Most people would agree that at least some of the Ten Commandments have value. Do not murder. Do not steal. They make sense - whether you belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition or not. But then there are others that apparently seem worthless. And at the top of that list might be keeping the Sabbath. Even Christians often don't do a good job of following that one. And many people would barely give it a thought.
But there are good reasons why we should start taking this commandment seriously again. I'm not talking here from a religious perspective. Like do not murder and do not steal, it makes sense - whether you're a Jew, Christian, Sikh, Agnostic or Atheist. Keeping the Sabbath contributes to the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities and the earth.
But in order to understand why we should take this commandment seriously, we need to really understand what the Sabbath was for. Yes, it was for worshipping God. And from a Judeo-Christian perspective, that's important. But as I'm suggesting it's beneficial for everyone, regardless of religious affiliation, there has to be more to it than that. In fact, I think one of the reasons why this is the most neglected commandment is that we have narrowed it down to just worshipping God, which is even narrowed down further to 'going to church'. Christians believe they're obeying the commandment if they go to church on Sundays. People who don't accept the Judeo-Christian God figure they don't go to church and therefore it doesn't apply. But the Sabbath is meant for so much more than that.
The next thing we can say about the Sabbath is it is a day when we do not work. For some, this meant a whole heap of rules about what could and couldn't be done on the Sabbath. For others, it simply meant not doing paid work. In my opinion, both miss the point. And neither approach actually considers what the Sabbath is for.
So what is the purpose of the Sabbath? Besides worshipping God, we might also say its purpose is to rest. And this rest is not just something we should do ourselves, but something we must let others do.
23:12 says that on the Sabbath it is not just we
ourselves who must rest, but also oxen, donkeys, servants and migrant workers.
And just before that it says that after every seven years, the land itself must
rest. The Sabbath is not just about us. It's about letting everyone rest. It's
about letting the earth itself rest.
But what might this mean in a 21st century context, where most of us don't have oxen or donkeys or servants or migrant workers? Well the point is not really about the oxen or the donkeys or the servants or the migrant workers. It's that everyone and everything (including animals and the earth) needs a chance to rest. And if we do want to think about it in a 21st century context, we need to ask what drain we are making on other people and the land? Could we perhaps replace servants and migrant workers for the people we expect to be working in stores on Sundays? Could we replace oxen and donkey for the electricity we are constantly using? Does everything always have to be in production mode for us or are we willing to give things a break?
Thinking about the Sabbath in this way, rather than just as something we ourselves personally must do, makes us realise that rest is not just the cessation of work. Keeping the Sabbath should benefit everything and everyone. The commandment to keep the Sabbath then is not just a prohibition to work, but a commandment to participate in the benefits that Sabbath-keeping brings.
To rest on the Sabbath may mean 'not doing certain things', but it also means to do others. We take a break from the type of things that produce goods, make money and drain the earth's resources and instead we participate in other types of activities - the kind of activities that refresh and renew us and that do not put unnecessary burdens on others.
The inclusion of everything in the Sabbath rest also shows us that everything must have a chance to simply be. In fact, if we go back to the original day that God rested in the creation story, we can see that for seven days God created things and then he rested. This does not just mean that God stopped working. It also means that Creation, which was changing, becoming, progressing, doing, also got a chance to simply be. It no longer had to become something or do something.
To say what constitutes rest and work is difficult because what is hard work for someone may mean rest and recreation for someone else. But if we are to truly keep the purpose of the Sabbath, we do need a break from anything that stresses us and frustrates us, and we need to choose instead those things that renew and refresh us. We also need to realise that we don't need to be constantly doing something. We just can stop, breathe and appreciate.
The Sabbath then becomes a time when we stopping putting unnecessary demands on the earth. It becomes a time when we stop expecting so much from other people and simply enjoy their presence. It also becomes a time when we give ourselves permission to take a break from our to-do lists, to relax and laugh and appreciate the world around us.
Perhaps the reason why the commandment to keep the Sabbath is so neglected is that we don't like simply being. We like to be achieving things, doing things, going somewhere or making progress. And we judge things (and people) on how useful or productive they are. The Sabbath not only gives us a break from this type of mentality, but it shows that people, animals and the earth have value in and of themselves. They don't need to be doing something to be important. And nor do we. Just to be is enough.
The importance of the Sabbath commandment may not be as evident as do not murder or do not steal, but it is important nonetheless. When we stop making demands on the land, on others and on ourselves, when we value everything and everyone for what they are not what they do, we and the whole earth community flourishes.
Keeping the Sabbath wasn't just a commandment designed to get people worshipping God. Like many of the other commandments, it would benefit the community and the individuals within it. While we may have different opinions on the importance of the Sabbath, many of us can agree that the wellbeing of ourselves, our communities and our planet is important. Keeping the Sabbath helps us do this - whether we believe in God or not.