The Justice of Sabbath

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature-is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel

Amidst the anger, confusion, and sadness following the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas Police Officers, my friend and colleague Joe Scrivner advised via his facebook page: “Read a few news stories each day, reduce your intake of TV news, and find something positive to think about or do … You’ll be as or more informed and have a healthier mindset. You’re not going to reduce evil by watching TV. Read more, watch less, find something constructive, and protect your state of mind.

Joe’s wise words encouraging strategic disengagement reminded me of the relationship between Sabbath and justice. If we are to sustain our journey along that long arc bending toward justice, we need to rest. Rest is not opposed work, but necessary for its completion. The rhythm of rest and work structures the active life so that it is focused, purposeful, effective, and sustainable. The Sabbath is a day set aside not for escaping the harsh realities of life and its required work, but for the purpose of being more mindful of how we approach these realities as followers of Jesus. The principle of Sabbath orients our discipleship in the direction of justice and freedom, as we become obedient to the fact that everything belongs to God and that we are to be stewards for the sake of all people, not just ourselves. 

Note, for example, the intersection of Sabbath, justice, and freedom in Deuteronomy and the prophet Isaiah:

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”(Deut 5: 15)

“This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:1-2)

Passages like these which frame Sabbath as a matter of justice and liberation may have us doing a double take, given that our popular view of Sabbath often focuses on the individual discipline and benefits of having “down time” or “taking a break.” But the scriptures suggest a much broader set of implications for Sabbath keeping.
One of the more salient but seldom noted examples of the Sabbath’s relationship to justice and freedom is the Jubilee year. Leviticus 25 calls for one Sabbath year every seven years and one jubilee year every fifty years. Both years are derived from the basic principles of Sabbath – rest as an expression of trust in God’s provision. But while the Sabbath year simply prohibited most agricultural activity, the Jubilee year was far more drastic, calling for all leased lands to be returned to their original owners and all slaves and bonded laborers to be freed. This provision ensured that all had access to the means of production, to their family’s land, and the fruit of their labor. To the degree that the jubilee year was practiced as prescribed in Lev 25 (and it’s unclear if it was), it would have greatly reduced the cases of homelessness, landlessness, or exclusion from the market, simply because any lease on land could only last until the next jubilee. It would have largely disrupted generational cycles of poverty and precluded Israelites from becoming permanent slaves to other Israelites. As Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright puts it, “The jubilee thus stands as a critique not only of massive private accumulation of land and related wealth but also of large-scale forms of collectivism or nationalization that destroy any meaningful sense of personal or family ownership.”

Jesus, too, draws a connection between the Sabbath and justice. When the Pharisees accuse him of being a lawbreaker by picking grain on the Sabbath, he tells the story of David’s friends who were hungry and in need, and who likewise ate on the Sabbath. He reminds them that priests under Mosaic Law likewise regularly worked on the Sabbath but that all of this was acceptable because according to the prophets God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). Perhaps most troubling to the Pharisees, Jesus summarizes his argument by claiming that he is Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8), and that the Sabbath is made for man (Mark 2:27). From Jesus’ perspective, any practice of Sabbath that opposes providing for those in greatest need is not a Sabbath at all because it is not oriented towards God’s ultimate design for the Sabbath – to trust in God’s Lordship and merciful provision.

A more thorough study of these scriptures and others would demonstrate that the Sabbath’s call for justice and freedom is rooted in the Sabbath’s foundational principle that God is all in all and that God is ultimate provider of every need. The world’s injustice is ultimately rooted in our rejection of this foundational claim, as we depend upon things other than God and hoard them for our own – money, land, technology, bodies, power. To depend wholly upon God’s provision is to recognize that everything belongs to God, and that ownership of anything is actually stewardship of what ultimately belongs to God. I am reminded of David’s prayer: “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chron 29:14)

In our contemporary context filled with anger, grief, and an overwhelming amount of media stimuli, we would do well not to simply “get away from it all,” but to become more mindful of the challenges we face by keeping the Sabbath and allowing it to orient us toward justice and freedom. For some, this will mean setting aside the traditional Christian Sabbath day, Sunday. This is an important and commendable practice. But keeping the Sabbath is more than keeping one day of rest; it means remaining obedient at all times to the Spirit’s call to the rhythm of work and rest, to the mindfulness and patience that is required for following Jesus into battle against the principalities and powers of evil, and to trust the God who offers an eternal Sabbath where true justice and freedom reside.

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