On Sabbath Rest
(Jer.23:1-6; Ps.23; Eph.2:13-18; Mk.6:30-34)
Perhaps one unexpected benefit of the current Covid pandemic is the way it’s making us rethink our use of time.
Before the restrictions, many of us lived very busy lives. We packed far more into our days than we needed to.
Why do we do this to ourselves when we don’t like stress or anxiety? Why do we ignore the doctors who tell us to slow down? We know that without rest, our bodies can’t recharge themselves and we risk getting sick.
Long ago, before they had machines, underground miners used horses and donkeys to pull coal-wagons.
A visitor to a coalfield once asked why so many of these animals were grazing outside the coal-pits. The answer was that they work underground six days a week and every Sunday they’re brought to the surface. If they didn’t come outside periodically, they’d go blind.
Why don’t we schedule such breaks? Without them, we risk becoming blind, too – blind to what’s important in life: our families, our friends, our health and our souls.
In Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus tries to take his disciples to a quiet place for rest, reflection and prayer. They must have been disappointed to find a crowd waiting for them, but Jesus doesn’t turn them away.
The 3rd Commandment is important to Jesus: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Ex.20:8). [i] But he’s not rigid about its observance like the Pharisees. They won’t lift a finger on the Sabbath, but Jesus always puts others first. Whenever he can, however, he takes time out to connect with his Father.
Resting on the Sabbath was, and is, fundamental to the Jewish people. When God rescued them from Egypt after 400 years of slavery, he commanded them to take a day off every week. They were not to live as slaves any more.
This was unlike most ancient societies, where the wealthy worked as little as possible and the peasants worked constantly, except during religious festivals.
By the first century, however, the idea of the Sabbath had spread right across the Roman Empire, and people started giving themselves a day off.
The Jewish historian Josephus wrote: ‘The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread.’
The idea of the Sabbath caught on, not just because people were religious, but because it was the sensible thing to do.
In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would reduce the working week to 15 hours within 100 years. Clearly, he was wrong because people today seem to work as hard as ever, and our electronic devices encourage us to work even harder.
The theologian Walter Brueggemann says that people who remember and keep the Sabbath find that they are less driven, less coerced, less frantic to meet deadlines, and free to be, rather than to do.
Instead of compromising productivity, he says, the Sabbath can increase it. But to use it for that purpose misses the point. The Sabbath is designed not only to make us more efficient and fruitful in our work, but more fundamentally to challenge our obsession with efficiency and with productivity. [ii]
On this point, William Barclay says there are two dangers in life. Firstly, there’s the danger of too much activity. We can’t work without rest; and we can’t live the Christian life unless we spend time with God. The whole trouble of our lives, he says, may be that we don’t let God speak to us, because we don’t know how to be still and listen. We give God no time to recharge us with spiritual energy and strength, because we never wait upon him.
The second danger, he says, is too much withdrawal. Devotion that does not issue in action is not real devotion. Prayer that does not result in work is not real prayer. We must never seek God’s fellowship in order to avoid human fellowship, but in order to fit ourselves better for it.
The rhythm of the Christian life, then, is the alternate meeting with God in the secret place and then serving one another in the marketplace. [iii]
It’s interesting to note that of the Ten Commandments, the command to keep holy the Sabbath day comes before any mention of murder, property and sex.
Clearly, God thinks it’s a major priority for us to take time out each week. We should spend at least one seventh of our lives doing something other than work. Otherwise, we risk burning ourselves out and forgetting our life’s purpose.
They say that if you can’t rest from something, then you must be a slave to it.
Is it time to start
scheduling regular rest breaks?
[i] This is the 3rd Commandment in the Augustinian system of numbering the Ten Commandments. It’s the 4th Commandment in the Philonic and Talmudic systems. The Catholic Church accepts all three approaches.
[iii] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY, 2001:179.