Most of us approach the Sabbath, initially, like Pharisees, creating an amazing burden of rest that sits heavily not just on our shoulders, but on everyone else's. Eventually, most of us try to be more like Jesus, taking the burden of the Sabbath on ourselves and allowing the needs that arise around us to modify our practice of rest. But is there a happy medium?
There is. And it's buried way back in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 25.
It is easy to miss this little bit of wisdom because it refers not to the human practice of a seventh-day Sabbath, but to the communal practice of a seventh-year Sabbath. But as we have seen this week, even our best Sabbath is, to some degree, communal; it affects everyone around us. And everyone around us affects our Sabbath.
So here's the rule, straight from Leviticus: "For six years, you will work the land, but in the seventh year, the land will lie fallow. For six years, you will eat what you produce, but in the seventh year, you will eat only what the land produces."
Boiled down to its core message, the wisdom of this verse is this: "Even on the Sabbath, the land is working, but no one is working the land."
That, I think, is the key to a successful Sabbath practice. And it runs two ways.
First, consider yourself the land. You may produce amazing things on the Sabbath, things that flow naturally out of you. The land cannot help but grow what has come to rest in its fertile soil, even during the years that no one is tilling the land. All the little seeds that fell off of last year's harvest are buried in there, and they take root anyway. All the good things that God has put in you are buried in there, and Sabbath or not, they take root. So do what you do on the Sabbath. Do what comes naturally. Let things grow out of you. Love. Serve. Worship. Cook. Sew. Read. Whatever it is that you do, do it on the Sabbath.
But don't let anyone, even yourself, force you to do these things. Don't let anyone work you. Sometimes, someone just needs something on the Sabbath, on my Sabbath. The question I ask myself is: "Am I doing this because they make me feel obligated to do this? Or am I doing this because this is the kind of thing that grows naturally in me?" Sometimes, I say yes because I give freely, because the opportunity is one that I naturally grow into. Sometimes, I say no because it feels like someone else has placed the demand of work on me. Sometimes, it can be the exact same request, the exact same thing, even the exact same person needing the exact same thing, and I might say yes on one Sabbath and no on another, depending on the context of how it's all playing out. If it's something that comes naturally from me, I'm in. If I feel like I'm being worked, I'm out.
Because the land produces even on the Sabbath, but no one makes it produce. The land works, but no one works it.
On the other side of this, and the second direction in which this understanding of the Sabbath runs, neither will I work anyone on the Sabbath. We live in a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week society. There are persons whose employers force them to work on Sunday so that you have the convenience of doing whatever you want to do when you want to do it. There are persons running cash registers who would rather be at church. There are persons waiting tables who would rather be around their own tables. There are persons who do not get a choice about where they get to be on my Sabbath, but I will not be a part of that decision. I will not be one of the reasons that they do not get a choice.
Which means, in essence, just as I will not be worked on my Sabbath, I will not work anyone else. I will not go out to lunch or to dinner on my Sabbath because that requires that someone be there to cook, to work a cash register, to wait a table. I will not go shopping on my Sabbath because that requires that persons be there to operate the store and to serve me. If I do this, or any other number of things, I am guilty of breaking even my own Sabbath. I'm working the land in the seventh year. I'm forcing it to do what I want it to do, rather than trusting it to do whatever it does naturally.
For one day a week, the same day that I live out of what is natural in me, I let the world do the same. I let it be whatever it will be.
And I think we see this in Jesus' practice, as well. I think the key to figuring out what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath is not focusing on the very real needs that He was meeting, but to consider what it means to "work" and to "be worked." Nobody ever worked Jesus on the Sabbath. For all the stories we have of men and women lining the streets, calling out to Him, begging Him for mercy, these aren't happening on the Sabbath. All the men and women He heals on the Sabbath are men and women He just kind of ran into in the course of His normal day. They didn't ask for healing, but He saw their need. He did what flowed out of Him naturally. He worked, but no one worked Him.
This is the key, for me, to a healthy Sabbath practice. Work. Be fruitful. Produce. Grow. But don't be worked. And don't work others. For one day, let things be. Breathe.
You may just discover, as did God on the seventh day, that this is very good.