The Lord’s Day/Sunday as Sabbath (Part 5): Sabbath and Mercy

This is a series of blog posts by pastor Andrew Vander Maas from Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship in St. Louis.  These posts were first written a few years ago on a blog that no longer exists, and we are resurrecting them at Worship Is Central.

To see the whole series, click on the Lord’s Day category link on the sidebar on this page, which is found here.  For more resources on the Lord’s Day (Sunday), see the Lord’s Day page at Worship Is Central.

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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?  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, …

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure,  or talking idly;   14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8  This Sabbath is then kept holy … taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Growing up in a very Sabbatarian tradition, I always understood the don’ts of the Sabbath day, along with some of the more obvious do’s of worship and rest.   But the connection between the Sabbath and mercy was one that was not as apparent to me.

It should be.  It is fairly clear in scripture, particularly in the passage quoted above, Isaiah 58.  Growing up I often heard quoted the last two verses of that chapter as a apologetic for a strict Sabbatarian approach to the day.  However, I do not remember one time when the Sabbath was connected to justice and works of mercy, which is the point of the chapter, particularly as it stands against religious formalism.

Jesus’ own ministry was marked by repeatedly healing on the Sabbath (cf.  Matt 12; Mark 1, 3; Luke 6, 13, 14; John 5, 7), and his constant defending of the act by saying that the day is designed to be good for man and for man to be good to man (cf. also Mark 2).

The early Christian agape feast was another example of the connection between the lord’s Day and mercy.   In this feast they would take food that was prepared as offerings for the church (it was a much more agricultural society) and they would actually have a meal in which there was a common table that was to be shared by rich and poor alike.  This captured not only the benevolent aspect of the Lord’s Day but also the corporate aspect that we earlier referred to in The Lord’s Day/Sunday as Sabbath (Part IV).

While I may have missed all this growing up, it is not missed in the Reformed tradition historically.  Above is quoted the Westminster Confession of Faith that picks up on the language and necessity of doing “works of mercy”, language that is also picked up in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  In the Heidelberg Catechism it is even more specific that “especially on the Sabbath” we are to “contribute to the relief of the poor” (Q & A 103).

Two questions jump out as the connection between Sabbath and mercy are made.   The first is why?  Why is this such a connection Biblically.  The easiest way to understand it is probably by referring to it as a Gospel connection.  What better thing to do on the day that is set aside to remember our release from the tyranny of sin than to show mercy to another human being made in the image of God!  In some ways it is a natural response to remembering God’s mercy to us in Christ.  Functionally, it also fights against the individualism of our culture when it comes to the Sabbath.  When Jesus says in Mark 2 that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath, we can easily give that a Western spin and say the Sabbath was made for me exclusively.  But as we have seen, that is not how Jesus understood the day, and it is clearly not the connection made in Isaiah 48.

The second question is how?  How do we acknowledge this aspect of the Sabbath, particularly in light of all the other aspects of the Sabbath that we have mentioned?  I will be honest with you, I am not entirely sure, nor am I convinced that one size fits all.  But surely we can find ways to incorporate those who are hungry into our meals, we can spend some time (even as children) visiting those who are sick or homebound.  It might be good for those stuck in the office all week to spend an hour or two raking leaves for a widow in your neighborhood. Those ideas are just the tip of the iceberg of course.  I will trust your Spirit-led creativity to figure out ways to apply this principle to your own lives.

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