Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.
But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do
any work. (Exodus 20:8-10)
It seems strange
that God would have to command us to take a break. Don't we all want
to take a break?
At this time of
year especially, we think about taking a break. The holiday season is over, with
all its hectic shopping and cooking and entertaining. By now most of the
Christmas decorations are put away, and we can all sit back a bit and take a
breather . . . until we start thinking about this and that project
that we put off "until the holidays are over." During the holiday
season, when we have so many things that have to get done, other things that aren't
getting done build up. And up. . . . And up. . . .
Before we know it, there isn't much of a break after all, because as soon as the
rush is over, those other undone projects reassert themselves, and we keep right
At least that is
my experience--and I suspect it is the same for many people. During the fall, I
kept talking about "after the New Year" this and that was going to get
done. Now I'm saying "After I get back from Florida," or "Maybe
by February things will calm down." But I have a sneaking (and sinking)
suspicion, based on years of past experience, that things will never calm
down--at least, not by themselves. In the past, every time I have looked forward
to some future time that there wouldn't be so many things clamoring to get done,
when that fabled time came there were just as many things that needed doing.
There certainly were just as many bills that needed to get paid!
The more I think
about it, the more I realize why the Lord commanded us to take a break!
We humans tend to work ourselves very hard. Even if we are not doing something
that society considers to be work, we tend to push our bodies and our
minds too far. Sometimes we work long hours. But sometimes we also play
long hours. Far into the night, or just plain too much visiting and too many
activities. Whether we're young or old, whether we have a lot of energy or a
little, we tend to want to do just a little more than our bodies can
comfortably do. Sometimes we really overdo it.
The Lord knows
this about us. And the Lord knows that when we overdo it, we actually get less
done, because we end out making ourselves too tired or too sick to do a really
good job at whatever it is that we happen to be doing with our lives. It is
largely an illusion to think that by overextending ourselves, we will get more
The Lord does
have to command us to take a break, because too many of us, left to our own
ways, will rarely go easy enough on ourselves to give ourselves a break as often
as we should. And this commandment is not put in some obscure footnote buried
somewhere in the Levitical laws. It is placed squarely in the Ten
Commandments--one of the Bible's most basic distillations of the core and
essence of religious and spiritual law. In other words, the Lord is not just
saying, "You know, it would really be a good idea to give yourself a break
regularly." He is saying "GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK REGULARLY!!!"
For many of us,
the literal meaning of most of the other commandments is not such a big problem.
Killing doesn't appeal to us; we got over stealing not long after we got over
childhood; our lies are mostly confined to little white lies--not the
"false witness" sort of lies that really damage another person; not
being jealous of other people who are better off than we are . . .
well, that can sometimes be a challenge!
regular time off from the activities of our lives to rest, recuperate, and
especially to develop our spiritual life--for many of us that is a really
difficult thing to do. There are simply too many things that have to get done.
Our bills always seem to outrun our paycheck by just enough to keep us
continually looking for that little extra bit of income. There's always
something that needs fixing around the house or shop, always some job to do
around the yard. And of course, there are always new toys (the grown-up variety)
that we'd like to get our hands on, or new handwork projects that we're itching
to do. If we have young children, that is a built-in all-day project--and older
children and teenagers, for all their cherished independence, give us plenty of
work to do as well.
This command to
remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy turns out to be quite a challenge. That
is why the Lord made it a commandment, not just a suggestion.
Of course, many
people these days don't go to church because they have to work that day, or it
interferes with their other activities, or because they have taken to heart the resting
part of the Sabbath, but not the part about it being a Sabbath to the Lord
our God. Those of us who do make it to church on a regular basis have taken
one valuable step toward keeping this commandment literally. And if we are
genuine in our worship and eager in our desire to learn more about the Lord's
teachings for our lives, we are taking a valuable step toward keeping this
commandment spiritually as well.
meaning of the Sabbath day of rest leads us to a different level of keeping this
commandment; a different level of giving ourselves a break; a level that is
often even more difficult than keeping it literally.
In Old Testament
times, this commandment was largely interpreted on the literal level. The
ancient Jews were forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath on pain of death. Even
in earlier centuries in the Christian era, it was easy to have Sunday services
that lasted for hours because most Christians weren't allowed to do much else on
But Jesus gives a
very different interpretation of what the Sabbath is all about--and through his
references to the Hebrew Bible, he showed that the seeds of this interpretation
were present in Scripture all the time, if we had only looked for it. When some
Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath,
they challenged Jesus: "Aren't you breaking the Sabbath by doing
this?" Jesus responded by pointing out that if the law were interpreted in
this literalistic way, then their most revered king--David--was a lawbreaker.
Further, their own priests--who are supposed to be the most religious people of
all--broke the Sabbath every week by doing their regular work on the Sabbath.
(We ministers do appreciate being allowed to work on Sunday. . . .)
did not take away the old, overly literal interpretation of the Sabbath law
without putting something deeper in his place. He was again challenged when he
was ready to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day. "Is it
lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" they asked him. The question was not posed
in order to learn something from him, but in order to accuse him. Once again,
Jesus used their own practices to demolish their literalistic interpretation of
Sabbath law. "If one of you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the
Sabbath, won't you pull it out? Don't you realize that a human being is much
more important than a sheep!" He concludes with words that hugely broaden
the meaning of the Sabbath: "So it is lawful to do good on the
The Sabbath is
not primarily about literal resting from labors, Jesus teaches us. It is about
doing good for other people. And yet, if we take a deeper look at the meaning of
"rest," this does not change the meaning as much as we might think at
first glance. Spiritually speaking, "rest," says Swedenborg,
"means a state of peace when there is no temptation." This we can
understand. After we have been struggling against some inner foe; after we have
had some victory over one of the flaws in our character, over some hurtful way
we act toward other people, we have a sense of rest and peace similar to the
calm that descends after a battle is over. I remember how nice it felt when, as
a teenager, I finally got over that insistent urge to argue every point with
everyone whether the issue mattered or not. I had a new sense of peace within
myself. It certainly was more enjoyable to have a conversation with other people . . .
and I suspect that feeling was mutual!
But after he
speaks of rest as inner peace after temptation, Swedenborg says something more
cryptic. He says that this period of rest "represents a state of peace when
goodness and truth join together within us." He seems to be talking about
the same thing Jesus is when he says, "It is lawful to do good on the
Sabbath." Let's explore this a little further.
To put Swedenborg
in more contemporary terms, when we are having our inner "six days of
labor," our head and our heart are struggling both with each other and with
the negative parts of ourselves that cause us to hurt other people and ourselves
by the way we think and act. When we are in the throes of temptation, we have a
divided mind, a mixed mind, a mixed-up mind. Our head says we shouldn't
do that thing anymore--it's wrong! Our heart says that we love to
do that thing. Or our heart says we're hurting someone, we should stop, but our
head makes excuses for our unkind words and actions. We're really not together
within ourselves, and the result is that we are not particularly effective in
doing good and useful things for other people. We are too conflicted inside.
It is only when
the part of ourselves that is pushing us toward what is good, right, and loving
prevails that we able to have a unified mind--to be single-minded in doing the
work that is in front of us. It is only when our hearts, minds, and spirits are
working together that we feel the restfulness of peace within ourselves. And it
is only when we have this inner peace of single-mindedness that we are able to
seemingly effortlessly serve the needs of our fellow human beings in the way
that the Lord teaches us. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, because it is
only when we are spiritually at rest in following the Lord's path from our
hearts, through our heads, and with our hands that we can genuinely do
All of this may
seem far removed from where we started--giving ourselves a break from the
incessant demands of this earthly life. But we are not as far away as we may
think. I have come to believe more and more strongly that we will not even be
able to follow the Sabbath law of rest literally unless we make the
effort to follow it spiritually as well.
Let me explain.
As long as we are divided and conflicted in our spirits, we are never really at
rest inside of ourselves. Even when we accomplish something that we believed
would give us a great sense of achievement, the inner unrest continues; instead
of feeling peace and contentment at our accomplishment, we feel a sense of
let-down. We have finally achieved what we always thought we wanted to achieve,
yet we still aren't happy! This, I believe, is behind the incessant
demands that we put on ourselves to keep working, working, working. If that
didn't satisfy us, then the next achievement will--the next raise, the
next car, the next house, and so on. But we never will be satisfied, because we
can only be at rest when we are at rest within ourselves. So we will continue to
drive ourselves, never giving ourselves a real break from our labors, physically
However, once we
have settled our minds and hearts on a unified path of following where the Lord
leads us, then we can have our periods of rest--our periods of genuine inner
Sabbath. Of course, we will still have our six days of labor. After all, we're
not perfect, and there will always be more work to do on ourselves. But when we
have chosen to follow the Lord, and have, with the Lord's help, overcome some
nagging flaw in ourselves, we can know the true inner rest that comes
from having our minds and hearts working together in loving and caring for those
around us. And then, we may just give our bodies a break as well. Amen.
Music: The Meadow
©1999 Bruce DeBoer