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Politics of Scripture

Work, Life, and the Dissent of the Sabbath

We were not made for the capitalist subjection that characterizes our lives. The gift of the Sabbath serves us in the present by contesting work’s overlordship and disrupting the social controls by which capitalist hegemony maintains itself.

2:23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food, 26 how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions?” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath, 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They were watching him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Mark 2:23—3:6 (NRSVue)

Human beings create and maintain their lifeworlds through their work. Work is a good by which we create value and meaningfully use the skills that contribute to our personhood. However, the need for work reveals a paradox near to the heart of human existence: that effort and labor are necessary for the satisfaction of our needs, but that our effort does not and cannot secure the satisfaction of our desire. Furthermore, our work is often instrumentalized for ends that degrade us. Although we were created to make and to do, but what we make and what we do routinely alienates us from ourselves, our neighbors, and from nature. God graciously intervened in this alienation with the gift of the Sabbath, a gift, as Mark 2:23-3:6 shows, opposed to death and slavery.

The Sabbath is a day of rest and reconsecration of all that we make and do to the Lord who made us. Though Israel was the direct recipient by virtue of its covenant with God, its practice was to serve as a sign and an invitation to the nations. The Sabbath set Israel apart as the community that could refuse the impulse to work and could do so out of worshipful dependence upon their Creator. Israel was meant to rest in the provident care of their Lord, free of the illusion they had secured their blessing for themselves.

The two incidents in this passage illustrate the corruption of the Sabbath and Jesus’ benevolent lordship over it. In the first, Jesus’ opponents denounce Jesus’ disciples for plucking grain to eat as they walk through the countryside. In the second, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Both of these actions took place on the Sabbath and provoked the ire of contemporary religious authorities.

In the centuries following the Babylonian captivity, reform traditions had surrounded Israel’s Law with further regulations meant to ensure its fulfillment. These regulations aimed to specify with precision what was commanded and what was forbidden by the Law in the hope that these supplements would ensure the consequences of violating the covenant would not happen again.

But for some of the Pharisees, as these incidents show, this exacting concern for the details of the Sabbath injunction demonstrated a callousness that subordinated God’s good purposes and the needs of the neighbor to scrupulosity. For though the Law itself stipulated that works of mercy and compassion did not violate the Sabbath, this was disregarded in their zeal to meticulously fulfill its demands. And ironically, this fastidious focus upon what the Law prohibited obscured what was positively desired for God’s covenant partner.

Jesus disclosed the proper ordering: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (2:27). The Sabbath was an aid, not a ruler. It was not supposed to be a demand that warped or degraded Israel’s humanity, but a practice that nourished it. With it the Lord graciously recognized and sanctified their limitations with the gift of rest.

That rest was meant to serve life (3:4) but here it was precluding life, healing, and restoration. Jesus’ anger in this episode demonstrates God’s indignation at the authorities that would thwart it. Jesus’ critics badly misinterpreted the purpose of the Sabbath when they attempted to strictly enforce inactivity. For while the inactivity they demanded may have formally satisfied the Law, it materially undermined it by ignoring the plight of the neighbor.

Their traditions were right to emphasize the importance of Sabbath rest but wrong in positioning that rest as more important to God than tangible compassion to others. Jesus tangibly represented God’s true concern in his care for his disciples and in his ministry to all who were in need—even on the Sabbath. The Sabbath most ultimately was a time of refreshment from all that exhausted and afflicted the covenant community, and Jesus’ works on the Sabbath demonstrated its prefigurative link to an ultimate future rest.

In the present era, under the conditions of capitalist modernity, however, the problem has reversed. Rest is neglected and even disdained. Work is demanded by entire industries, by employers and by ideologues. Our own compulsions to which we have become habituated exercise an agency that demands excess, waste, and the reduction of all things to exchange value. Actions, objects, and relationships come to be seen as significant only in terms of capital and of imagined selves we wish to become. There is never enough that one can do.

Jesus’ words and actions illuminate and challenge the servility many of us have accepted as normal. The lordship identified in these texts (2:28) is for the benefit of the human race because with it he confronts every counterfeit power that claims us and our work. The emancipation he brings challenges our subjection and promises the rest and the fulfillment of desire for which we all yearn.

We were not made for the capitalist subjection that characterizes our lives. The gift of the Sabbath serves us in the present by contesting work’s overlordship and disrupting the social controls by which capitalist hegemony maintains itself.

Intellectually, we understand that the world will continue if we are not building, making, or promoting at all times. Practically, however, our behavior shows we do not believe this, as we are exhausted but cannot entertain the possibility of rest. The practice of the Sabbath can foster a hope that counteracts our conditioning by exposing and confronting the fear that everything depends on us.

Importantly, this does not mean that work is bad, only that it is not God. Sabbath rest unveils the idolatry that infects and commandeers our work. By it we order ourselves to God and to the world we make through our labor. Accordingly, it invites critical reflection upon the conditions and the purpose of one’s labor and interrogates to what master our work is bound.

Sabbath rest is not genuine inactivity: it simply cannot be instrumentalized to serve the interests of capital and is therefore counted as nothing. The work that is refused on the Sabbath serves these ends; the work that Jesus sanctions fosters love for God and neighbor. Such rest reframes our work, relativizing its significance in the economy of God. Hope and sanctified detachment are cultivated through it, as even if we cannot totally escape unfavorable or pointless work this practice trains us to see that work is not ultimate.

This prompts further reflection upon our patterns of consumption as these are indissolubly linked to the labor of others. Whatever our class, we are subject to lack and desperate for fulfillment, and therefore susceptible to exploitation by Mammon. Such examination cannot but reveal one’s priorities and assumptions. What do we buy, and why? What do we think we are securing for ourselves? What cause do we believe we are furthering? What do we believe is owed to us? And why is the craving at the center of our being never satisfied? We must examine what kind of person we are becoming through these things.

The reorientation offered through the Sabbath funds other derivative refusals, such as the refusal of faith in desire’s fulfillment. This is crucial, as capitalism promises this but cannot deliver it. It cannot because human beings are internally divided and haunted by lack; they do not understand their own desire and routinely act against their own interest. Capitalism cruelly exploits this constant, inevitable deferment of fulfillment to maintain itself. We are told that this product, this promotion, this president will bring an end to our need and will make us whole. It nurtures addictions that effectively keep us in thrall, clinging to false hopes that alienate us from reality and the real possibility of contentment. To both deny the possibility of that fulfillment and tangibly refuse to work for it, therefore, is a radical act of faithful dependence upon God.

But all of this is only a possibility. Faith must be present, as must the will to act by denying oneself. Again, it is not true inactivity. This is extremely difficult as our habituation to capitalist mores gives rise to obsessive compulsions to secure and to promote ourselves. We are largely inured to our lives being reduced to commodities for exploitation, by others and even ourselves for selfish, shortsighted gratification. And though our humanity is degraded and our alienation deepened, we do not recognize it or do not care.

In our fallenness we are prone to imagine ourselves as radically autonomous and self-possessing and accordingly we repress from consciousness the conditions of servility to which we are subject. Capitalism aids this repression with its assurance that in working and buying we are acting out of freedom, that we are pursuing life and not death. This comports with our desire to see ourselves as independent, competent, and flourishing. Our formation as subjects under these conditions filters and interprets our experience so long as we do not critically examine and resist it.

The Sabbath’s potential, therefore, can of course fail to be actualized when those who profess Jesus’ lordship forgo the dispositions and practices that characterize him and thus challenge the world’s counterfeit lordships. What is needed is a materially Christian faith that will recognize Mammon and spurn the false hopes and fulfillments it offers. Capitalism will self-destruct when its systemic demands cannot be satisfied by its processes and its sources. The Lord has determined an end to its hegemony. But its domination will persist wherever its stranglehold upon the moral imagination goes unchallenged.

The task that is available to and enjoined upon the Christian community is the discipling of this imagination. Discipleship always involves learning to see differently and to respond differently. These two things implicate and further one another: we are more apt to change our behavior when we acknowledge things we did not and even could not recognize before. Self-denial can then be seen not as self-neglect but a means towards seeing rightly and reordering one’s affections.

Class consciousness, after all, has never sufficiently emerged so as to usher in a new, utopian age. Covenant consciousness, on the other hand, has emerged and can and will again and again so as to provoke substantive resistance to Mammon and its norms. Class antagonism can fuel revolutionary fervor for a moment but cannot sustain a political project of freedom before God or foster the virtues necessary for sustaining that project. We cannot become moral subjects capable of evading capitalist capture without challenging its formative influence.

Neither working nor not working will accomplish desire’s fulfillment. Every foretaste of its fulfillment is a gift from God, a prospect of the eschatological future mediated to our present. The Sabbath indicates a desire beneath every manifest desire of the human heart for it is itself a prefiguration of that ultimate, eschatological rest (Hebrews 4:9-11) in which desire is no longer deferred but fulfilled by God.

There is no cause worth serving that forbids rest. Our emancipation from the dictates of Mammon and of every ideological power and principality will be served by the holy refusal to work ourselves to death.

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