Words matter. Really – they do. The words we choose tell a story far beyond the simple sentences we put them in. For example, the word ‘storm’ seems pretty straightforward. Who doesn’t know what a storm is? The general definition is a disturbance in the atmosphere. We typically think of wind and rain, maybe some lightening and thunder. It could include some hail, but basically, a storm is a storm…right? So, what if that storm is a winter storm? Yes, precipitation is still a factor, but scratch the hail, lightening and thunder. Okay, sometimes we have thunder snow, which means lightening and thunder happen with the snow. Then there are sand storms – if you live in a desert. You get the point. The understanding of the word ‘storm’ can be relative, depending on the general conditions and time of year in the given area.
“Bible” is the same way. We have the canon, which is one thing if you are Protestant and another thing if you are Catholic. We have numerous translations of the original text and only pieces of those initial manuscripts. Then, there is the whole discussion about who wrote it and how it was written. Like, did God guide the hand of the writers or did the writers attempt to write about the place where their lives rubbed up against influence from the Divine? Is it history or is it a compilation of stories to tell us something about who God is and who we are in God’s world?
Then, there is the whole God-thing. Who is God? Is he a judgmental ruler who watches and waits until we mess up so he can pounce on us with consequences? Or is God the essence of all goodness that longs for us to move in rhythm with him (or her…) throughout time?
I attended a study last week where several questions came up about the Sabbath and what it should mean to us in our 21st-century lives. I maintain that how one answers, “What is the Bible?” and “Who is God” will determine how one recognizes the Sabbath…as well as how one responds to most of the issues encountered in this crazy thing called “life”. Let’s look at this more fully.
In Mark 23, Jesus is found talking to the Pharisees. The discussion focuses on the Sabbath and what a person can do to please God – like, what does it mean to ‘keep the Sabbath’. Understand they had lists of rules that were designed to help people do what they perceived was right. Jesus used an example where King David broke not only Sabbath law, but also Levitical law when he and his soldiers were “hungry and in need of food”. They went into the temple on the Sabbath and ate bread that was reserved for the priests. Verse 27 states, “Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.'”
Aside from the obvious discussion of Christ’s statement about the Sabbath, the questions arose, “Why was the bread only for the priests?” and “It sounds like they were starving (in need of food), so what were they supposed to do?” In reality, was the bread only for the priests because it was so holy that only seemingly holy men could eat it? Or was it only for the priests because it assured their daily sustenance? If we fast-forward to today, would we deny a starving person bread that had been blessed for the Eucharist if that was the only food available? Or would we feed them out of compassion and worry about replacing the ‘holy’ food later?
You see, how we define the Bible and God will affect how one responds to this dilemma.
I believe the Bible is holy and a set of writings by humanity throughout time attempting to let others know what a relationship with God looks like. However, what made perfect sense to the writer(s) of Torah becomes muddy as we read their script today. We can recite the words, but the essence of those words become complicated as we attempt to understand the culture and tradition within which they were written. Yet, we say the Bible is timeless and written for all generations, including now and those to come. Maybe there is something we are missing in the interpretation. I for one have certainly broken several laws that were important to the ancients. There are things in scripture about gold earrings and braids that our religious culture doesn’t deem important anymore. However, don’t even get me started on passages about slavery and the right way to treat a slave! To condone human ownership, let alone attempt to claim it is Biblical is cause for me to break a few more of the ancient rules…the silence of women being a trivial start.
The point is, to embrace scripture and what it says to us today must be something other than literal interpretation. If the intent is to let others throughout time know what a relationship with God looks like, then the importance has to be in understanding who God is.
That’s where Jesus comes in. If we believe, as the ancient writers told us, that Jesus is God in human form, then to understand the words and actions of Jesus is to get an idea of what our relationship with God should look like. Jesus loved people…all kinds of people. His list of friends included crazy people, tax collectors, fishermen, shepherds, women, wealthy, poor, widows, children, prostitutes, Romans, gentiles…have I missed anyone? The point is, Jesus found beauty and acceptance in everyone.
In her book, “The Friendship of Women”, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, stated, “…once we are loved we have an obligation to live as best we can.” (p. XIII)
To put this in perspective, think of the woman who was to be stoned for adultery. (John 8:1-11) Jesus told her to go and sin no more. My guess is, she was so grateful for his compassion that she did exactly what he said. I suppose this is where we could go on another tangent about what exactly we mean when we use the word “sin”. Suffice it to say, I have to believe she went back to her life and lived out the tenderness that had been offered to her. She was loved by Him and responded to that love by sharing compassion with others.
That brings us back to the Sabbath. What does it mean to keep the Sabbath and how do we respond to the part where scripture informs us we will loose our friends and die if we don’t. (Exodus 31:1-15) We tend to ignore that part when Sunday rolls around. No, we don’t have to worry about our community stoning us if we prepare a meal on Sunday or walk more than 500 steps. But, we have also moved pretty far away from understanding why God insisted we recognize the Sabbath.
You see, we are created in God’s image. (Genesis 1:27) God wildly created for six periods of time, referred to as ‘days’ in the ancient writings. I have visions of a sculptor that chisels and taps in a frenzy of creative activity allowing little time for rest, food or friends until he stands back to say, “It is good” and sits down to enjoy his work, maybe with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Maybe he calls out to a friend or two to come and see what he’s done, pours tea into their cups and pulls out the canister of biscuits along with some cheese to augment their time together. They talk and laugh, sharing the moment. Then, after they all go home, the artist decides to lie in his hammock with a comfy quilt and rest. The next day, when he is feeling restored, he walks amongst his friends and enjoys their company; he nurtures them when they are enduring troubles, he laughs with them when they are amused and even pops out a miracle or several like turning water into wine.
You see, God knows how important it is for us to rest, to take time to restore our souls and to nurture our relationships…for without these things we will surely die. Because we are human and cannot understand all of God’s ways, we have made the Sabbath into a day complete with laws that define what rest should look like. Jesus reminded us that life happens, even on the Sabbath. Someone gets hungry…someone needs healing…someone needs our love and compassion.
You see, to believe that God needs us to focus on adoration for God and nothing else for an entire day every week is to ignore God’s love for all of creation. On the flip side, to ignore our need for rest is to forget who created us. It can get pretty tricky if we try to put Sabbath in a box of legalisms.
What if we took to heart that God longs for us to be whole and looked at Sabbath rest as our opportunity to restore the things that make us whole – things like loving God with all of our hearts, souls, strength and minds and loving our neighbors as ourselves? (Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as numerous other references) What if we spent time in daily conversations with God – whether we call that worship, prayer or meditation – and what if we did the things that nurtured God’s creation out of the love we experience as a result of the love God lavishes on us? What if that’s what Sabbath rest is supposed to look like?
Maybe it’s just easier to call it a day…