We went to the grocery store after church because we were out of milk. And bacon. And bananas. And a whole long list of other items. While we were at it, I remembered all the things I had been meaning to buy at Target. So my husband Peter put Penny, our four-year old, in one cart, and I put William, our one-year old, in another. We divided and conquered and came home an hour later, trunk full.
It felt great to get it all done—until I remembered that whole “resting on Sunday” thing. I started to feel bad, not only because we had accomplished so much on the Sabbath, but also because I had implicitly asked a host of other people—all the employees at both stores—to work on my behalf. I’ve always known that the Sabbath should include rest, but only recently have I learned that expecting other people to work for me is a violation of the Sabbath commands.
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is meant to be a gift from God, not a burden or a list of things we aren’t allowed to do one day a week. The idea first comes up in the Bible when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, which are listed in two different places, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. For the most part, those lists are identical. In fact, each command is exactly the same—except for command number four, the one about keeping the Sabbath.
In Exodus 20, God commands rest in recognition of the work of creation: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11). Observing the Sabbath, here, is an act of worship. It is an invitation to remember God as Creator.
But in Deuteronomy 5, the commandment emphasizes that on the Sabbath day no one is to do any work—not the Israelites, of course, but also not their animals, not the people who work for them, and not even the foreigners who live nearby. The reason given for this community-wide rest is that they—the workers, the foreigners, the “other people”—should be able to rest “as you do.” Here, the Sabbath is an invitation to the outsiders and the servants to participate in the blessings of life with God.
This version of the command concludes, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15). Here again, as in the Exodus account, the Sabbath is an act of remembrance, but it is an act of remembrance that extends outwards. It is an invitation to care for other people.
I like the idea that Sabbath rest originated, at least in part, as a way to care for others. But how does it apply today? How does it fit into a capitalist economy with millions of people who aren’t from a Judeo-Christian background? I don’t have any oxen. I don’t have a manservant or a maidservant. And I live in a culture that has coined the term “24/7” to describe the way we work. Resting on Sunday isn’t what average Americans do, and part of me says that the Biblical concept of Sabbath is a set of outdated commands, written for a culture with different expectations for time and work and economic stability.
Still, I wonder what it would look like to rest on Sundays from asking other people to work on my behalf. To rest from asking other people to respond to my emails. To rest from being entertained. To rest from the grocery store and Target. And to understand that this rest is not just about satisfying my own need to slow down, but also about caring for the people around me.
This type of rest would serve as a weekly reminder that everyone—the cashiers and bankers and doctors and janitors and teachers and bus drivers and everyone else—is a person created in the image of God. Resting on Sunday is a way for me to honor other people, to see them as my neighbors, and to recognize God’s care for them. Resting on Sunday is a way of resetting my view of the world and aligning it with God’s view of the world.
For the Israelites, the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy was based upon the memory that they once had been enslaved and God had rescued them from the tyranny of Egyptian rule. For Christians, the Sabbath reminds us that we once worked hard in order to prove ourselves to God, but now we can rest in God’s grace. Similarly, we can stop asking other people to prove themselves to us through hard work and instead invite them to rest.
I have to imagine that this type of rest would change me every day of the week. It’s easy to assume that the woman at the dry cleaner exists so that my clothes will be clean when I want them. It’s easy to reduce the life of the man restocking the shelves at the grocery store to his productive value. But if I take a day in which I don’t ask anyone else to work for me, when I remember our common humanity, the grace that proclaims our value because of who we are as God’s children and not because of what we have produced, then I may just glimpse the image of God when I stand in the checkout line at Target on Monday morning.
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” Part of keeping the Sabbath is remembering that it wasn’t made just for me, but for every man and woman and child. From now on, I’ll plan to do my grocery shopping another day.