One day is not like another – although relatively recently we have allowed the distinctions to blur. Not long ago, tasks that make life manageable had their day: Monday is for doing the laundry, Tuesday is time to market, Wednesday is for baking, and so on. One thing Christians, Muslims and Jews share in common is that one day of the week is set apart from the rest as Sabbath – the first day of the week for Christians, the sixth day for Muslims and the seventh day for the Jewish people.
For Jesus and his people the command is positive: you are to remember and sanctify the seventh day. It was one of several decisive marks of being a people of God. As slaves in Egypt they had no day off. In Exile in Babylon there was no day off. So, Sabbath is both an argument and a sign of who we are and whose we are. It is a form of resistance against tyranny and oppression of all kinds, be it slavery in Egypt, in Babylon, against the Greek Empire of Antiochus IV, and by the First Century, against the military occupation and subjugation to Rome and its Emperor. It is a day to reset one’s focus and the focus of all the people on God’s promises in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances.
Sabbath time symbolizes release from the yokes of bondage of all kinds. In Luke 13 we meet a woman who has been bound by Satan, and has been bent over for 18 years. Yet, she still makes it to Synagogue to pray, so important is Sabbath time to her. Jesus calls her over and sets her free from her bondage and she immediately stands up and begins to praise God – the God who frees people from slavery, exile and bondage of all kinds.
An argument ensues over what one is or is not allowed to do on the Sabbath. This is normal in the life of the Jewish people, going back at least to that day Abraham went toe-to-toe with God over the impending destruction of Sodom, and Moses arguing with God over whether or not to abandon the misbehaving people in the wilderness after the incident with the Golden Calf. Faithful people owe one another a good strong argument that issues forth in wise decisions – and in this story much rejoicing on the part of all those observing the Sabbath that day!
Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater: if one is allowed to untie an animal and lead it to water on the Sabbath, how much more does this “daughter of Abraham” deserve to be unbound from that which has crippled her for eighteen long years? Besides, this is the one day of the week to remember God’s promises to free all people, as in everyone, from all that yokes them and keeps them in bondage. The argument, of course, is that Sabbath, and all of life, is not to be enslaved to ritual, but to acts of justice and freedom for all people and all of creation itself.
Evidently, Jesus is in good standing, because some 500 years earlier Isaiah chapter 58 had already made similar arguments. One religion professor in my college days began the Introduction to the New Testament course with a study of Isaiah – for without an understanding of Isaiah much of the New Testament makes little sense.
In Isaiah 58:5, the Lord through his prophet Isaiah, first raises questions about fasting: Is it meant to be a series of self-deprecating rituals meant to curry God’s favor? As if we are at all capable of manipulating the Lord God of the Exodus! The answer, of course is a resounding, “No!” Rather, in verse 6 we hear the answer: “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke; Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him?” Sounds very much like what Jesus is up to, not only on the Sabbath, but every day of the week wherever he is.
Then in verse 9 we get this: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil of others, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Followed by a warning not to pursue your own interests on “my Holy day.” We are to pursue God’s interests: undoing all that yokes people, let the oppressed go free, bring the poor into your house, distribute bread to the hungry, don’t blame others, don’t call others names and speak poorly of them – rather, pursue God’s ways of redemption and release.
Sabbath is meant to embody all of this. Yet, it seems as a nation and a culture we no longer take one day a week to reboot and realign our priorities with those of our God. I can still remember Sundays when stores were closed, movie houses were closed, and people still took one day off to spend with family. They would celebrate and rejoice like the people in our story from Luke. I remember Sandy Koufax taking himself out of the 1965 World Series game one to observe Yom Kippur, a Sabbath Day. But now Sabbath days are days of commerce. Now Sabbath days are days to continue whatever work you did not get done the other six days of the week. Sabbath is a time for ever bigger and better sales. We just cannot afford to take a day off any more. It seems that now one day is just like any other day.
Which would be all right if only. If only we would truly attend to removing the yokes that bind people to overcrowded encampments for immigrants, families and children separated from one another, finding homes for the homeless, medical care for our veterans, providing food for the hungry, providing care and justice for all who suffer sexual abuse and rape, advocating for the rights of women both at home and abroad, putting an end to a culture of blame and the harsh rhetoric that speaks evil things about others, rooting out bigotry of all kinds, including racism, and all kinds of white supremacy and nationalism. When we engage in these sorts of activities every day becomes a Sabbath Day, and once again one day will be like another – attending to the very things the Lord our God promises will result in a world of justice and peace for all people, and dignity for every human being. And who knows? Once every day becomes the kind of Sabbath and Fasting the Lord has chosen we might just find the time to attend to the Earth, our home, our house; for our house is on fire, and the canopy of trees that provides 20% of the oxygen we breathe is in jeopardy of burning to the ground. One would think this would merit our full attention in between all the coming Labor Day and Back To School Sales.
We would do well to note that in Isaiah 58, the Lord God says “if…you stop these things…and attend to the things I choose…the promises of a peaceful world of peaceful people under a peaceful sky will be yours.” It’s hard to argue with that. But then, someone who thought helping someone on the Sabbath argued with Jesus until everyone saw the woman stand up and praise God when all of a sudden, “all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” We can either wait for that day, or roll up our sleeves and get to work. Sabbath work! What a shocking idea. No doubt just as shocking as it was 2600 years ago!