The Sabbath Economy

            It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it? The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, have been out of Egypt for less than two months. Already they’re complaining. Already they’ve forgotten the agony and hardships of life under Pharaoh. Instead of celebrating God’s deliverance, they’re dreaming of life back in Egypt—as if the supposedly plentiful bread they ate by the fleshpots somehow balanced the back-breaking labor they endured.

            But that’s not the surprising part, not really. If we’re honest, the Israelites’ response is familiar. Abuse and oppression have a profound psychological effect on victims, twisting their thoughts so that they have trouble seeing the difference between freedom and slavery. We’ve seen the Israelites’ story on the front pages of newspapers as the scandal of a certain Ravens football player parades his wife’s own distorted view of reality for all to see.

            No, the surprising part of this story is not that the Israelites’ years of torment has affected their collective psyche. The surprising part is that the Lord gives the Israelites exactly what they ask for. The people ask for bread, and God gives them bread. God never even chides the Israelites for their forgetfulness. The Israelites complain, and God gives them what they want. Why?

            You might say that God is demonstrating his mercy or that God is showing divine patience with his people. True enough, I’m sure, but I think something else, something more specific, something even, perhaps, more profound is happening in Exodus 16. God seizes the opportunity Israel’s complaining presents to establish for Israel a new and fundamental social reality: a new economy. Now, if you look up the word “economy” in a dictionary, you’re likely to find something along the lines of “the wealth and resources of a country or region” or “careful management of available resources.” But it’s probably more helpful—and more Biblical—to think of “economy” as the organization and regulation of the daily affairs of a community.

            For decades, Israel’s life had been organized and regulated by the Egyptian economy. Egypt’s economy was a labor economy, really a slave labor economy. Laborers, against their will, were expected to contribute their work to whatever projects Egypt’s Pharaoh deemed necessary or important. In exchange for this work, Egypt gave the laborers an amount of food that might have been enough to live on.  So you can see that, although there are some real differences, the ancient Egyptian economy and the modern global economy have a lot in common. The single most important characteristic of a labor economy can be captured in one word: more. Everyone is trying to get more, all the time. More work out of the laborers. More efficient work. More produced. More stored up for pleasure, for bragging rights, or for rainy days. Even the laborers find themselves desiring more: more rest, more food, more ways to escape.

            One of God’s first acts in the wilderness is to cut short the Egyptian labor economy of more. God does this through a miraculous gift: manna. Each morning, when the Israelites wake up, they discover under the dew a layer of manna, a food with amazing properties, a bread that could be baked or boiled. Nourishment for the long journey. And the manna of the morning was complimented in the evening by quail, meat to further sustain the Israelites. The manna, and the quail, are so much more than a divine version of some international relief operation for refugees. In giving the Israelites the manna, God institutes a new economy. Not a labor economy. A Sabbath economy.

            Sabbath is not just the day of rest found in the Ten Commandments. Sabbath is how God intended the world to function, right from the very beginning. The crowning moment of creation is not the making of human beings in God’s image—important as that is. But humanity’s creation on the sixth day awaits the fulfillment of creation on the seventh day, the day when Scripture tells God himself rests. “On the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2-3). This holy and blessed day, the seventh day, the Sabbath, is woven into the very fabric of creation.

            In giving the Israelites manna, God says to his people, “I expect you to live according to my Sabbath economy.” Consider six aspects of the Sabbath economy in Exodus 16:

·         One: There is manna for everyone.

·         Two: People collect manna based on their need. Need a lot? Take a lot. Need a little? Take a little.

·         Three: There is manna for each day. The Israelites only collect their daily bread.

·         Four: Collecting more manna than you need doesn’t do you any good. The stuff goes bad—real bad, like, worms bad—overnight.

·         Five: There is a major exception to number four. On the sixth day, the day before the Sabbath, you can collect extra, and it won’t go bad.

·         Six: There is no manna to collect on the Sabbath.

If “more” is what characterizes the Egyptian (and, really, every) labor economy, “enough” is the word that captures God’s Sabbath economy. There is enough manna for everyone, no matter how great or small the need. There is enough manna to take a Sabbath away from collecting it. There is enough—not too much, not more than is needed, just enough.

            And the Sabbath day itself—it’s not a day of solemn, intense reflection. It’s a day of joy, of celebration. On the Sabbath day, the Israelites are called to enjoy the “enough” God provides for them, to feast “enough” on the holy day, knowing that there will be enough the next day, too,.

            The manna God provides the Israelites is a short-term solution, intended only for their days in the wilderness. The Sabbath economy God intends to last. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy God establishes law after law that reinforces the Sabbath economy: the year of jubilee, the prohibition of certain kinds of work on the Sabbath, the care for widows and orphans, and the insistence on leaving behind a portion of fields for gleaning by the poor. The economy of the people of God is always to be a Sabbath economy. The Sabbath economy continues in the New Testament; look at the sharing in the early church in Acts 2. We even catch a glimpse of the Sabbath economy in Jesus’ parable from this morning’s gospel lesson: each laborer, even the one who works only one hour, receives enough from the master.

            If “more” is characteristic of every labor economy, “more” has become the cardinal virtue in our own present economy. We are bombarded with more ways to pursue more: More doing. More saving. More buying. More eating and drinking. Buying in bulk so we get more for our dollar. Doing more for ourselves. Putting away more for retirement. Giving more money to the government. Keeping more money for our own pocketbooks. More, more, more, more, more. We have more “more” than just about anybody could want. Yet when it comes time to give alms to the poor, to take care of the needy in our community and our world, to pay our tithe to our Lord, inevitably we hear, “There is not enough for that.” Ironically, the economy of “more” is also the economy of “never enough.”

            Friends, we are about to celebrate Holy Communion. Holy Communion is our weekly reminder of God’s Sabbath economy. Everyone who comes to this table receives what she or he needs—nothing less, nothing more. Once we see that there is enough from God here, we are free to discover that God expects us to keep his Sabbath economy—and that God has given our church enough to meet our community’s needs. Are we really going to keep living as if there was something more?

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