Sabbath as Social Justice
Leviticus 19:1-18 Selected Verses (NRSV)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my Sabbath: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What do you do?
The infernal question that plagues small talk everywhere in airports and ubers and first dates and introductions. So, What do you do? There is probably no better indicator of the influence our society places on individuals being defined by productivity than this ever-popular question: What do you do?
We live in a culture where the common denominator for every person, place, or thing, every noun is a specific dollar amount… Think about that for a moment, any noun in our culture can be (and is!) monetized… All the time. I recently saw and advertisement on campus at the seminary I attend that said “Market Yourself” – Tips for people to sell themselves in ministry settings… Market Your Self. The self that you have – figure out how to efficiently and effectively turn that self into money.
There is another noun, even more abstract, that always gets monetized – Time. Time Is Money. You know the way we speak about Time…. We SPEND time. We SAVE time. We even INVEST our time in one activity or another. My favorite is “set aside” time… “Let’s set aside some time”… like a little nest egg of time, a little time savings account.
And that looming question: What do you do? Seems to always ask us…
How are we spending our time? That little four word phrase - “What do you do” -- pulls together OUR IDENTITY, OUR MONEY AND OUR TIME…. ALL at once.
If Time is Money – and we ARE what we repeatedly do, we ARE what we spend our time doing. Then IDENTITY can become Money as well.
Follow me here. Time can equal Identity (because we are what we do) and Time can also equal Money (other than possessions, Time is the only noun we all have that we can monetize) then it’s easy to see how we can make the jump to Identity equals Money. What is your identity other than what you spend time doing? What is your money other than what you spend time doing?
For the last few weeks, we have been spending time (did you hear that) thinking about Sabbath – as community, as personal practice, as a way of clearing our minds and redirecting our focus. Today, we look at Sabbath as social justice. Buckle up, because if you can’t already tell from the scripture, this is going to be economic….
The text from Leviticus today is a long list of thou shalt nots…. But did you notice the opening…You shall be Holy and you shall keep my Sabbaths… and what follows is recommendations of economic practice. “Pay a fair wage, Don’t glean all your food so that people who have none can get it,
don’t defraud your neighbor”… and the most poignant line: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”
The Sabbath of the Ten Commandments was an economic statement about IDENITY and TIME and MONEY. It was a way of putting a STOP to the work in order to keep your TIME and your identity from becoming a slave to the economy of Pharaoh.
Quick Bible History lesson – Who here has seen the movie the ten commandments? And you can picture Charlton Heston and his stoic Moses face as the poorly done special effects fire tornado writes out the law on the tablets…So, this is just after the Israelites are freed from Slavery in Egypt. God hands them the law on Mt. Sinai and the fourth commandment is “You shall honor the Sabbath and keep it Holy.”
You have to understand, the Israelites had come from generations of slavery… and they had an identity that was shaped by the ‘What do you do” question, but the answer was forced upon them. They had become what they repeatedly did. Their TIME became their IDENTITY, and their Identity had an economic result. So, if you asked an Ancient Israelite enslaved in Egypt - “What do you do?” The answer was “I make bricks” Every Israelite knew that in the Egyptian economy, their TIME, their identity and their MONETARY VALUE came from how many bricks they could produce. Each Israelite knew, for generations, that they were a slave, and that they had an economic value based on the work they could accomplish.
So, God sees this as a pastoral problem. People cannot be measured by economic value. It is a distinct kind of oppression that collapses the image of God into a dollar amount, and God meets them on Mt. Sinai with a specific prescription: Keep the Sabbath, Keep it Holy.
The only way to cure someone who has had their identity poisoned by economic value is to say “STOP.” For a day per week, you will be reminded, your identity is NOT based on what you can produce. The Ancient Egyptian economy, burning with the fuel of human muscle and bone doesn’t know how to STOP and pyramids and statues and temples and pillars go up: the crushing weight of each structure pounding down the value of every Israelite enslaved by such a system.
So, the question arises, are we the Israelites? Identity defined and limited by our ability to produce? Or are we the Egyptians – crushing others with the churning of our economic machine? Of course, the answer is both.
We can be the Israelite, working 100 hours a week to maintain deadlines and commitments, tendons tearing and strained by the keyboards, eyes wearied from blue-lit screens blinding us to the fact that our identity is being shaped by one definition of ourselves – What do you DO? Clawing at colleagues and coworkers – competing on a corporate climb. Masquerading as masters of our own malignant and masochistic upward mobility. Plastering virtual walls with promotion and pleasure to publicize our own profitable pedigree.
Because hidden in that question WHAT DO YOU DO are all the other questions that freaks us out – “What if I have nothing to offer? What if I’m not necessary? What if I am – EXPENDABLE!?”
Even more insidious – We can be the Egyptian – forcing people all around the world, to navigate the physical, social and emotional waste that is left over from the pyramids and statues we have built – Our extravagant and comfortable Ancient Egyptian lifestyle. Chained children prying precious parts from my trashed technology. Weakened widows stitching their own slavery into the seams of my comfortable clothing. Bent-Backed fathers carrying coffee beans to fuel my caffeinated capacity to be more productive in a machine that crushes them.
And that is where the Social Justice of the SABBATH answers with its beautiful antidote. In your buying habits, in your spending habits, in your working habits -STOP. STOP SHORT OF CAUSING ANYONE TO BE DEFINED BY PRODUCTION or CONSUMPTION. Because it doesn’t matter if you are the Israelite (defining YOURSELF by what you can produce) or the Egyptian (defining OTHERS by what they can produce) BOTH ARE A MANIACAL MINIMIZATION OF THE IMAGE OF GOD.
And the answer is easy – God says “Stop.”
“Stop spending all your time producing – you force others to keep up, and its unhealthy.” “Stop defining yourself by what you can accomplish” – God says “your value comes from me.” “Stop stripping your land bare – leave some for those who can’t grow.” “Stop building your credit and interest – it’s someone else’s debt.” After all, God says… “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”
And Jesus’ words in Matthew bring into sharp focus the real reason why these Sabbath Practices are important – Because they are about Love…. ALL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS HANG ON THESE TWO – Love God, Love neighbor. You cannot shop on Amazon seven days a week and simultaneously love the people making those products. – Because your actions have diminished their human identity. You cannot work long hours and measure success based on how many clients you have secured, or spreadsheets you finished or walls you painted. – Because your actions have diminished your human identity. You cannot love yourself or others if you’re economic habits constantly diminish human identity to a dollar amount.
For a day, don’t buy anything. Use your time as NOT money. For a day, don’t produce anything. Use your time as NOT money.
If our society valued human life, our common small talk question would be – “Who are you?” Not “What do you do?” We have lost the way to answer WHO WE ARE, because we have lived for generations under the yoke of letting economics decide our identity… and thus we ask “What do you do?” Instead of asking what you and others can produce for society, ask if you or others know the love that comes from seeing AND BEING the divine image of God.
Who are you?
God gives the answer after every economic statement in this passage of Leviticus “I am the Lord.” God’s answer to the “Who are you?” question…. It defies the “What do you do?” question… and answers only with naked identity. God’s identity doesn’t get boiled down into monetary value. Neither should mine. Neither should yours. No identity should.
The best way to get there is Sabbath. STOP.