As we move further into summer, All Saints’ Rector Mike Kinman reflects on the biblical value of Sabbath: “To deny Sabbath, to profane the Sabbath is the deepest insult to God. It is taking God’s gift of liberation and throwing it back in her face.”
“Then YHWH said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites, ‘No matter what, you must keep my Sabbaths. They will stand as a sign between you and me through all the generations to come, so you will know that I, YHWH, make you holy. Keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death. Anyone who works on that day must be cut off from the community. You have six days for work; on the seventh day, you have a Sabbath of rest, sacred to YHWH. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death.” – Exodus 31: 12-15
You’ve probably heard the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8). But have you ever read this passage a few chapters later? Did you know that the penalty for breaking the fourth commandment is … DEATH?
God is serious about Sabbath. God is so serious about Sabbath that scripture tells us not once but twice in the space of one paragraph that working on the Sabbath is a capital offense!
Why? Why is Sabbath so important?
For the answer, you have to go back to the first commandment. God says: “I am YHWH who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Do not worship any gods but me.”
We need to remember what it was like in Egypt. The people were in slavery. Slaves are seen as valuable only for what they can produce. And so every last ounce of labor is squeezed out of them. Rest is a necessary evil, a concession to human frailty … that our bodies would eventually collapse if we run them 24/7/365.
God delivered the people from that life because God adores us. God knows we are much, much, much more than just means of production. We are created in God’s image. We are beautiful and good. We are made not just for production of goods and services but to sing and dance and create and learn and hang out in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium. To stay up talking until dawn and make love on the beach. To SLEEP!
To deny Sabbath, to profane the Sabbath is the deepest insult to God. It is taking God’s gift of liberation and throwing it back in her face.
But it’s even worse than that.
Scripture tells us the punishment for breaking Sabbath is death not because God will send a lightning bolt and smite us for being bad … but because the actual consequence of denying Sabbath IS DEATH. We die as human beings and become slaves and machines of production. We exist but we cease truly to live. The consequence of Sabbath being death is not the punishment of God it is a natural consequence … to our and God’s deep, tragic sorrow.
This means at least two things for us as people of faith. First, it means as we enter this summer … but also throughout the year … that taking Sabbath time is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. It is strength, not weakness. It is the very definition of holiness not just for God but for us as well. Take time this summer … and then keep taking it.
Second, it means recognizing that we live in a world and an economy that much more resembles Pharaoh and Egypt than the Promised Land. Slavery is all around us. Something that is literally a matter of life and death – Sabbath — has become a luxury for many and an absolute impossibility for far too many. Our economy was built on the backs of black bodies kidnapped from Africa and the labor tortured out of them and continues to be sustained on the backs of the prison industrial complex at the most extreme but also the millions of low-wage workers who have to work multiple jobs without Sabbath and still cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment.
As we proceed through these summer months, may we remember that Sabbath is not optional. It is a matter of life and death. May we claim that life for ourselves … and continue to dismantle the structures of slavery that deny it to any.