Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27
Jesus got into a lot of arguments about keeping the Sabbath! Six verses after this one, we hear how much these debates got to him: Mark tells us he was both angry and deeply distressed at the attitudes he was encountering. Here in our verse, he goes to the heart of the debate swirling around him. Why did God create the Sabbath? People were getting tied up in knots about how to keep the Sabbath because they missed the point, they forgot the why, and Jesus wanted to take them back to that.
The Sabbath was made for us, Jesus insisted. It serves us, it helps us, it lifts us up, it frees us. I think of this and a familiar tape plays in my head. I really should keep a Sabbath, the tape says. It’s so good for me!Every few years I have a surge of resolve and I do keep a Sabbath—for a few weeks at a time, sometimes for a few months. It’s always both tremendously difficult and highly rewarding. Resting for one day a week is a compelling discipline, with abundant benefits. Self-help gurus generally back up biblical wisdom in this area: it’s good to rest. My perfectionism, my competitiveness, and my addiction to productivity are well into overdrive most of the time, and a siesta from all that crazy is just what the doctor ordered.
Rest is good. That’s why we are supposed to have a Sabbath, right? To rest. But it’s so easy to think of rest as a luxury, an option that is nice, but not exactly at the core of what Christians are called to do. It’s an enriching self-help idea that is easily dismissed when something urgent takes up our bandwidth. Maybe that’s why this is the only commandment of the Ten Commandments we consider optional—not really a moral issue, like the other nine are.
The Hebrew verb “shabbat” doesn’t mean rest, though. Shabbat means STOP! Cease. Desist. Halt. Quit. End. The good, valuable, meaningful stuff we do for six days—on the seventh day, it needs to stop. God didn’t stop what he was doing (creating the world) on the seventh day because he needed rest. God stopped, and made the seventh day holy. Then God commanded us to do the same. For us, for our sakes, God made stopping holy.
When we still don’t get it, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 spells it out in all caps. We need to stop for one day a week, Deuteronomy says, because unless we stop, NO ONE ELSE WILL GET A BREAK. Our kids. Our staff.Our servers. Our cars and appliances (that’s “oxen and “donkeys” in the old world). Deuteronomy specifically mentions low-paid workers and foreign immigrants (v. 14). There are people that serve us for nothing or almost nothing, and unless we suspend our rounds of consuming, they don’t get to stop their rounds of labor. There are immigrants who are vulnerable to how people on the inside call the shots, and if we aren’t careful to build in buffers and safety zones, they don’t get to stop their cycles of desperation and dependence.
Then Deuteronomy delivers the zinger. Remember, it says, that you were once a slave too (v. 15). You’ve been freed! So just stop—stop once a week, put it all down. Otherwise you’re creating some serious crazy that’s putting everyone around you into bondage.
Jesus got really mad about people missing the point of Sabbath, endlessly wrangling about what was technically “work” and what checked the box of “rest.” He was criticized for freeing a woman from a lifelong disability through healing her on a Sabbath day, and he responded that it was right to untie a bond on a Sabbath (Luke 13:16). Healing and setting free are what Sabbath is about.
What do you need to STOP so that freedom can happen? When you STOP, who else will also be set free?