Sabbath and Culture

From Rob Merola, who blogs at DaddyRoBlog:

Sometimes it seems like there is not turning back the clock and the culture we have is the culture we’re stuck with.   But  we can change it.

Several week’s ago Anne preached a sermon encouraging us to keep the Sabbath. She talked about the value of rest. And again, if you want to know something that is dangerous, that is destructive to people’s health and the well being of our society, it’s what happens when people don’t get enough rest.

How important is it, for instance, for our kids to have one down day a week? Might that go a long way to solving many of the problems they are facing? If we don’t know how stressed our kids are, and how much they long for such a day, we don’t know our kids very well. And if we don’t realize that all too often we are the ones who are driving our kids the hardest ,then we don’t know ourselves very well either.

But as important as a day of rest might be, it seems like an impossible ask. Who will do it? As valuable as a day of rest is, it sure seems like the cultural ship has sailed on this one.

But then I think of the story I read about Clay Christensen.  You may remember he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, has been a successful businessman who continues to enjoy sizeable wealth, and that he currently teaches at Harvard.  In other words, he is a man who is clearly successful in every way imaginable.

You may also remember that while at Oxford, he played on a championship basketball team. Unfortunately, the championship itself was on a Sunday. He told his coach and his friends that he was committed to keeping the Sabbath, and that therefore he wouldn’t play.  And though none of them understood,  he didn’t.

And you will remember that he said this was one of the most important decisions of his life, because in it he realized that life is just one series of extenuating circumstances not to do what is right. So he kept the Sabbath. Let me say that again. A man who in many ways represents the pinnacle of success in Western culture keeps the Sabbath.

It can be done.

My point? The culture we have is not the culture that has to be. We can change it. But to do so, that change starts with you and with me… and with the culture we are all creating.

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  • Richard Swenson has a book called Margins that is very insightful about time, financial, emotional and social margins. It is a good read and really brings the sabbath home. He is a Christian Physician who gave up a lucrative practice to live better, and now teaches about it.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Sabbath rest is one of the most broken of God’s commandments. After saying that, it does seem like Rob’s article could almost be for a more secularized “take a day off” than all the spiritual ramifications that actually go into what the Bible calls “Sabbath.”

  • Gary Lyn

    I agree. There is much more to Sabbath than rest, or taking a day off. In fact, that understanding of Sabbath continues to make it about me (This rest will give me the energy I need to get back to the real work of life). The irony being, of course, that the self is exactly what sabbath is helping us get out of.

  • Andrew

    Gary Lyn and/or CGC,

    Do you guys have recommendations either yourselves or from a book or blog you could refer me to that explore the practical angles of honoring the Sabbath today in the fuller way that you’re suggesting?

  • I’m going to have to disagree, at least in part, with Gary Lyn. Sabbath does have some personal, or as you called it selfish, facets. I would not want to call God selfish when he took a day of rest at the end of creation. That sabbath set the tone for our sabbath. If we are to emulate God, then rest is an essential part of the sabbath. Now I do not deny that in our “me” centered culture that this practice can become a glorified day off instead if an opportunity to seek shalom, but that does not nullify our need for a weekly rest and reprioritization. So, while I agree that it can become all about the individual, the individual’s rest is an essential part of the Sabbath.

    If I may add this, however, I do feel that your point about Christians wanting to “get back to the real work” was spot on. Too many Christians fail to recognize the spiritual importance of Sabbath keeping.

    I welcome your thoughts and comments.

  • Dave

    The first thing that comes to mind is the anti-judaic character of the Council of Laodicea where Christians were forbidden rest on the Sabbath in order to recognize “The Lord’s Day.” Not just Christians, but everyone in fact were ordered not to “Judaize.”

    Dedicating a day of the week is a distraction. The 2 institutions Jesus resisted most were Sabbath and Temple, hoping his followers would see that it’s not about either a time or a space, but that true sacredness is in his presence.

  • Mark E. Smith

    Resting is one thing. Practicing sabbath is another. And practicing the Sabbath is another thing.

    Resting from our labor is important, and it is biblical, as God rested after the work of creation.

    As to practicing sabbath, I don’t think we can practice sabbath without observing the Sabbath. The Sabbath wasn’t necessarily translated into the Christian faith. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to keep the Sabbath.

    Also, Paul counsels that some Christians view one day as more important than others (the Sabbath, Sunday?), while other Christians view every day as the same. Both have to love together in the faith.

    Christians need to rest. But I’m not sure about calling it sabbath.

  • Megan

    I have been thinking a lot about “keeping Sabbath” lately. When God rested on the Sabbath, it was because he could look at everything and say, “This is good.” Sabbath isn’t about us. It is about taking ourselves out of the picture, and saying, “Look at what God is doing. It is good.” As a missionary on a foreign field it is easy to think that if I am not here it won’t get done. I need to retreat at times. Yes, I need the rest, but I also need to place my focus on who is doing all the work. God is using me, but sometimes I need to take myself out of the picture to sit back and know that the Holy One will fulfill his purpose with/without me. I have thought about Jesus’ example in light of “keeping Sabbath.” He would retreat to quiet, lonely places to pray and spend time with the father. Would this be considered Sabbath? I think a trap that many Christians fall into is a whole lot of doing and very little recognition of giving glory to the One that deserves it. It isn’t about me. I find sacrifice in giving up time to acknowledge him and totally trust him with what is happening in this world.

  • CGC

    Hi Andrew,
    Sabbath keeping is about smelling the roses, taking in the beauty of God’s good earth, enjoying your family and loved ones around you, playing, laughing, and delighting in God who has set us free in his Son. Sabbath keeping is worship and prayerful wonder and gratitude. It is rest from our labors and looking around at the work God is doing with us and among us. Sabbath is quiet reflection and silence as we listen to what God may be speaking to us in the moment. I could go on but that is a good start. Maybe others may fill in “more” because there is always more than what we think or practice.

  • CTB

    I’m not so sure the Sabbath is reaffirmed as ‘rest’ per se in the NT, but rather is radically reoriented in and around Jesus. Jesus redefines space, time and even matter around himself. Read Mark 2:23-3:6. Jesus deliberately did the things he did with the intent of making a statement about his identity and mission. The eschatological announcement that the “time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” declares that God’s dominion has broken into the present and is reestablishing his kingship over the cosmos. The sort of ‘rest’ that it trumpets is that of God dwelling in his cosmic temple (see John Walton’s work on Genesis 1-2). That radical thing, is that Jesus is the Temple, the High Priest, the Sacrifice, the Bread of Presence. The Sabbath-the climax of creation-is the celebration of God’s dominion coming to realization in the person of Jesus. What does it look like and how do we observe it? Observe what Jesus did on the Sabbath and implement it.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Andrew, the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero has some great insights into the whys and hows of Sabbath keeping.

  • Hi everyone! Great discussion on a hugely important topic. Like CGC said, sabbath is about so much more than obeying a commandment to “take a day off” (isn’t this pretty much what the pharisees made it?). I’ll boldly say that the concept of sabbath is irreducibly and absolutely central to what it mean to be a Christian. Sabbath is the manifestation the life that results from true belief that the eternal Word of God is true.

    Let me try to explain briefly. When God reveals his name to Abraham He is expressing more than his utter transcendence, He is revealing his absolute being. He is not past, or future. He has not been nor is he becoming. He has no potential to live up to. He simply IS. Within the very being of God is the peace of simple existence, free from the anxiety implicit in having to be anything other than what He is. To be able to just say “I Am” is Shalom. It is absolute peace and unrestrained freedom to give without any need to receive.

    To keep the sabbath is to join God in the rest of simply “being” without the anxiety of thinking we have to “be more.” To keep the sabbath is absolutely NOT about keeping a command. The law cannot set one free because the righteous requirement only enslaves us to the need to be “more”. To keep the sabbath is to live within the space created by a true faith, deep in our bones and our soul, that we are loved EXACTLY as we are. It is the peace of putting to death whatever part of us needs to know more, achieve more, understand more, love more, or BE more to attain the Shalom that we so desperately long for.

    It seems to me that Sabbath Rest is the end towards which every human strives in every decision and every action. We naturally believe that this peace/rest/shalom lies just over the horizon—in achievement, promotion, fame, erotic love—in being “MORE,” but the Word is that Peace has already been made, that we are loved, and that we are simply called to believe that this is true.

    To keep the sabbath then isn’t about resting for a day, but about resting in every moment. Sabbath is the essence of daily life in Christ and is the substance of Heaven itself. It is the rest from which we work to give others rest. The peace that enables us to give up peace. The life that lies in and enables shalom that is not conquered by death. Sabbath is nothing less than eternal life!

  • To flesh that our a bit, to live in Sabbath moment by moment is to live in such a way that we, by our words and actions, proclaim the good news to every person we interact with: “You are loved just for who you are. You don’t need to be more. I place no demands upon you and will give myself up to enable you to just “Be”.”

    In practicing sabbath then we are, in effect, a second coming of Christ, an incarnation of the Word, Again, Sabbath is heaven, here and now and forever.

  • Mike M

    Practically speaking, “keeping the Sabbath Day holy” meant refraining from the 6-day-a-week work routine for 24 hours (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). The rabbis of the New Temple era took that “advice” and made legalistic barriers or hedges that persist to this day. For example, not traveling to too far a distance from home. I think Jesus’ fight was against the hedges that prevented a true, loving relationship with the Father and prevented a person from loving a neighbor as oneself. For example, his healing the sick on Saturdays. Jesus’ disgust was not against the Sabbath Day.
    As a physician, I know that taking care of a needy person on Saturday is not a sin. It’s my honor and privilege. And not playing basketball on Sunday hardly seems worthy since Clay could’ve rested on (and honored) the 6th day instead.

  • Great post! Thanks, Rob and Scot.

    I don’t know how well this really fulfills this post, but on some level, I think it does. To interrupt this thought for a moment, this option is not open I would insist for health care workers. They must take their turns working weekends, etc. But back now to my thought.

    As I get older I’m slowing down. And when I can simply stopping, with the aim to do so at a regular basis. I think I may say that if anything, this helps me do better at what I actually do, and does not necessarily mean I have less heart or effort in it. But it means that I’m seeking to do so from a heart that is at rest in God.

    I’m not sure about insisting on this day or that, when I read Paul. Paul certainly allows for that, unless by that another is judging someone else as falling short of God’s standards.

    At any rate a good piece, and one that makes me think more on this.

  • Gary Lyn

    Andrew (#4)
    A Day Apart, Christopher Ringwald. A historical review of the development of sabbath in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.

    Keeping the Sabbath Holy, Marva J. Dawn. Practical suggestions for observing Sabbath that are true to the spirit/intent of Sabbath. The subtitles are ceasing, resting, embracing, feasting.

    The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel. A delightful reflection on a Jewish understanding of Sabbath. While I think a Christian and Jewish perspective on Sabbath will be different, I believe the Jewish perspective is foundational.

  • Bill

    Sabbath is a joy to observe and to keep. I love it. I do everything I can to enjoy Saturday. It’s a time for rest and peace. And yes, in part it is about me. I love myself and I want to rest and relax as God has instructed me because He knows what is good for me.

    As a Jew, this is a most important day. It teaches obedience, love, peace, reflection on God, reflection on myself. I what also makes it a joy is that I know Jesus kept the Sabbath too and he kept it the right way. (BTW, Mike #14 is correct. Works of mercy are never suspended for Sabbath. Jesus’ criticisms of Sabbath were not against Sabbath itself but against the politics of the Temple State and the rigors introduced by the religious leaders.)

    So enjoy the Sabbath. You Gentiles, you can join us too. God made the day for the Jews but because we rest, you can too. See what a blessing the Jews are.

    Have a joyful and restful Sabbath this week. Enjoy the Lord and yourself and your families.

  • Gary Lyn

    Mike M (#14)
    I respectfully disagree. The Sabbath has always been about more, much more, than refraining from a six day work week. And I would question the presence of legalistic barriers or hedges implemented in the New Temple era and present today. In his book that I mentioned above and his other writings, Rabbi Heschel says that Sabbath is a joy. Sabbath is a like the weekly visit of a special guest. You prepare yourself and your surroundings for his/her arrival. You relish the time they are there. You are saddened to see them leave and anticipate their return. He speaks of how God did not simply rest on the seventh day. God did create…Sabbath. He speaks of how with Sabbath, God has woven into the fabric of the world a rhythm of work and rest, and the failure to honor Sabbath is to live against the rhythm that God has created for the world.
    I find all of those images delightful and inviting, and offering an important perspective on how we celebrate Sabbath.

  • I would argue that Jesus did not resist the institutions of Sabbath and the Temple. He fully upheld them but did stand against certain halachic rulings, ie picking grain on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath. The law to “Save a life and do good on the Sabbath” was the highest priority to Jesus.

    Sabbath is something that is very dear to me and I’ll offer a few thoughts.

    Sabbath is one of the sign commandments given specifically to the Jews. Technically, Gentiles are not obligated to observe the Sabbath. That being said, I fully believe that Gentiles are “divinely invited” to observe it. I do observe it to a degree but in no way close to a full halachic observance.

    Sabbath is one of the more ambiguous commandments. The Bible is very vague on what it means to “guard” or “observe” it. There are a few stipulations but still vague overall. That means that Israel had to come up with what could be done and what could not be done on the Sabbath. God gave them the authority to figure out how to “walk out” some of these vague commandments in real life, which is there is some variance even to this day.

    I do feel that as Gentiles, we should “remember” the Sabbath at the very least. It is sad that Sabbath keeping culture for Gentile believers was basically destroyed because of the anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic attitudes of the early Christians.

  • CTB

    Jon Philip,

    Could you clarify resist? I think Jesus redefined both Sabbath and Temple in and around himself since a new thing was happening within the midst of Israel (Mark 2:18-22) through his agency as the Messiah and inaugurator of God’s kingly rule (Mark 1:15). He was the agent by which Israel’s history found its climax and purposes. There is ostensibly a Temple critique, not of it in itself, but of those in charge of it. How else would you take Jesus’ actions in and around the Temple, especially the fig tree incident (Mark 11, 13, etc.)? Certainly the Pharisees are the interlocutors in the grain field scene, but I’m not so sure we can pass it off as a purely Pharisaic halachic issue, but rather it may have been a more widespread concern. As Joseph Hellerman has pointed out (“Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity”) Jesus could have had his disciples wait a few hours or collected a double portion the day before (cf. Exodus 16). If that’s the case, why didn’t he? Surely there is a humanitarian aspect involved, but Jesus seemed to be content with ruffling feathers and bringing attention to his kingdom agenda on the Sabbath (allowing his disciples to eat grain in fields; exorcising demons in the synagogue; healing a man with a withered hand…which inevitably led to the Pharisees and Herodians conspiring to destroy him).


  • Bill

    I am with Jon pretty much in his comments although I may disagree on the degree Jesus opposed the Temple State.

    The Jewish religious leaders were pros when it came to “guarding”; hence, the fences. Vague might not be a word I would use but I understand what Jon is saying. God taught how the Jews were to observe but never excluding works of mercy. Jesus kept the Sabbath the right way. This would turn any “religious” activity on its heels. I am not sure Jesus taunted the religious leaders. He just laid it out there and taught as a good rabbi would in a very demonstrable way what it meant to keep (guard) and observe. He wasn’t too concerned about how others reacted to His approach.

    I appreciate and affirm Jon’s attitude to the Sabbath as a Gentile. The law was given to the Jews as a core for them but never excluded the Gentile. The Jew is obligated and the Gentile is not. But the Gentiles were and are invited to join.

    It is unfortunate the church for too long has taken too many anti-Jewish stances that have contributed negatively to “guarding” and “keeping” and made “observing” the Sabbath somehow an affront. It isn’t and I love the Sabbath (there’s the guarding the commandment) and I love keeping the commandment (there’s the observing).

  • Yes, vague is not the right word, maybe ambiguous is better suited. For example, the instructions on the building of the Tabernacle and the design of the priestly garments were very detailed. But in some areas, the Bible doesn’t give us exact details.

    What I mean by resist is that Jesus challenged the religious authority in areas of halachic ruling. He didn’t challenge the Torah itself. Jesus lived out the Torah perfectly and he never abrogated it’s authority. He taught about priority and the “weightier” matters. Love of God and love of neighbor, everything else hung on those two things. Do you think it was really a matter of life and death that the disciples had to eat that grain on the Sabbath? Of course Jesus was making a point, ruffling feathers, challenging authority, teaching us and them a lesson.