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  • Writer's pictureThe Rev. Beth Knowlton

Why Is Sabbath a Commandment?

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For 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 the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” — From Exodus 20:1-11


As Episcopalians we are not prone to spend a lot of time reflecting on the Ten Commandments. It’s one reason I enjoy praying the Decalogue during the season of Lent. Somehow praying the commandments feels different than merely reciting them. I’ve been very influenced in my life by the writings of Walter Brueggemann, a well-known Old Testament scholar. He talks about the Ten Commandments as a rule of life to preserve the freedom of the Israelites who have made their way through the wilderness after escaping slavery. The ordering of our relationships with God and neighbor is necessary to preserve freedom for all.


This helps me understand why observing the sabbath is a commandment. I’m fond of quipping that in modern life, this is probably the most violated of the Ten Commandments. We revere productivity and work to the point of depletion and exhaustion. That is certainly not the fullness of life that God calls us to inhabit. We are finite human beings who have limits, both spiritually and physically. We are not God, despite our best efforts to act as if we are in charge of the world.


But observing the sabbath is not just about rest. Rest is one important component of it, but it is also about freeing ourselves from the tyranny of thinking that what we do is why we are valuable. We are beloved by God just because we are. The least productive person is as loved by God as the one who seems to be getting it all done. Let that sink in…You are just as beloved by God when you accomplish things as when you do not. I suspect that if we remembered that radical love of God to really order our lives, we would make very different decisions. We might allow ourselves to be more discerning in our choices rather than being driven by what we think makes us valuable.


Years ago, I heard a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he was in Atlanta. He found the American practice of asking people what they did for work to be highly amusing. He asked his students to imagine arriving at a gathering that included a baby in a carrier. He asked, “Would you approach that beautiful baby and peer over into its carrier and ask the baby, ‘Now what do you do?’” 


The absurdity of that question is a helpful image. To observe sabbath is to remind ourselves that while our work is important, it is not the fullness of who we are called to be. God enjoys the very essence and presence we bear in the world, which is about light and love. So, give yourself permission to cease work and see what might emerge.


Peace, Beth +


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