Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. What is forbidden by this edict? In dealing with the third commandment perhaps it is better to ask what is bidden by it. What is the positive challenge in God telling us to rest one day a week?
For many years, for most of us, the third commandment simply meant that we could not do our normal work on Sundays and on that day we were obliged, as well, to go to church to fulfill our “Sunday obligation”. Western culture, for the most part, played along and most non-vital businesses and commerce shut down on Sundays. If we transgressed, we confessed: “I missed going to church on Sunday” or “I worked on Sunday”.
Today there is considerable confusion about what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy and, for the most part, this commandment is being benignly ignored. More and more in Western society there is business as usual on Sundays and many of us are obliged to work on that day, whether we want to or not. Church attendance is also declining steadily. In this context we must again ask: What does it mean to keep holy the Sabbath day?
The book of Genesis states that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, the sabbath, God rested. We too are to rest on that day because God did. But that is a curious logic. First of all, how does God rest? What is meant here has not so much to do with God being busy or at leisure as it has to do with the purpose of creation. Biblically, the sabbath is the end, the feast, for which all creation was made. Hence, Jesus tells us that we were not made for the sabbath, the sabbath was made for us. Simply put, the sabbath prefigures the end times, the world that is to come, heaven. What the precept to keep the sabbath holy asks is that we, individually and collectively, regularly, have a sabbatical (notice the root of that word) by stopping our normal work and activities so as to try to taste a little of what the final state will be like.
Hence, according to Scripture, our lives should have a certain rhythm: work should be followed by play, pressured time by unpressured time, duty by worship, earth by heaven. Every seventh day we should taste a bit of play, unpressured time, worship, and heaven. Very practically, the idea of the sabbath suggests that we should have this rhythm in our lives: we work for 6 days, then have one day of sabbatical; we work for 6 years and have one year of sabbatical (only a few privileged academics get to actually live out this part); and we work for a lifetime and then have an eternity of sabbatical, that is, an eternity of rest in God. One day a week, Sundays for Christians and Saturdays for Jews, we are supposed to remind ourselves that we are made not for work, but for play, that we do not live by work and worry alone and, in the end, we will not live by work and worry at all.
But there is further element involved in observing the sabbath, reconciliation. We stop work once a week not just to rest and worship God, but also, and especially, to forgive debts, to bring ourselves more into a general sympathy with all things. To observe the sabbath means to cancel debts, to forgive others, to let go of our hurts. Our failure to do this is the reason why, so often, our vacations and recreation times do not really renew us. We come back from a holiday, physically rested and suntanned, only to find that almost immediately all of our problems return and we are tired again. We have not really been renewed, we have only suspended our worries for a while and they return because we have not forgiven anyone.
Hence in examining ourselves against the third commandment, we should not just confess that we did not go to church on Sunday or that we did business as usual on Sunday, we should also confess that we did not forgive others on Sunday.
Observing the sabbath is a critical observance, both religiously and psychologically. Unless we pull back from our normal lives regularly, one day a week, and rest, worship, and forgive, we lose perspective on what is really important and become compulsive, driven persons who are caught up in the rat race. Likewise we become ambitious, greedy, and resentful, unable to pray, to forgive, and simply enjoy life. It is no accident that today, as Sunday observance is slipping, we find ourselves ever more trapped and pressured, always behind, never really able to rest, and unable to delight in the deep joys of life. What this means is that we are not observing the sabbath.
The sabbath is our day. Once a week we have a chance to taste a wee bit of heaven – to rest, worship God, forgive each other, and to feel a bit more in sympathy with all things.