13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
… I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.
Keeping Sabbath is one of the ten words. For those who would boil the rich and wonderful legal codes of the Torah down to ten commandments, the Sabbath is one of these ten essentials. No matter how you number them, breaking Sabbath is in the same select list as murder, kidnapping, elder abuse and violating another’s marriage.
At first glance it doesn’t seem to match up. Keeping Sabbath looks to us like a ritual obligation. All those that follow are filled with deep ethical dimensions that affect the well being of society by governing the way we treat one another. Keeping Sabbath seems like an obligation towards God. In our society, such a religious obligation seems clearly secondary to the “higher” ethical norms concerning the treatment of others. Why then does the prophet equate keeping Sabbath with such fundamental humanitarian concerns as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor?
For most of human history we have enslaved one another. Binding another to serve one’s will seems endemic to human nature. There have been formal institutions of slavery, encoded in law, and many informal and indirect ones. There is a serfdom that binds you to the land, but also a serfdom that binds you with debt – the coal miners living in mining towns paid in script only good at the mining stores. There is the slavery that binds by law, and the enslavement that binds by fear we see in human trafficking and the conscription of child soldiers (join us or we kill your family). The bent woman before Jesus in Sunday’s gospel is spiritually enslaved.
It is easy to hear the exodus story as God’s triumph over the mighty empire of Egypt, but why then would God need ten plagues? Wouldn’t one or two massive exercises of power have sufficed, just as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender? Why start with a silly trick of turning your staff into a serpent? Why begin with a few days of polluted water? Because this is not about power; it is about redemption. The Nile was the source of life for Egypt and God is declaring that he is the author of life. The serpent was a symbol of royal power in Egypt and God is the one who holds Pharaoh and his kingdom in his hand. God’s purpose was not just to save Israel, but also to save Egypt. It didn’t take ten assaults to break Israel free; God provided ten opportunities for pharaoh to repent, to turn away from the prison of slaveholding. Pharaoh behaved like us all: only as the price became more and more unbearable did he finally relent.
With the Sabbath command, the God who delivered Israel and Egypt from the house of bondage takes his stand against all enslavement. The commandment isn’t just that I should rest on the Sabbath, it is that I must give rest to others.
Humans were not created for work. In the Babylonian myth, humans were created to serve the gods. In the Genesis narrative humans were created to walk with God.
When I “trample on the Sabbath,” I trample on my neighbor. If I cannot turn off my wants and needs, if I cannot for one day set aside my “own interests” for the sake of others, then the life of all is degraded.
I understand the “modern economy,” but when I want to be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night, that choice affects not only me and my household, but all who must work in order that the store might be open at my convenience. And when the demands of work encroach ever further into our lives, children and families and neighborhoods are undermined. It may be the way of the world, but the way of God gives Sabbath.
So the Pharisees were right – Jesus needed to honor the Sabbath. They just didn’t understand that is exactly what he was doing: the woman was being set free from her bondage.