessness that is troubling in this scenario. One can see human lives becoming ever more fully detached from nature, from community, and from a sense of belonging to a story that extends beyond one’s own span of years.[4]

Fragmentation. Formlessness. Isolation. The debate over how to keep the sabbath, how to keep sacred time sacred is not just for religious nerds; it goes to the heart of how we imagine, think, speak, defend, and live human life.

Jesus insisted and insists that the sabbath has to be more than a day of religiously observed work stoppage. Work stops for us to remember that we live in God’s time. Work stops for us to remember our dignity as creatures made in the image of God. Work stops for us to remember our liberation from Pharaoh’s economy. Work stops for us to remember that God wills our release from all the forces that enslave, oppress, exploit, bind, and burden us.

When Jesus encountered in the synagogue the man who had a withered hand, his first thought was not whether or not curing him violated any rules of sabbath observance. He saw what was needed for that man to know the joy and peace of the sabbath, and so he restored the man’s withered hand. For Jesus, the sabbath is a reality into which God invites God’s people, and Jesus, in communion with the One who made the sabbath, opens the door for all to enter. For Jesus, to keep the sabbath holy means not just to rest in peace, but to give access to this rest to others.

The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. And the sabbath was made not just for humankind in general, but also for this particular human being, this man whose affliction, what Mark calls a withered hand, may have prevented him for who knows how long from doing the kind of work he dreamed of doing, or from making a living and providing for a family.

I’ve thought a lot about this man in the past few days. A withered hand is a hand that hasn’t always been like that, not always weak, its fingers not always stiffly curled in or limp or clenched in a tight fist. Perhaps it withered slowly over months, perhaps suddenly, over night, like a small plant that didn’t have deep roots, and when the rains didn’t come, it dried up.

I’ve thought a lot about this man, let myself see myself in him, thought about what’s withered in me, because something does wither when dear people leave; something does wither when good things come to an end. I’m a man whose soul has some withered leaves. I’m a man whose soul thirsts for the Lord of the sabbath and I imagine you know what I mean. You have been in relationships that withered. You have witnessed how trust can wither, how joy, even faith, can wither.

The man in the story doesn’t speak a word, did you notice? He didn’t ask to be cured. He didn’t add his own comments to the sabbath debate between Jesus and his opponents. He didn’t express wonder or gratitude. Jesus told him to come forward, and he did. Jesus told him to stretch out his hand, and he did. I imagine he stretched out his hand toward Jesus and perhaps he could see how in this simple movement life returned to every muscle, sinew, and bone, and wholeness was restored. The gospel story invites us to draw closer to Jesus with all that is withered in our lives, to let him see what we see, to let him see what we cannot see, to let him draw us into the fullness of life that God has prepared for God’s people.

Over the past couple of years and especially the past few months we have done some of the hardest work we have ever had to do, physically and emotionally draining work, soul-withering work. We have made heartbreaking decisions, we have given ourselves to the labor of dismantling old structures of ministry, and we have begun to build new ones.

But we remember we’re not toiling in Pharaoh’s brickyard. Our master is not asking us to meet and exceed our daily brick quotas. “Make their work so hard that it’s all they can do, and they pay no attention to these deceptive words,” Pharaoh said. Our master is all about what Pharaoh called “these deceptive words,” words of promise and life, like these from the beginning of the book of Psalms:

Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.[5]

 

[1] Exodus 5:1-9

[2] Dorothy C. Bass, “Christian formation in and for sabbath rest,” Interpretation 59, no. 1 (January 2005), 29.

[3] Amos 8:4-5; see also Jeremiah 17:19-27; Nehemiah 13:15-17.

[4] Bass, 32.

[5] Psalm 1:1-3

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