Sunday 26 August 2007

Year C, Trinity 12 - Sabbath-keeping

1. Introduction

  • In April last year Marty and I were staying with a charabanc-load of friends on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy at Stresa, looking out to the Borromean islands. It’s renowned as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. And it is rather fine. While I feel our own Lough Derg is just as beautiful, I rather wish our climate was as good! The lakeshore drive is lined with rather grand Belle Époque hotels – Ernest Hemingway set part of his novel A Farewell to Arms in one of them. We were in a much more modest place, but we made a point of visiting the posh ones to admire the decor. One of them had been completely taken over by a large group of orthodox Jews, who were celebrating the end of the Passover holidays, women and girls dressed just like women and girls here, but men all wearing black hats with a curl of hair showing, and boys a skull-cap. The place was full of people of all ages, children playing games and grown-ups sitting in the shade and chatting in small groups: everyone just chilling, in modern slang, enjoying spending time with family and friends - a very happy sight. But nothing electric was working: no automatic doors, no lifts, no espresso coffee machines even – absolutely nothing! It was only when I asked if there had been a power-cut that I discovered why: it was Saturday, the Sabbath, and for their Jewish denomination it would break the Sabbath law to use any electric devices.
  • Now the readings set for today, from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:9b-14) and from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 13:10-17), both deal with what we should or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath. That reminded me of this surprising but happy scene in Italy. So I decided to try and tease out what the Sabbath has meant to Jews and Christians over the ages, and what it might mean for us today.

2. Firstly what does the Sabbath mean to Jews?

  • The Hebrew word Shabbat, from which our word comes, literally means ‘ceasing’, implicitly ‘ceasing from work’. Observing the Sabbath has been important to Jews since at least the Exodus. It’s enshrined in the Fourth Commandment brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses: ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or your alien resident in your towns.’ It is seen as a commemoration of God resting on the seventh day of creation in the old familiar Genesis story.
  • The Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. It’s a day of joyful celebration as well as prayer. Many Jews attend synagogue on the Sabbath, to worship and listen to teachers expound the Torah, our Old Testament, as Jesus did we are told. But the emphasis is on the home: candles are lit; all share in festive meals, with wine which is blessed; the Sabbath is to be honoured, for instance by taking a bath on the day before, and by beautifying the home with flowers; and it is to be enjoyed with eating, singing, spending time with the family – and with lovemaking between husbands and wives.
  • But the Jewish Sabbath is also encrusted with prohibitions. Over the millennia rabbinical scholars have elaborated the simple idea of ceasing from work one day in seven into a complex scheme of prohibited actions, based on 39 categories of forbidden activities. As well as such obvious work activities as sowing, ploughing, spinning and weaving, these include lighting and extinguishing a fire. This is why the orthodox Jews I met in Italy would not use electricity on the Sabbath: they believed that small sparks from switches were equivalent to lighting a fire, which would be a violation of the Sabbath law. Jews from other denominations get over the problem in different ways I understand - for instance by using pre-set timers, to turn appliances on and off without human intervention!
  • To violate the Sabbath has always been a very serious matter for Jews. The ancient punishment for it was the most severe in the Jewish law – stoning to death, though that ceased with the dissolution of the Jewish courts at the fall of the Temple. But there have always been extenuating circumstances, from the earliest times: a Jew was not just allowed but required to break a Sabbath law, if it was necessary to save a life. The problem the leader of the synagogue had with Jesus healing the crippled woman was not that he healed her on the Sabbath, but that her condition was not life threatening, and could have been left to the next day. And as Jesus pointed out, you were also permitted to water your animals on the Sabbath.

3. What did Jesus himself think about the Sabbath?

  • This incident in Luke's Gospel wasn’t the only time Jesus got into trouble with the religious authorities over the Sabbath. Elsewhere we are told that when his disciples were criticised for not keeping the Sabbath properly Jesus declared that ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, and he clearly taught that it is right to do good and to save life on the Sabbath.
  • On this occasion Jesus was clearly infuriated by the leader of the synagogue. I think what infuriated him was that he saw so clearly that to keep so inflexibly to the letter of the Sabbath law had completely destroyed the spirit of it. What really matters is whether an action does good or harm, not whether it fits into some abstract scheme of dos and don’ts.
  • But I feel quite sure that Jesus valued the positive side of Sabbath-keeping: the opportunity for all to rest from labour, to enjoy time with family and friends, as well as to pray and worship God.

4. As Christianity evolved as a religion away from Judaism, Christian views of the Sabbath also evolved.

  • The earliest Christians - the apostles, Paul and the disciples - were Jews, and kept the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. But as the years passed, and the increasingly gentile Church split from the Synagogue, the Christian emphasis shifted to Sunday, in part in celebration of the Resurrection, but perhaps also to distance a gentile church from Judaism. So Christian Sabbath observance on Saturday gradually ceased, to be replaced by celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday.
  • In the year 321, the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday should be the day of rest throughout his Empire, in these words: On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. Note his pragmatic approach to the agricultural economy - I can’t help but think that Jesus would have agreed!
  • Most Christians since then have observed Sunday as the Lord’s day, a holy day marked by worship and prayers, a holiday from work, a time for rest and recreation; like the Jewish Sabbath, but without so many prohibitions.
  • At the Reformation, Puritans sought to introduce more rigour to the observance of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath, and this still persists in many Protestant circles. Perhaps in doing so, they lost something of the joyful celebration which marked the Jewish Sabbath, for all its prohibitions. I certainly remember the dourness of an Ulster Sunday only a few years ago, when it was quite impossible for a tourist to get a bite of lunch on a Sunday.
  • Since the Reformation some of our fellow Christians who interpret the Bible literally have gone back to celebrating Saturday, the seventh day, as their Lord’s Day – the most notable are the Seventh Day Adventists, who number about 15 million worldwide. I ask myself: does it really matter which day we choose for our Sabbath?

5. So finally, what might the Sabbath mean to us today?

  • I would invite you to think of Sunday, our Sabbath, our day of rest, as a great gift. A great gift that we have been given by our loving-father God, through the traditions of those who have gone before us, right back to the time of Moses. I think we should cherish it. God entitles us in this way not just to cease from working to rest, one day in seven, but to take time to enjoy our families, our friends, and if we are so moved, to be still, to worship Him and give thanks for the wonderful world we are part of. I think this wise gift is intended to help us to be properly human – humans made in God’s image - not just economic factors in production.
  • Our society is changing very rapidly. Just a very few years ago, no one worked on Sunday unless they had animals to see to, or they sold perishable items, or they provided public services, or there was some other pressing need. Now more and more shops are opening, and factories and offices are increasingly working Sunday shifts. I’ve worked and shopped on Sundays myself, but I think this is a shame. Why is it happening? Is it that we are becoming distracted from our faith by insecurity and fear in the materialist Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, as RC Archbishop Sean Brady suggested earlier this week? Whatever the reason, we can choose it to be otherwise. We are entitled – God entitles us – to say ‘No’ to the dehumanising forces that would deny us one day in seven of stillness, to rest, enjoy our families and friends, and worship as we wish. Those forces can only prevail if we allow them to. The choice is ours.
  • But at the same time, we should I think be careful not to interpret the letter of the law so inflexibly that we destroy its spirit, in the matter of keeping Sunday as in so much else, so that we may not hear Jesus say ‘You hypocrites!’ to us, as he did to the leaders of the synagogue.