The Sabbath: A Few Thoughts on the 4th Commandment

lorin-bice-leftRecorded in Exodus, chapter 20, and Deuteronomy, chapter 7, are these words:

And God spoke all these words, saying, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 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.”

Oh my. So many questions come to mind? “Do I have to go to church on Sunday? Do I have to stay for Sunday School? Can I play golf in the afternoon if I go to church in the morning? Is it okay to go to a restaurant after church? How about if Mrs. Reynolds (random last name not reflecting anyone we may know) does all the cooking and cleaning and her three boys (again, random, hypothetical numbers) sit on the couch thinking deep thoughts, is she sinning by her work or are they sinning by sloth? What about gas? Can I stop and get gas if it is a self-serve pump? How about my ox in the ditch? How many steps can I walk to get to church before I it gets to be classified as work? It certainly is often an inconvenient commandment, isn’t it? And moreover, we are required not only to manage our own conduct, but to anticipate what is necessary so others won’t be forced to work.

With all these questions, how are we to know what is proper Sabbath behavior? When we try to live by the law, the first questions usually have easy answers: i.e. yes you have to go to church for a number of reasons, but our salvation is not one of them. Yes, there is a lot of stuff you have to do on Sunday, and a lot of stuff you can’t do. I don’t begin to know what all of those things are. The Good News is that you don’t have to do any of them, and you can do all of them.

There I go again, with my confusing answers that befuddle more than enlighten. Perhaps a story from James Michener’s novel, The Source will help.

“A Roman came to Rabbi Gimzo the Water Carrier, and asked, “What is this study of the law that you Jews engage in?” and Gimzo replied, “I shall explain. There were two men on a roof, and they climbed down the chimney. One’s face became sooty. The other’s not. Which one washed his face?” The Roman said, “That’s easy, the sooty one, of course.” Gimzo said, “No. The man without the soot looked at his friend, saw that the man’s face was dirty, assumed that his was too, and washed it.” Cried the Roman, “Ah ha! So that’s the study of law. Sound reasoning.” But Gimzo said, “You foolish man, you don’t understand. Let me explain again. Two men on a roof. They climb down a chimney. One’s face is sooty, the other’s not. Which one washes?” The Roman said, “As you just explained, the man without the soot.” Gimzo cried, “No, you foolish one! There was a mirror on the wall and the man with the dirty face saw how sooty it was and washed it.” The Roman said, “Ah ha! So that’s the study of law! Conforming to the logical.” But Rabbi Gimzo said, “No, you foolish one. Two men climbed down the chimney. One’s face became sooty? The other’s not? That’s impossible. You’re wasting my time with such a proposition.” And the Roman said, “So that’s the law! Common sense.” And Gimzo said, “You foolish man! Of course it was possible. When the first man climbed down the chimney he brushed the soot away. So the man who followed found none to mar him.” And the Roman cried, “That’s brilliant, Rabbi Gimzo. Law is getting at the basic facts.” And for the last time Gimzo said, “No, you foolish man. Who could brush all the soot from a chimney? Who could ever understand all the facts?” Humbly the Roman asked, “Then what is the law?” And Gimzo said quietly, “It’s doing the best we can to ascertain God’s intention, for there were indeed two men on a roof, and they did climb down the same chimney. The first man emerged completely clean while it was the second who was covered with soot, and neither man washed his face, because you forgot to ask me whether there was any water in the basin. There was none.”

So there you are. To keep the Sabbath Holy, one should prepare for the Sabbath. We should spend time in His Presence, contemplating His Word and worshiping Him with His people; we should be about our job of knowing Him and enjoying Him forever All else will follow.