Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Sabbath offers rest not based on merit, but as divine grace and blessing


field of grain
Grain Field, via Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 2, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:12-15

In the context of the Israelites’ journey to the promised land, we hear Moses’ words to the people. This setting marks a crucial moment, emphasizing the theological importance of Moses’ guidance. Being in Moab’s plains represents the fulfillment of divine promises of redemption since the people left Egypt. The command to honor the Sabbath reminds them of their liberation experience, urging them to maintain a just relationship with each other and God. 

The essence of this passage extends beyond a mere reiteration of existing laws; it emphasizes the significance of the day of rest to acknowledge and highlight God’s redemptive activity. Moses’ words underscore the Lord’s salvific events. God is leading the people out of slavery. They are ready to enter the land of redemption and new beginnings. As the people approach the land, their fidelity to God becomes pivotal, with the Sabbath symbolizing their commitment to a holier existence.

Observing the Sabbath day and keeping it holy underlines the new challenge that the people will face in Canaan. The practice of the day of rest anchors their faithfulness to God as the primary criterion to determine the integral health of the people. This day is a holy day to the Lord, and the community should maintain it as holy by not working. Entering the promised land signifies a tangible realization of their relationship with one another. 

The continuous use of the pronoun “you” underscores the text’s emphasis on salvation and redemption. It goes beyond the limits of historical Israel to touch on the lives of its readers and hearers. The text stresses the theological urgency to remember the Lord, especially during the day of rest. Deuteronomy grounds Sabbath observance in the liberation from Egypt, emphasizing equality among all individuals. By subtly altering the command’s language, Deuteronomy highlights its social justice aspects, advocating for the marginalized and breaking oppressive ideologies.

The precept of the Sabbath is established for moral reasons. The liberation from Egypt, not the motif of creation (Exodus 20:11), justifies its observance. In this claim, all people are equal, no matter their social status. Therefore, in the context of Deuteronomy, the commandment of the Sabbath breaks with all “Egypts,” that is, with all oppressive ideologies that regulate job markets in which the many work and the few rest. 

This radical appropriation of the Sabbath is demonstrated by noticing the subtle stylistic changes of this version compared with Exodus 20:8–11. The expression “or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock” is added in Deuteronomy to ensure that “your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” And the exhortation begins with an emphatic “observe” instead of the more hesitant “remember” in Exodus 20:8. 

The parallel text in Exodus 31:14 clarifies how important this day is by prescribing the ultimate penalty to those who break it: capital punishment. The Deuteronomy text’s social relevance extends the observance of the day to the family, the immigrant in the community, the servants, and the animals. Although the idea of rest is as old as humanity, in ancient cultures only the royal family enjoyed this privilege as representatives of the gods. Rest belonged to the house’s owners; work was reserved for the others. It continues to be that way in today’s global market economy, where work and rest are carefully aligned with social class. 

In Deuteronomy, the distribution of work and rest is not established according to social and economic status but according to time. Those at the top of the household hierarchy and those who depend on this person—including the animals and the strangers in town—are protected by divine command and may enjoy a time to work and rest. The Sabbath is more than a ritual; it symbolizes deliverance and a tangible expression of liberation for the laboring populace and animals. It dismantles the retribution theology, offering rest not based on merit but as divine grace and blessing. 

This command encapsulates faithfulness and social justice principles, reflecting God’s sovereignty and the divine gift of rest. The fundamental decisiveness of the text is to manifest what God wants from the people. The new reality of their relationship with one another is no longer a project in the distant future but visible on the other side of the Jordan. 

Moses’ speech reveals the commandment that for Jesus of Nazareth will become the necessary principle for just and humane relationships at the heart of the divine will. Observing the Sabbath is a manifestation of loving God with all your heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30). Love is more than a snuggly feeling of closeness to God. Its concrete manifestation should be translated in the observance of the Sabbath day as the people’s demonstration of their faithfulness to God’s covenant. 

Therefore, the text connects the emphasis on worshiping God, the beginning of the 10 commandments, with social justice. The subtle changes in the precept of the Sabbath have at their core the purpose of protecting the members of society who are easily forgotten and marginalized for lack of social and economic power. To remember the Egyptian experience of slavery and the mighty hand of God that liberates construes observance of the Sabbath as advocacy for social justice and fair treatment of nature. 

The invitation to celebrate this day and to regard it as different from the workdays makes it holy. The community is invited to enter the divine sphere and simultaneously receive sanctification. However, the day is not only a ritual to demonstrate individual righteousness before God. The day of rest is more than a symbol of deliverance. It is a concrete expression of liberation to those who labor during the week and are under authority: employees, immigrants, and animals. Loving God means loving neighbor in the concrete practice of rest from work regardless of your social and economic status.

The Sabbath encapsulates the divine principles of faithfulness and social justice. God asks to be the only sovereign of Israel because Israel experienced liberation by God’s hand. The double message of loyalty and freedom delineates the principal notion that the Sabbath communicates to us: to rest is a divine gift. There is a day during the week when workers receive nothing by merit and are freed to rejoice, celebrate, and experience divine grace without any human force interfering in the feast. Jesus understands this emphasis when he says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Any imposition threatening the day of rest as a gift from God is an insult against God.