God demands a tithe of time. Material goods, if allowed to do so, will consume a person’s life. They take time to produce, and they take time to maintain. Things establish a hold on human life through covetousness. Even before the thing is acquired, the desire for ownership demands an expenditure of thought and energy. Once goods are obtained man becomes in a sense a servomechanism of his possessions.
It’s worth noting that God is not just instructing people to rest for their own sake. Half of the text is devoted to making it clear that the injunction to rest is absolute: it’s not just so that the rich can have a nice day off to go picnicking with their families. It’s also so that the laborers, the slaves, and even the cattle can have some time of their own. It is not a coincidence that the abandonment of this commandment in the modern world has gone hand-in-hand with the exploitation of laborers and the loss of real leisure amongst the lower classes.
The Sabbath encouraged detachment from temporal goods by putting aside a tithe of time for God. “You must keep the Sabbaths carefully because the Sabbath is a sign between myself and you from generation to generation to show that it is I, Yahweh, who sanctify you” (Exod 31:13). One of the great, perennial temptations is the inclination to found personal worth and identity in money and in the acquisition of material goods. The Sabbath, by forcing people to take an entire day every week to stop working and trading, forced them to look within, to confront themselves in relation to God, and to firmly establish the parts of the self that are not related to ownership.
The link between identity and shopping is revealed by the sense of boredom that prompts people to shop and that arises very quickly if the ability to shop is withheld. Recall that time is the currency of identity: if most of a person’s time is spent earning money to buy goods, shopping for goods, watching television whose primary purpose is to flog goods, and using or maintaining the goods that they own, the result is going to be an identity that is very closely bound to commercial life. If that person stops buying and selling, the result is a deep and unreasonable sense of angst. At exactly what point this will kick in is different from person to person: some people become anxious if they find themselves in a place where the stores are not open twenty-four hours per day, others will get antsy halfway through Buy Nothing Day, and others will start to get the shakes after a week of consumer detox. The sense of boredom — of “not knowing what to do” with oneself — is a profound indication that there is a hole in one’s personal identity that is being filled by the consumption of goods.
Detachment from consumer addiction is not an optional adjunct to the spiritual life. The practice of constant production and constant consumption is a real, objective evil. God was not joking around when He instituted mandatory rest: the first man who ever got caught gathering wood on the Sabbath was taken out of the camp and stoned to death. 24/7 consumerism exhausts the least of our brothers who are forced to toil without ceasing; it exhausts the earth, which is never allowed to recover from our constant demands on its resources; and it exhausts the interior resources of the self, which are never refreshed at the springs of silence and contemplation.
Excerpted from Slave of Two Masters
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