Do you ever wonder about the Commandments; how they came to be? Why are you supposed to keep holy the Sabbath day? What does that even mean? Why was the punishment – being stoned to death – so extreme? That commandment is to me an example of early economic regulation. What I wonder about is the evolution of the approach to dealing with a social problem that comes to such an extreme position. It doesn’t seem likely to me that humankind from the first dawn of consciousness would have decided to kill any person who labored on a particular day. No, I think it must have taken generations, perhaps thousands of years, to evolve. And I even wonder how the designation of a particular day when no one would work came to be in the first place. It must have come from a dawning realization that laboring day in and day out, with never a break, was exhausting, and that some periodic rest was a luxury that would be desirable and make life bearable.
But it would work only if everyone participated; if some took a day of rest and some not, those who did not would gain a competitive advantage over those who did. If anyone worked on the day of rest, everyone else would eventually have to follow suit or lose out in the economic competition, and the day of rest would be lost by everyone. So it was imperative that any who would dare to work on the rest day had to be prevented by the community from doing so – definitely, positively, absolutely, no exceptions.
I rather doubt that the very first community agreements to not work every seventh day (and I’m guessing that a seven day cycle evolved also over generations of experimentation until a periodicity that just felt right came to be) was enforceable by death. Lesser attempts to secure compliance surely must have been tried initially, but the temptations to work on the community day of rest were probably so strong that the only way the community could preserve the day of rest for all was by extreme measures. Legalism soon followed, in the form of minute definitions of work (such as picking up a few sticks) and in defining when a day begins and ends (based on being able to distinguish a white thread from a black thread). Moses codifies this in Exodus and gives it religious authorization by proclaiming that God commands it.
By the time of Jesus this had all become so oppressive, in large part because of the legalism, that Jesus throws it all overboard with his famous teaching that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Thank you Jesus. You got rid of this oppressive rigidity of Old Testament times, and we’ve been able to hang on to our periodic days of rest without having to worry about being stoned to death for working when we want to or need to.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 19-January-2016.