How to Keep the Sabbath in Our Lives

Isaiah 58:9b-end                                  Luke 13:10-17

The common theme in today’s readings is the Sabbath. 

The background is of course the fourth of the Ten Commandments.  This is actually a double commandment, to work, and to refrain from working:

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  For six days you shall labour and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” [Exodus 20:8-10]

One of the interesting things here is that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments which comes with an explanation of why it has been given.  (Some of the others have added to them a more-or-less veiled threat about what will happen if you break them, but that is a different matter.)  However, the explanation for the commandment in Exodus 20 is not the same as that in Deuteronomy 4.  (I’m sure you know, the 10 Commandments were first given in Exodus, and then they are repeated in Deuteronomy, which most scholars think was composed much later).  I will come back to that difference.

The question of Sabbath observance has been one of the great changes in the English religious landscape over the last lifetime or two.  I think that, if we are honest, many of us are quite confused and perhaps a bit guilty about how we spend our Sundays.  So let us consider a hypothetical question: if God’s desires with respect to the Sabbath were perfectly observed, what it look like – in 2019, in England, in Rutland?

Let’s begin by dispensing with “the good old days”.  We might imagine a time and place where they did the Sabbath properly.  Perhaps it’s in North Wales, and it’s raining.  Pubs shut.  Shops shut.  No playing out, or indeed in.  No reading, for that matter, unless it be the Bible or something properly improving.  It is true that part of the reason that so many children attended Sunday School until the 1970s was that there was little else for them to do.  The children were happy to attend, and their parents to get them out of the house.  But none of this sounds terribly appealing, and I find it difficult to imagine that it shaped a Christian character that was generous or joyful.  In today’s gospel we see Jesus criticising a legalistic approach – so I doubt that an old-style Sabbatarian model is the right answer to my question, what God wants for us in the Sabbath.  One cannot bore people into the Kingdom of God.

However, a better answer may deal with the same basic ideas: a sense of life having a natural rhythm; a sense that we should share this rhythm, working together and then resting together; a sense that rest is an essential part of life, just as important as work.  And it seems to me that our society is quite badly in need of a reminder of these basic elements of the good life.

We do seem to be addicted, just now, to being busy.  Being busy and active has become a pretty universal cultural norm in our society.  It has become a form of greeting – “keeping busy?”  If you ask people how they are, it is one of the first things they tell you.  There is a distinct sense that not being busy is a failure to play the game.  If you are not busy, why not?  Is it because no-one wants you?  Because you are not useful?  Do you not belong to our tribe, the tribe of the busy people?  And so those who are unable to be busy – because of issues of health or disability or unemployment – are excluded and demeaned.

I suspect the lack of space in our lives contributes to ill health, both physical and mental.  It is bad for marriages and personal relationships – bad for children whose parents are too busy to free-wheel with them.  So while I am not advocating compulsory boredom, I do think that we have lost something vital in discarding a sense of rhythm, and an expectation that there will be periods of space in our lives. 

So, what might it look like if we aligned our lives more to the spirit of Sabbath?  To get some clues to this, I looked back at the actual wording of the fourth Commandment – and in particular to the reasons given why we should observe the Sabbath.  You will remember that two different reasons appear, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy.  To begin with the latter:

Deut. 4: 14-15 “…You shall not do any work etc. etc. – so that your 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.”

On this basis, I suggest that one of the principles of Sabbath that we should bring more into our society is to make sure our patterns of work and leisure suit the interest of those with least power.  We do not have slaves – but we have plenty of people on zero-hours contracts, plenty with zero bargaining power, plenty who so much need a job that they dare not protest against ill-treatment or harassment.  Sunday trading was first proposed in 1986 – it was beaten off then, but finally passed in 1994.  You might remember that one of the key arguments thirty-five years ago, when that it would be bad for workers.  In principle, working on a Sunday is supposed now to be voluntary.  But in practice, I doubt this is really the case.  In practice, people need the money.  And, in fact, need for income is part of what drives the lack of leisure.  People work longer hours in the UK than in most developed economies – longer than most of Western Europe – and that is surely partly related to the stagnant real wages we have seen since the 2008 crash.

So the first way that I think we could usefully bring the principle of Sabbath more into our society is collective.  As I suggested earlier, that Sabbath is a collective endeavour seems to me one of its basic principles.  After all, the 10 Commandments as a whole were given to a whole nation, not to individuals.  So if God’s Sabbath applied across our society, then we would ensure that people at the bottom of the income scale have stable jobs for decent wages, so that they can raise families and live decently on the return from a sensible working week.  We would also seek to ensure that families have a real choice, when babies come, about whether one parent or the other will stop work and stay home with the children.  Making that real will require much more active social policy: for incomes, for benefits, for the housing market.

Let me turn instead to Exodus, and the other reason God gives for commanding Sabbath:

Exodus 20: 11 “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”

We must rest, because God rested.  We should take God as our model.

To make sense of this, we need to set it into the context of God’s whole project of redemption.  His goal in Christ is to make us fit to be His friends – which is to say, to draw us into His own life, His own dance of new beginnings and re-birth.  He created us with this goal – intimacy with Him.

So we have a sense of purpose, a sense of direction.  And keeping this constantly in mind is essential if we are to make sense of moral language.  Our actions or intentions are not right or wrong in themselves.  They acquire moral status in relation to this fundamental purpose of our existence.  The good is what helps us to draw closer to God.  Evil is what distracts us from God, drags us down, makes us less fit for His company.

So Christian morality is purpose-driven – I do not refer to purposes we adopt for ourselves – but to the purposes for which we are made, the inherent purposefulness that is built into us.  Which is to be God-like, insofar as that is possible for creatures like us.  That is why God explains His Commandment in terms that say: I did this, so you should too; I rested, so should you.  Because the deepest moral good aims precisely to make us like God.

Having set out some fundamentals of moral theology, let me apply this to the question of Sabbath.  But I meet a difficulty, because we do not have a good vocabulary for discussing the ethics of time and activity.  I want to suggest, in fact, that we might usefully borrow the traditional language that relates to food and drink.  We know, in our diets, that temperance and moderation are virtues, as well as being good for us.  The reasons for this are that temperance goes with the grain of our nature, and of God’s purpose in making us.  Whereas we know that the opposite, which we call greed or gluttony, is both sinful and makes us feel bad.

Perhaps we should borrow this language from the morality of consumption, and apply it also to our use of time.  So that ordering our lives around an idea of Sabbath, of moderation and pattern in our activity and business, we can describe as temperate.  While fitting in too much can be recognised as greed.  It is not, of course, that the activities are bad in themselves; any more than food is bad in itself.  But eating too much is wrong.  And so is taking on an extra commitment, even though it will distort the rhythm of our lives and crowd out our relationships.  Whether we take it on because we enjoy it, or because it seems worthwhile, or even because it seems necessary – if it breaks the rhythm and crowds out our relationships, then this seems to be a disrespect of Sabbath, and in some sense equivalent to the sin of gluttony.

So: I have suggested that we bring the principles of Sabbath to bear in our society, if we bear in mind the needs of the poorest and least powerful.  And in our lives, if we select our activities not because they are worthwhile but rather because, as a pattern, they constitute a healthy whole which draws us closer to God.  Which is to say, which seems to fit with and sustain the deep call we believe God makes on our lives.