This article originally appeared in a Christianity Today Series book, The Midas Trap, published in 1990.
Wealth is stored-up work. In its various forms-savings accounts, insurance policies, bonds, cash, and commodities-it is an economic battery, charged up by yesterday's labor, and able to be converted to provide both tomorrow's needs and its delights.
By storing up the results of our labor, we are able to bridge the gulf of time: we set aside something "for a rainy day," we insure against catastrophic medical costs, we prepare for retirement or save for a college education.
Money gives us power over the future, or at least the illusion of power. For although money can be used to pay tuition, it cannot buy wisdom; although money can purchase medical insurance, it cannot buy health; although money can stake out a space for us in a sunny community on the Florida coast, it cannot buy us a long and happy life. All our attempts to bridge time and control the future can be foiled in the vulnerable moment when a vagrant blood clot hits the brain or a speeding vehicle hurtles across the expressway median to intersect our own trajectory.
God alone is Lord of time. He has given to us, his human creatures, dominion over space, over earth and sea, to be stewards of the species for their well-being and our own. But only Yahweh is the Lord of time, moving as he will through history, unhindered by the boundaries of sunsets and equinoxes. Our attempts to shackle time, to squeeze from the moments every drop of value, to control the clock by storing up labor, often become a tasting of forbidden fruit, a savoring of the vacant promise that we shall be as gods. And when we store up treasure on earth, God says to us, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you" (Luke 12:20).
A bridge across time
To spare his people that judgment, God gave them the Sabbath, a weekly rift in time across which is laid a bridge of grace. It was to be a time in which no work was done, and thus in which no future value was to be milked from it. All other time is a passage away from the past and a groping toward the future; but the Sabbath is pure present. The Sabbath is pure present moment because it is filled with the Shekinah, the Presence of God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "[W]hen the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth."' And again, he speaks of the Sabbath as a time "when a beautifying surplus of soul visits our mortal bones and lingers on." And as both pure present and pure Presence, the Sabbath deflects us from our hurtling course toward an uncertain future, and it assures us of love and grace in this moment.
The Lord of Time showed this day of Presence with a sign and with sustenance. Here is the tale of the giving of the Sabbath:
The Israelites, freed from oppression, from the exploitation of their labor by their Egyptian masters, had walked for six weeks through the desert toward the wilderness where Moses, their leader, had once tended sheep. They had felt the oppression of thirst, but at Marah and Elim they had drunk the sweet, liberating waters. But now they felt the sting of hunger's lash and murmured their discontent.
The Lord chose the occasion to show them his Presence: "That I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not" (Exod. 16:4b). He fed them quail at twilight, and he feasted them at the dawn with bread—bread, fine as hoarfrost and white as coriander, and sweet, sweet as wafers made with honey.
Miraculously, this bread from heaven was given the same to all. No matter how much a person gathered, when it was measured out, it was the same as everyone else's-about half a gallon.
But divine benevolence is not without its limits. The Lord through Moses instructed them to clean their plates, to hoard not a mouthful of the supernatural food for another day. In the tents of those who did conserve, hedging against hunger by storing up the day's labor against the morrow's feared absence of miracle, sweetness turned bitter as the manna "bred worms and became foul" (Exod. 16:20). But there was indeed a miracle on the morrow, for the Lord of Time is never absent.
On the sixth day, the rhythm changed. When they measured out their gatherings, they had a full gallon for each person. "Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest," Moses relayed to the people, "a holy sabbath to the Lord" (Exod.16:23). He bade them prepare what they would, by baking and boiling, and to lay it by till morning, for there would be no heaven-sent food on the ground on the Sabbath morn. Indeed, it came to pass: those who stored it as they were told found their food fresh; while those who went forth to gather in the seventh day's early light found nothing.
Thus is the Sabbath a day of both fullness and emptiness. To those who trust the Lord's sufficiency for the present, it is a day filled with sweetness. But to those who must relentlessly squeeze the teat of today to find milk for the morrow, it is emptiness. Those who go forth to gather find nothing to harvest.
"See! The Lord has given you the sabbath," said Moses. "Remain every man of you in his place … on the seventh day," he instructed. "So the people rested on the seventh day," he recorded (Exod. 16:29-30).
Just a few weeks later, the people trembled and the mountain quaked as Yahweh uttered ten words that initiated his covenant with Israel. In those words, he liberated them from the tyranny of inflamed desire. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house," he commanded. "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's" (Exod. 20:17). These words warn against the fever that drives us to possess what must never be ours, whether that be the means of production (oxen and asses) or labor (manservants, maidservants), the fruits of someone else's work (thy neighbor's house), or his exclusive delights (thy neighbor's wife). And the word "You shall not steal" warns us away from clothing desire in action. It is a word to the dishonest and the bent among us.
But the Sabbath command is a word to the honest and hardworking, a warning to those who work happily to earn their rewards. The Sabbath warning is directed not to the slacker but to the one who takes responsibility-responsibility for family, for employees, for strangers, caring for them by providing rewarding and creative opportunities. It is addressed to those who, in their status as imago Dei, are compelled to bring order and to fight chaos. Fighting chaos means controlling tomorrow. Thus the temptation never to rest, never to let go and leave a minute fallow.
But it is precisely in his role as Subduer of Primordial Chaos that Yahweh identifies with his people and urges them to follow him not only into work, but also into rest. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy … for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it" (Exod. 20:8, 11).
Harvesting time and reaping fields
The Sabbath command is a parallel to the harvest laws of Leviticus 19: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God" (vv. 9-10).
The first command is about harvesting time; the second, about reaping fields. Both embody two principles: care for the future and care for the poor. Anxiety for the future is discouraged; but concern for the poor is cultivated.
Many who have been raised in strictly sabbatical homes were nurtured on the parable of the grasshopper and the ant. However, that parable was not spoken by our Lord, but inscribed in the gospel according to Aesop. And there is a great gulf fixed between the spirit of the slave fabulist and that of the Lord of Freedom, him who said:
Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day. (Matt. 6:25, 30-34)
Of course, Scripture also contains the Book of Proverbs, which chastises the sluggard for his sloth and prophesies reward for the hard-working. The key is found in knowing the difference between, on the one hand, working hard enough and resting often enough to face the uncertainty of the future in confidence, and, on the other hand, facing the future with fear and, in desperation, working in self-defense, never resting in grace.
The land shall keep a Sabbath
The connection between the Sabbath and the harvest is carried further by the laws concerning the sabbatical year (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7, 20-22; Deut. 15:1-11) and the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8-17, 23-24).
Yahweh's command concerning a sabbatical year is that the land itself "shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord." In an agrarian society, land is the fundamental form of wealth. On this foundation can be erected a modest estate or a fabulous fortune in cattle and corn. But without land, the agrarian is unable to amass wealth. Thus, if the people are to rest, the land too must keep a Sabbath. Just as the human parties to the covenant are to work six days and keep sabbath on the seventh, the soil of the covenant land is to be cultivated and planted for six years, and in the seventh year to lie fallow. The crops that grow of themselves in that seventh year are not to be harvested, but to be gleaned by the poor and the wild beasts (Exod. 23:11) and to feed not only the landowners and their servants, but the sojourners, the cattle, and wild beasts (Lev. 25:6-7).
The sabbatical year was also the occasion for the forgiveness of debts, although such an amnesty applied only to fellow Hebrews (according to Deuteronomy 15:3, one could still exact payment from a foreigner).
For the creditor, debt is an asset, an account receivable. Like all forms of wealth, it can enslave its owner, for debt grants power to the creditor. It is not only money owed, but potentially people owned. Thus to be a creditor is to wield power, and to have power is to risk corruption.
For the debtor, debt is a binding to the past, a forced living with regret for actions long gone or with mourning for mishaps. As long as debt exists there is no rest, for tomorrow threatens to compound yesterday's sorrow. Thus if the covenant people-both debtors and creditors-are to experience rest and grace, debt must periodically be abolished.
The Lord understood the terrors that bind people to their assets, and he addressed those fears. Fear of not being repaid, because of an approaching sabbatical year, was not to discourage one from lending to a fellow Israelite in need: "Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake" (Deut. 159-10).
Likewise, fear of insufficient food was not to discourage one from letting the land lie fallow. Just as the sixth day's manna harvest lasted through the seventh day, the Israelites were promised that the sixth year's crop would be sufficient to tide them over the fallow year: "And if you say, `What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?' I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, so that it will bring forth fruit for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating old produce; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old" (Lev. 25:20-22).
In Matthew 6:25, Jesus surely echoed this promise, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on." In Matthew, Jesus' teaching about anxiety follows hard on his warning about the absurdity of trying to serve both God and Mammon (v. 24). And it initiates the paragraph that climaxes in his admonition to seek first the kingdom of God (v. 33). Both the sabbatical year and the Lord's teaching about anxiety are framed on the one side by freedom (from debt, from slavery), and on the other by responsibility to live out the covenant (the kingdom).
The sabbatical year is replete with gifts that, like Friday's excess manna, allow the Israelites to let time lie fallow. And as always, God ties the lack of taking care for the morrow to the necessity of caring for the poor. At the very time one is to show trust in God for the future, one is asked to stretch one's generosity in the present, to forgive freely and to lend without grudging. Thus generosity is piled onto generosity.
After seven sabbatical years was to come a year of jubilee. In the fiftieth year, not only was the land to lie fallow, but Israelites who had sold themselves into slavery because they were deep in debt were to be freed, and land was to be returned to the family of the original owner. The jubilee was a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. If the jubilee laws were observed, neither enormous wealth nor grinding poverty could be perpetuated through the generations. There could be no "culture of poverty" in which the collective memory of work and productivity had been erased.
In caring for the covenant people in this way, Yahweh said, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine" (Lev. 25:23a). Thus he refused to grant his people an absolute right to foundational wealth. The illusion of ownership easily evolves into the mirage of independence. But Yahweh did not wish his people to exercise independence; he wanted them to learn continued dependence on him. Thus he said, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me" (Lev. 25:23).
The sojourner's rootlessness cultivates dependency in the believer. The Sabbath, by suspending the daily routine, disorients the believer and encourages trust and dependence. The sabbatical year, by suspending the use of the land, disconnects the believer from terra firma, making him depend on God. The jubilee, by disrupting the relational world of property owners and indentured slaves, returns people to dependence on grace. The sojourner's experience of rootlessness is at the base of Israelite religion. In what is thought to be the earliest liturgical confession, the worshiper identifies himself thus: "A wandering Aramean was my father … " (Deut. 26:5).
Likewise, the experience of sojourn is a repeated theme in Mosaic ethics, from being a precursor of the Golden Rule, "You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exod. 23:9); to being a reason to keep the Sabbath, "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15).
Jesus and the jubilee
Just as Jesus' teaching on anxiety and trust echoed the sabbatical year, so his proclamation of his own ministry echoed the jubilee. In Luke's gospel, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then boldly claims that this message of liberation finds its fulfillment in him:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
John Howard Yoder comments that whatever the phrase "the acceptable year of the Lord" may have meant to Isaiah, "for rabbinic Judaism, and thus for the listeners of Jesus it most likely meant … the jubilee year, the time when the inequities accumulated through the years are to be crossed off and all God's people will begin again at the same point. … that there is to come into Palestine the equalizing impact of the sabbath year."3
Yoder goes on to cite Andre Trocmé's book Jesus-Christ et la revolution non-violente in which the author "has gathered the evidence that Jesus' concept of the coming kingdom was borrowed extensively from the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year."4
Scholars debate to what extent Israel ever experienced the full equalization of the jubilee. But at least once, during the time of Jeremiah, an Israelite king enforced the ancient law and declared all Hebrew slaves freed. Unfortunately, the slaveowners did nothing to help the slaves become economically self-sufficient, and they were soon back in bondage. Jeremiah protested this sad outcome and promised his countrymen punishment because they had failed to realize the jubilee's full liberation. Isaiah, writing of Israel's hope of restoration following the Babylonian captivity, used the jubilee language of economic readjustment to describe the fast that will draw Yahweh's attention:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)
In the same passage, the prophet urges the people to keep the Sabbath by avoiding their own business on God's holy day. But in the prophetic vision, harmony (shalom) is not restored to Israel simply by the observation of religious feasts or fasts. It is restored by the implementation of justice. Amos announces God's woe on those "who trample upon the needy," saying, "When will [the Sabbath] be over that we may sell grain … and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals?" (8:5-6). It is not alone the weekly cessation of commerce that sanctifies the seventh day. It is the extension of the Sabbath liberty from avarice throughout the week.
In the prophetic vision of a restored Israel, the principles and the practice of jubilee are realized. Each man sits under his own fig tree (Mic. 4:4); each plants his own vineyard and eats its fruit; each builds his own house and lives in it. No one is deprived of the fruit of his labor. No one is enslaved. All are brought to liberty (Isa. 61:1). And all observe the Sabbath together in the presence of the Lord (Isa. 66:23).
Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God likewise drew on Sabbath and jubilee imagery to present, in Yoder's words, "a visible sociopolitical, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God, achieved by his intervention in the person of Jesus as the one Anointed and endued with the Spirit."5
In Jesus' model prayer, a sequence of petitions explains his understanding of the plea "Thy kingdom come." First comes the petition for "daily bread," an obscure word in Greek, which may very likely be the equivalent of the Latin diaria, the daily food ration given out for the next day. Thus, according to a footnote in the Revised Standard Version, we pray, "Give us today our bread for the morrow." This petition grasps the assurance of pre-Sabbath manna and of the presabbatical year bumper crop. "Give us our bread for the morrow in order that we may confidently enter into the jubilee."
Next comes release from debt. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" recognizes the enslaving power of economic subordination. Debt in this prayer, says Yoder, is the "paradigmatic social evil."6 This mutual entering into forgiveness of debt, of at once forgiving and being forgiven, is the only petition our Lord took the trouble to underscore with a warning. After finishing the prayer, he said, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15).
That Jesus' vision of the kingdom involved economic restructuring along jubilee lines is clear from the number of parables he told relating to the forgiveness of debt and the alleviation of poverty and oppression:
The story of the unforgiving servant centers on the remission of debt and the proper response to forgiveness. The hardened servant was only too willing to plead for mercy and to accept gratefully forgiveness for his own enormous debt. But he was unmoved by the king's graciousness and threw into jail someone who could not pay him a debt only one twenty-thousandth of 1 percent of his own (Matt. 18:23-35).
The parable of the workers hired at different times, but all paid equally by the householder, employs an economic metaphor to stress God's desire to deal graciously and sovereignty with all of his creatures, and to see his grace experienced equally (Matt. 20:1-16).
The prodigal son wasted his inheritance and sold himself into servitude, but when he returned home asking to be a household servant in his father's house, the father restored him to the position of a son. How the money had been spent, or even that it had been spent, was not an issue for the father. The homecoming was a time for rejoicing (for that is what jubilee means), and therefore it was a time of debt remission and manumission (Luke 15:11-32).
The parable of Dives and poor Lazarus stresses the penalty the well-heeled will pay for ignoring gross economic suffering as well as the way God's justice in the afterlife will reward those who, in this life, have been victims of economic oppression (Luke 16:19-31).
The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) displays the folly of the one "who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." What does it mean to be rich toward God? The next pericope (Luke 12:22-34; cf. Matt. 6:25-34) urges trust in God and concludes with these familiar words: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Jesus' understanding of being "rich toward God" clearly involved more than an inner attitude of trust. It involved outer trusting activity that would enter into jubilee-like sharing.
The parable of the unrighteous steward is subject to various interpretations, but an important element in the story's structure is the forgiveness of debt (Luke 16:1-13).
Luke caps the telling of these parables by relating Jesus' encounter with a crooked tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus' response to that encounter was "Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." Jesus' reply? "Today salvation has come to this house."
At least since Augustine's time, the church has promulgated a largely spiritual interpretation of these parables. And, in view of the oppressive sense of the kingdom delayed, such spiritualizing was to an extent necessary. But it seems clear from the gospel records that early in his ministry Jesus and his followers expected the kingdom to come within their lifetimes and that a jubilee-style economic reordering would not only be the result of the kingdom, it would be a mode of entrance into it. Indeed, when at Pentecost the Spirit fell upon the church, inaugurating the kingdom in this present age for those who would enter it, the automatic response of the believing community was one of economic leveling (Acts 2:437).
The possibility of a recovery
The spiritual meaning of wealth is the domination of time and exaltation of the self. The spiritual meaning of the Sabbath, the sabbatical year, and the jubilee is the dominion of Yahweh over time and the dependence of his people on his grace.
Wealth is an attempt to build a bridge across time, to store up the potential of labor to exercise control over the future. The Sabbath is a disciplined attempt to release control over time and to depend on grace.
Wealth is an attempt to gain independence from the community and from spiritual reality: He who has the gold makes the rules. But the jubilee and the sabbatical year teach that in reality interdependence and trust in God reflect the true character of existence.
The status of the Sabbath has been ambiguous in the church's history. Jesus' followers abandoned it, along with anything else that might have branded them as belonging to a sect of Judaism, within a hundred years after his death. The hellenization of the second-century church, and the incipient anti-Semitism that accompanied that process, discarded much that is rich in the church's Jewish heritage.
Yet at various times the church has rediscovered the Sabbath. Not finding New Testament warrant for treating Sunday as a sabbath, the continental Reformers rejected sabbatarianism as a papal innovation. For Calvin, as for Luther, there was an obligation to worship and an obligation to rest, but one day was as good as another under the New Covenant. The English Puritans, however, argued that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, not just a Jewish ceremonial. And since the obligation of observing a particular holy day existed before Sinai, it also existed after the Cross. Unfortunately, in "rediscovering" the Sabbath, the Puritan divines failed to unfold its economic and social meaning as spelled out in the seventh and fiftieth years. For them it was almost pure command, and became as it were a third sacrament, a holy thing to be revered!
Subsequent sabbatarianism in England and America, most notably under the influence of the Lord's Day Alliance and among Seventh-day Adventists, has continued this Puritan tradition that focuses on the holiness of a day and the ways to avoid transgressing it. Attention to the day's economic and social significance has surfaced only in recent years among Adventists and then only among that denomination's theologians. For the Adventist rank and file, the focus of Sabbath observance is on not transgressing the day's holiness.
The Sabbath's social and economic meaning may be largely lost to our atomistic society (although political changes such as Third World land reform may be undergirded by studying the jubilee). When only isolated pockets of believers incorporate the Sabbath discipline into their spirituality, it is nearly impossible to experience the Sabbath as freedom from economic bondage. It is possible, although difficult, for an individual to observe the holiness of a day. The support of a family and a congregation do much to reinforce that observance. But without a wide acceptance of the Sabbath's relevance for our time, the social and economic significance remain sealed off from experience. Nevertheless, the vision of the Sabbath, the seventh year, and the jubilee can do much to catechize us on our relation to wealth: Thou shalt remember the Sabbath, in order to exit anxiety and to enter into grace and trust, in order to leave behind the closed, grasping hand and to open the hand to generosity.
1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Harper & Row, 1951, 1966), 68.
3. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 36.
5. Ibid., 39.
6. Ibid., 41.
7. M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism: A Chapter in the History of Idealism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 450.
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