There’s this old movie that you may have seen called The History of the World: Part One by Mel Brooks, and I’ve always gotten a pretty good laugh out of it any time I watched it. But one of the best parts was right toward the beginning, in the scene where Brooks is playing Moses, coming down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Only, he’s got three tablets instead of two, and it is very clear he is struggling to hold them all. And in the course of the scene, he’s shouting to the people of Israel down the mountain:
“The Lord! The Lord Jehovah has given you these fifteen—” and then he slips and drops a tablet, and it just shatters on the ground. Moses stares at it for a moment in shock, says “Oy,” and then looks up, holds up the two remaining tablets and says “Ten! Ten Commandments for all to obey!” Ah, it gets me every time.
But thinking about that scene this week, I got caught on that word Brooks uses: “obey.” I think, when we read the Ten Commandments, we do read them that way. This is a list of the ten most important, biggest rules in the world, and we should obey them. When we learned them in confirmation, most of us probably remember Luther’s repeated way of introducing each commandment. “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that…” It was taught to us as a list of rules to follow. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong—but maybe it’s not all they are.
After all, the Commandments, unlike the rest of the Laws in the Torah, don’t have any consequences for if you break them. Maybe, instead of just a list of rules, what if we read these commandments as a description of a full, whole, holy, and godly life? If we live by these commandments, our whole lives will improve. If we live together according to them, how much closer will we get to the kingdom of God?
Now, I could go through each of these Ten Commandments and talk about how they positively affect our lives by following them, and how they shape our lives to be more just and holy and lead us to live lives more in line with how God calls us to live—but we do not have the six hours or so that that sermon would take to preach. Instead, I want to take a moment to focus on just one of the commandments; one that feels really important now, in the midst of a pandemic that is continuing to throw us all off. Let’s talk about the Sabbath.
See, in the ancient world the Jews were made fun of because of the Sabbath. It was this weird quirk of a whole nation that they just didn’t do any work one day a week. Gentile writers of the time pretty regularly claimed this was proof that the Jews were just lazy! But the Jews considered the Sabbath—along with circumcision and food laws—to be absolutely central to their identity. It’s part of why the Jewish leaders were so upset by how Jesus would bend the rules of the Sabbath. There were rules to follow, and if God said don’t work that meant don’t work, no matter what that work looked like.
But the Sabbath isn’t supposed to be a weight on us. It’s not about what you’re obligated to do—it’s about what you’re freed from. See, the Israelites received the Law after they had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. As slaves, they were regularly worked to death, with no breaks and no extended rests. They were expected to work until they dropped, so a commandment from God to set aside a whole day where everyone would just rest and recuperate was good news! It was a blessing that God cared enough for their well-being that God commanded that they see more in life than just work!
Because God knows our bodies. God knows that working every day and never taking a break will break down the physical body and scramble the mind and soul. When we don’t take a break, we wear out and break down. Like any good adult leader on a mission trip who regularly reminds the kids to take a break and get some water—me, that person is definitely me—God sets the time and reminds us to take a break. And remember how I told y’all last week that when God does something, we’re called to imitate it? Well, God rested! God, the omnipotent creator of all things took a whole day to just bask in the glory of creation and rest—and so should we!
But like every good gift of God, it’s really easy to turn it into something we use to judge others with. Like the Jewish leaders who looked down on Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, when we see the Ten Commandments as rules to obey, it becomes really easy to see people who don’t take a break for the Sabbath as simple rule-breakers worthy of judgmental gossip. But what if they can’t? What if the only way to put food on the table is that third job that robs them of Sabbath? What happens when the overwrought greed of an insatiable economy means there is no job available that will pay them enough to take a Sabbath?
Well, let’s talk about the Ten Commandments and how they are written. Scholars agree that the Ten Commandments read just like another kind of document in the Ancient Near East—a treaty. A constitution, basically. The Ten Commandments aren’t just guidance for our personal moral behavior. They are an outline of what a community looks like! They show us what precisely should guide our community decision-making. The goal is to make a community where it’s possible to live out the Ten Commandments.
So even though it doesn’t seem like it at first, the fight for a forty-hour workweek was absolutely in line with making a community that is able to fulfill the Third Commandment. And the current fight for a livable minimum wage is absolutely an effort to make everyone capable of taking their God-ordained Sabbath rest. Luther was very clear that the commandments aren’t just about what we’re supposed to do, but also what we’re supposed to do for our neighbor. Just as much as we’re called to live by the Ten Commandments in our personal lives, God calls us to make a world where everyone is able to live by them together.
Because Sabbath rest is important, and it feels like a very good time to be reminded of that. Y’all remember back in the first two months of this pandemic, when everything shut down from theaters to community sports, and there was just nothing at all to do? We all marveled at how the dolphins came back to the canals in Venice, and celebrated the blessings of more time with our families. Maybe we need to let that time shape us more now, especially as the stress of this pandemic drags on. Maybe we need to insist that the Sabbath is important and necessary not just for us but for everyone.
Those tasks that pile up, they will still be there whether we get to them or not. Some of y’all probably know this all too well—there will always be more you can do! There isn’t any point getting bent out of shape trying to get more done and neglecting your God-given right to rest. So take the time if you’re able, and rest. Fight for the right for others to rest, too. Dwell with God and be restored by doing things that bring life and bring you closer to God. Celebrate that God is gracious enough to command things that make you whole. And take a break.
Thanks be to God. Amen.