The Sabbath Promise


Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you will find rest for yourselves.—Matthew 11:28-29

With most of our lives already full-to-overflowing with the demands of family and work alone, attempting to integrate the responsibilities of discipleship can seem like another burden or one more thing we "have to do." Jesus, however, promises us the opposite. A fully integrated discipleship, in the eyes of Jesus and of many great religions, provides rest and sanctuary from a busy world. As well as giving us the energy and vision to engage the world and struggle for our vision of what is good and right, our faith should and can also provide us with a safe time in which we can find rest and renewal from the pressures of our lives.

Matthew emphasizes the point even more in the above verses. He has placed Jesus’ invitation to true rest between Jesus’ confessions about the radical, divisive nature of discipleship and his teaching about the inability of most people to comprehend and/or act on the good news. Matthew 10:5-39, after recounting the commissioning of the disciples, includes five separate warnings that following Jesus will be a cause of persecution and division. He makes clear that Jesus’ good news is so threatening to established social, religious, and economic orders that serious consequences are inevitable. Matthew follows Jesus’ promise of rest with "the kingdom discourses" in chapter 13, which elaborate through parables the inability of virtually all who listen to Jesus’ word (especially those in power) to either understand or act upon it. Portraying the kingdom of God like a mustard seed, a farmer sowing, and a farmer separating the grain from the chaff, Jesus’ message is clear: Very few people can truly hear what he has to say, and even fewer can live it.

As such, the invitation to rest seems out of place at best and sarcastic at worst. How can Matthew assure us of the "easy yoke" of Jesus after guaranteeing us that discipleship brings hardship? The only answer (besides sarcasm) is utter sincerity. By including this text at all (Luke and Mark do not), and by placing it between these pivotal themes, Matthew makes rest a fundamental component of a lived discipleship. The ability of Jesus’ followers to be as profoundly rooted in him as they are in struggling for the kingdom is paramount to Matthew’s understanding of discipleship. Returning to the center, resting in God, and being renewed are vital to the ability to consider following Jesus at all; indeed, Matthew hints it must be at the very center of discipleship itself.

A Tradition of Rest
How do we find this place where we can lay down our burdens? Jesus’ (and our) Jewish heritage can profoundly inform the practice of rest in our everyday lives. The observation of the Sabbath, in many ways the centerpiece of lived Jewish experience, is the built-in practice of rest and renewal in the Jewish tradition. Its unique and profound integration of worship, rest, celebration, and renewal is a beautiful model for all people of faith. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord."

While its meaning and practice merit in-depth study and experience, a review of the scriptural bases for Jewish Sabbath provide a critical blueprint to anyone seeking to fully and passionately live their faith in the world. Through their written reflections The Sabbath and The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, respectively, Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Irving Greenberg lead us through a journey of understanding, inviting us to experience, not just know, the joy of the Sabbath.

For Jews, observation of the Sabbath is both commandment (failure to keep the Sabbath was originally punishable by death) and gift; so important that it is reinforced with three different biblical justifications for its observation. It is a means of preserving and obeying the covenant (Exodus 31:13); an imitation of God, who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Exodus 20:8-11); and a remembrance of Egypt, including both the experience of slavery (with a caution against enslaving others) and the God who liberates (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

First, the Sabbath allows the faithful to deeply reconnect with God and with their identity as a covenant people. In the words of Rabbi Heschel, "The Sabbath is meaningful to [people] and is meaningful to God. It stands in relation to both, and is a sign of the covenant entered into by both." The day of rest allows people to reclaim their fundamental identity first and foremost as loved by God for who they are as God’s creation—not for what they produce, own, or create. As Rabbi Greenberg emphasizes, "It is a proclamation, ‘I am,’ not ‘I do.’...The individual reasserts the primacy of human value and the principle of the intrinsic worth of human existence." For Jews the Sabbath is a weekly claiming of their heritage, an insistence that their primary identity is not as citizens, workers, or consumers, but as children of God who are invited to a covenantal relationship with God.

Second, related to the concept of identity are the themes of creation and the imitation of God. Since creation is an ongoing process in which humanity serves as co-creators with God, tikkun olam, the perfection of the world, is contingent upon humanity’s active and passionate participation. Six days of the week are committed to co-creating, but the seventh enables Jews to rest in the dream of perfection, to stop the struggle and to live as if the dream has been realized. In this way, the Sabbath provides a critical pause in the often overwhelming quest for perfecting the world, as Rabbi Greenberg emphasizes: "The weekly encounter with messianic perfection saves one from internalizing the indignity and injustice of the status quo. The taste of salvation gives new energy to resist the counsels of despair and to press on for higher levels of dignity and justice for all."

Third, the Sabbath also critically sets limits on the temptation to assign too much importance to the act of creating (work) or to the things that are created. "The Shabbat offers an alternative: A rhythm of work and abstinence, an alternation of creatorhood and creaturehood," writes Rabbi Greenberg. The memory of enslavement in Egypt helps Jews remain aware that they can fall victim to the slavery of things, work, and production or even victimize others through these. The Sabbath sets limits on work by reserving a day in which work is not permitted for anyone, including employees, family and friends, and even animals.

These biblical foundations give rise to a day that is like no other and is in fact the pinnacle and focus of all other days. In the words of Rabbi Heschel, "[T]he Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world." The other days of the week derive their meaning and reason for existence from the Sabbath and are a journey toward it. Jews place limits on the world as it is—Orthodox Jews sometimes tie a string around the perimeter of their community as a tangible sign that within the string, people are living in sacred time—so they can live the dream of how it should be. This isn’t an escape, but an insistence on renewing the covenant and rejecting the claims of a society whose goals and values are profoundly different from, and often antithetical to, the dream.

This holy time, at least 25 hours in length (some people extend the Sabbath longer), requires important physical, spiritual, and emotional preparation. The home is cleaned and people take particular care to wash and dress for the occasion and to prepare their spirit for the Sabbath. Special foods are prepared, friends are invited (the Sabbath is thought to be better if those who have nowhere else to go are welcomed), generosity and love are the root of all interactions. Emphasis is placed upon relations: with one another, family, friends, and God. Through joining together, singing, praying, eating together, and rejoicing in their relationships (sex between a married couple on Friday nights is considered a mitzvah, a good deed!), Jews who observe the Sabbath insist on creating and living in a special time that connects them to their identity as a covenant people.

These tangible acts are a way of resting in their faith, their God, and each other. Because of this ability to rest and restore, Jews can continue to reach for the dream of healing in a broken world.

Transposed into contemporary Christian life, this Sabbath rest runs against the grain of dominant Western culture. Issues of wealth, in particular, merit the construction (and maintenance) of a secure spiritual foundation from which to draw support and perspective. Given the overwhelmingly consumerist cultures in which many of us live, trying to live kingdom ideals when it comes to money and things is not only difficult, but profoundly countercultural. It is not supported or condoned by the mainstream; on the contrary, it is considered suspicious, idealistic, and naive.

Similarly, holy rest challenges our individualism: It reminds us that we need each other. The manual for discipleship, if it existed, would come with a warning: Do Not Try This Alone. Christianity is fundamentally expressed in community. Jesus formed a community of disciples, he sent the disciples forth in groups, and he promised that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). The Holy Spirit descended in community, creating church. And our continuous process of conversion is both realized and expressed in community, for, as Tony Kelly writes in The Force of the Feminine, "to be converted, turned out of oneself toward that Universal Love revealed in Christ, is to be turned toward others who, one way or another, support or occasion one’s growth in conversion."

In short, discipleship has never been a solitary endeavour, and even less so now. If we’re even going to try to live kingdom ideals in contemporary culture, we need time to gather as a community and immerse ourselves in "God’s culture."

As we who follow Jesus try to balance our own call to work for God’s reign with our need to rest and renew, we can learn much from those who have so beautifully integrated the demands and gifts of their own faith. We can live discipleship as Matthew describes it: a balance of fully committed action in the world centered by the time to renew and rest in our fundamental identity as God’s beloved.

Michaela Bruzzese was a Sojourners contributing writer and freelance writer living in Chile when this article appeared.

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