Sabbath, Work, and Identity
Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 18th, 2018
Just this week I was at a presentation at a local school where the guest speaker told us ‘I am living proof that it is possible to have a career in the Arts . . .’ I really didn’t know exactly what to make of this. For underlying the proposition was an imperative ‘You must have a career . . . we all have to have a career’ Or put another way – one cannot just be an artist, one has to earn a living . . . To say that earning a living is antithetical to the Good News of Jesus Christ is a truism, but to our modern ears perhaps it is an absurdity . . .
We live in what the German philosopher Josef Pieper called a culture of total work. He was writing 70 years ago – in many respects his work was as prophetic as it was contemporary. What with the advent of phones which carry your emails, not a few of us know an existence where work fills every waking hour . . . and work defines us, it gives us our ‘significant identity’, our value in the world. If you doubt this, look at the reaction on people’s faces when Sarah tells them her work is to tend to house and home and garden and bring up our children . . . or note how many folk turn up at funerals to discover the truth of the person behind their work . . . even our latter days should we live that long are ‘Retirement’ – in other words defined by our work, and the idea that one must earn a living is of course a subtle if unconscious driver in terms of how we treat those who do not . . . for example children
When people ask our children ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ They will often be met by cheerful laughter. Laughter is the only way to deal with Totalitarian narratives about our existence. And of course it is a Totalitarian Narrative – be it Covertly in Capitalist systems, or overtly and more truthfully therefore in Communist systems ‘Work is good for you’, Work gives your life a sense of meaning, ‘Work makes you free . . .’
Contrary to this totalising narrative of Work and Identity, the Jewish people were given the Sabbath. This practise marked them out, and we might perhaps be tempted to say that therefore it is the most important practise for the people of God in this day of ‘total work’. Sabbath set limits to our work. As the LORD set limits to the sea saying to its proud waves ‘Thus far and no further’ [Job 38:11] so Work was held back so that it did not flood their existence. And indeed the children of Israel had every reason to practise Sabbath given their history. As the footnote to the fourth commandment said ‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your GOd brought you out from there with a mighty arm . . . It was the occassion of the Egyptians groaning under the slavery of Pharaoh the Egyptian culture of ‘Total Work’ which had occasioned the LORD to reveal himself to Moses and set them free – to bring them out and form them into His people. To forget the Sabbath was for your self awareness to be drowned under the sea of Work, it was to forget who you were as a Jew, that is One who had been saved from ‘total work’ by God, and FOR God. It was to forget God, and all cultures of ‘total work’ are fundamentally atheist, however religiously observant they are.
The Sabbath was a multi dimensional claim on Existence itself. It was about who you were – your identity – NOT what you did. Sabbath told you that your Life was only with others. “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.”
When the powerful do not rest, neither does anyone else. People who work all the time require others to do the same. When those with money will not rest from shopping, others must be dragged from rest to serve them. When the CEO is sending emails seven days a week, every minion must pay constantly pay attention to their inbox . . . Pharaohs throughout the ages are tormented by dreams, and the whole empire must rush to serve them and calm the fears of the self made life.
And therein was the key to Sabbath, for Total work is the fruit of Anxiety, the refusal to accept life as a Gift, the deep rooted belief that life had to be earned. It is the failure to know yourself as the child of the ‘Father in heaven who knows you need all these things’, and who sets you free to seek the Kingdom of God. It is total amnesia.
Sabbath told you were a Child of the Father, Loving God with heart souls mind and strength (as a child loves) identifying with the One who rested. ‘For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day’.
You rest because God your Father rests. Nowhere in scripture is human work related to God’s work except in Jesus. Identifying human work with God’s work was but a covert attempt to secure our existence for ourselves, rather than accept the Gift of Sabbath. The Scribal tradition used one verb for God’s work, and another for human work, there is no 6-day a week correspondence. But there is one verb for Rest. It was in Sabbath that Israel’s identity as the child of God was known . . . The Sabbath had nothing to do with Work, except as restraint from the primal sin of forgetting the Father who knows your needs and instead making a Life for yourself.
And thus the Sabbath day alone was Holy. As God alone is Holy, to be invited to Sabbath is to be invited to Participate in the Life of God – to be His child.
For many many years the people of God had suffered under totalitarian regimes from North and East and South, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and now finally the Romans, the Jewish people had desperately clung onto their sense of who they were through Sabbath observance.
And the Pharisees understood that it was Their role, their Sacred duty to act as the guardians of Jewish identity, and thus to secure the existence of the Jewish people, and thus they were Anxious about the ‘correct understanding of the Sabbath’, not least because that interpretation was one which ruling powers had accommodated themselves to and allowed to continue . . .
So Jesus words ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . .’ come, not like a comfort blanket, like a bumper sticker slogan for hard times, but high explosive claim for all of Identity and existence, in a situation which reeked of fear. Fear of losing their national identity, and fear of what the Romans might do to them if things were pushed too far . . . For of course it was eminently suitable to any occupying power that there was an agreement with the power brokers that after a day off, everyone would be back at their desks . . . (Middle management has always been a position of Curse . . . ) and here comes Jesus, talking of giving Rest, and No words about six days shalt thou labour . . . Jesus, as he had done with the law on Murder and Adultery, had revealed the Fourth commandment, the Sabbath also to be a limit on human evil, and consequently a limit on their participation in the Life of God, a limitation upon the Reign and Rule of God to just one day in Seven.
The fullness of Life which Jesus came to proclaim and to enact was prefigured in the Sabbath Command, like all the law, a school teacher to point us to the Good, but its total fulfilment was revealed in Jesus. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I will. Jesus as he speaks with his disciples is pointing to himself as the one who truly reveals the identity of God’s people . . . In the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus we are invited to the participate in Holy Time – not one day in seven, but ‘Eternal Life’ – to a Life defined not by our work, but by our, parentage as children of our Father in heaven . . .
Jesus words were and are a total claim on the people of God and their true identity . . .and this is why the Pharisees ‘went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him’.
For surely They were the true guardians of the identity of Israel, and if they along with the Herodians and Scribes could deliver a pacified workforce, taught ‘six days shalt thou labour’, they could keep their position, and keep the Powers that be happy. God may have commanded rest, ‘but the world cannot work unless we work like crazy on the other six . . .’ and everything before the ‘but’ is always negated . . .
Matthew gives us the fullest account of how Total is Jesus‘ claim regarding himself and thus the Identity of all of the children of God. Jesus’ conflict about Sabbath isn’t finally about Work and Rest, it’s about Everything to do with the Identity of God’s people, those who bear the name of Jesus Christ – those who Participate in God’s Holiness, in his very Life. It is the breaking of Sabbath Consciousness into all of existence, in and through Jesus Christ
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ The Pharisees defined Sabbath and thus all of Israel’s existence. But Jesus completely reinterprets the fourth commandment, and makes himself the centre of it, this command that links the existence of God to the existence of the people of God.
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. David and his companions. Jesus and his disciples . . .
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the Pharisees rebuke him for allowing children and disciples to cry out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David, Hosanna to the King’. The crowd tell Bartimaeus to shut up when he cries out ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ Any word of a new King will bring it all crashing down and reminding the people that the king had eaten the Holy Bread when they were hungry. The people as we know from the feeding of the 5000 are hungry – Life under Roman rule is harsh for all the accommodation of the Jewish rulers with the Powers that be . . . As to this day, there is always a good market for ‘spiritual messages’ which make one feel nice when life is harsh, but do not threaten the status quo . . . But Jesus is demolishing the status quo. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? For indeed are not all God’s people priests?? A royal priesthood? A holy Nation they were called, ever before the Sabbath commandment was given . . . Jesus again calling his fellow Jews to their true identity I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. Sabbath – Kingship – Priesthood – Temple. Who truly is the King of the Jews? To whom do they belong? What defines them? Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . the yoke the symbol of the King . . . The Pharisees considered themselves to be the guardians of the identity of God’s people, and in so doing left them enslaved – denying that they were a people radically set free by God. Jesus takes all their precious signs of identity and says, these are mine, and My people are Free.
Finally this Sabbath Life, this Eternal Life is revealed in power, as Jesus heals, ‘to show that the Son of Man has authority on earth . . .’. This is a total claim for Authority – a total claim on Identity. These, Jesus is saying are my people. , and ‘the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.’
And so the True existence of the people of God is revealed in the Resurrection, the eighth day, the day outside of the workaday existence, the New Time, the time that is Eternal – and for almost all the church’s existence, the body of Christ has not mentioned Sabbath. Augustine gives it the briefest of mentions, Aquinas too . . . but to this day Catholic and Orthodox theologians don’t mention it . . . Life was marked by Human work, growing food, tending for the sick, bringing up children, study and scholarship, art, the hungry fed, the elderly revered and listened to for their wisdom – and in and through all of it, Celebration and Worship – every day prayer and worship.
But following the Reformation ‘Sabbath’ begins to make a comeback . . . as do such phrases as ‘Hard work is good for you’, ‘Work makes you free’. The ladies of C17 Holland were much taken with that new blue and white fashion, Delft China. This it is fairly clear was the root of Consumerism – and following hot on its heels ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’, after all, if one wanted all these new consumer goodies that the Industrial revolution was pouring out, one needed to earn more money, one needed to work for more than the basic essentials of life, and one needed to justify this new found zeal for work, for new forms of work and money making. The Scriptures called this Greed, but . . . if one needed to do that , then there were and indeed are more than enough apologists to work out neat sophisticated arguments for more work, for denying that God’s work and human work are not the same . . . where of course people weren’t enslaved . . . so we were brought Consumerism, The Work Ethic, and now a plethora of books on the Sabbath . . . for after all, in this brave New World we have Created for ourselves, everyone needs a rest from their work . . . as if that were the meaning of Sabbath . . . and everyone of those books as far as my researches suggest written by a Protestant writer . . .
As I have suggested over the past weeks, Jesus does not come to us as a ‘spiritual salve’ for when life is hard. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’ is the gentle demand on the whole of our existence, that we do not live to work, rather the goal of our existence is Love of God and Neighbour.
Yes. There is work to be done, the hungry must be fed, the sick healed, the elderly and frail cared for, children brought up to know who they are . . . did you know that the word ‘School’ literally means ‘leisure’ I’ve been telling one or two of my young friends this . . .The land must be cared for and tended, its wounds cleansed and repaired . . . food must be grown – but the goal of the whole creation of all existence is Life with God. Thy will done on Earth as in Heaven. As St Paul puts it – everyone should do some work with their hands, so that they have something to share with the poor. That is Human work
The Sabbath commandment which is a restraining ordinance, points to the deeper truth of the Life which is known in Jesus Christ. Knowing our existence is secure in Him. To refuse this gift is to refuse life itself. Our insistence upon Total Work – our refusal of Life not as something to be toiled for but as a Gift of our Father, leads us to a deep and destructive amnesia . . . forgetting that we belong to the one who ‘gives us Rest’ – and it is destroying us, and it is destroying God’s Good Creation
Work has overstepped its bounds and the whole creation is now led back into utter slavery and despoilation. As Isaiah prophesied, ‘The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.’ [Isaiah 24]
Our reading from Joshua concluded – The Land had rest from war . . . our wretched Greed has meant that it is many years since the Land knew such rest . .. Sabbath Rest included the land. Every seventh year the Land was to lie fallow. This was a sustaining ordinance. As Sabbath restrained our evil desires to make lives for ourselves, so for the Land to bring forth her increase, required us to be restrained in our work, restraining our evil. The Land had to have rest. And as the Gospel is good news for the poor, those enslaved, the Lord will see that the Land, HIS good Earth has Rest.
As the Sabbath Command was given to restrain evil, so too the Command of the Lord restrained the proud waves, and set their limits. We have thrown off the gentle yoke in our quest to earn a living – creating a world of ‘total work’ – and the waves are rapidly encroaching their bounds.
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways, reclothe us in our rightful minds . . .