Sabbath Years

September 1, 2019
West Side Moravian Church

Scripture: Deuteronomy 15: 1-2, 7-11

Pet play sabbath

This past spring I got a new puppy. I had set some very specific criteria for the next dog: She should be not less than 8 months old and be able to speak fluent Cat. Instead I went home with a 3 month old puppy. Alek not only didn't speak fluent Cat, he was too young even to speak Dog.

Wheatley Cat thought that playing with the puppy would be fun. After all, they were about the same size — at the time. Wheatley, I said, are you sure you want to do this? You are likely to regret it when Alek gets bigger. But Wheatley persisted and now the dog is almost 4 times the size of the cat.

A conundrum: Wheatley still wants to play but Alek now can overwhelm him. What are we to do? My rule is this: Every few minutes you must take a break. Sometimes the cat will walk away when breaktime comes; sometimes the dog will be distracted by other adventures; sometimes they will return to play. But every few minutes they must take a break.

Swimming sabbath

I grew up one house away from being kitty-corner to the city swimming pool and today I live just up the street from the pool's parking lot. I no longer have a passion for jumping into communal waters or proving that I can swim from one end of the pool to the other underwater. But I am still aware of swimming pool practices.

One concern is that people will play in the pool all afternoon. That might keep you cool through a hot summer day but it might also cause you to become overtired and dehydrated. In response, the rule is that everyone must get out of the pool. Every few hours, you have to take a break.

Weekly sabbath

In Ancient Israel they had a commandment from God: You must not work yourself day and night without a break, not you nor your family nor your employees nor your animals. Hard work can lead to success unless you work yourself to death first, or unless your incessant demands kill off the respect and love without which any semblence of success becomes an empty shell.

The rule Israel was given was to take a break from all your work every few days: every 7 days specifically. God said, You have six days to labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God. [Exodus 20:8-9 NEB.] You can work as hard and as long as you have the passion for it, but every few days you must take a break.

Sabbath gifts

We ought to stop a moment and consider the purposes of each of these rules. My dog and cat are required to break off playing so as to lessen the chance of either being scratched or bitten. The swimmers are required to get out of the pool so as to increase the chance of leaving at the end of the day refreshed rather than ill. Israel was required to observe the sabbath for the health of individuals, families, and the community.

The Sabbath was made for the sake of [humans] and not [humans] for the Sabbath, as Jesus reminded us. [Mark 2:27 NEB.] These rules are gifts to us: They are gifts to make our lives better even though they may seem like burdens just at the moment when we need them the most. The 10-year-old swimmer may resent interrupting his games for a mandatory break but we adults can see the rule as the gift that it is.

Sabbath years

Adults can see beyond minutes and hours to find a more lasting value. Most of us will concede the value of weekends although there is less agreement on how best to honor this sabbath gift. In our culture we are not taught to look out 7 years or 7 generations. Our perspective often fails us when we try to take the longer view.

Try to imagine the Hebrew farmer told not to plow or plant or prune in every 7th year. [Leviticus 25:1-7; Exodus 23:10-11.] If you are not a farmer, think of some parallel: Sell new boats for 6 years, but none in the 7th. Build new houses for 6 years, but start no construction in the year following. Create phone apps every year for 6 years, but then take a year off.

Most of us can see beyond the inconvenience of taking a break during playtime or on weekends, but finding the value of a sabbath year can be more challenging.

Remission of debts

Deuteronomy 15 does not address either farming or phone apps. Instead, Deuteronomy describes the sabbath year in language that strikes close to home for Hebrew householders and contemporary careerists: the language of mortgages and pawn brokers and student debt.

Deuteronomy says that in every 7th year there will be a remission of debts. [Deuteronomy 15:1 NEB.] Anyone who holds a mortgage or personal property or a personal note is to give it back to the borrower and not press a fellow countryman for repayment. [Deuteronomy 15:2 NEB.]

That shakes up the whole concept of loaning out money. What is God trying to do with this instruction? God's fundamental message is buried in the middle of the verses that we read. Give freely ... God tells us, and do not begrudge … your bounty, because it is for this very bounty that the Lord your God will bless you. [Deuteronomy 15:10 NEB.]

If you are prosperous, this is the reason for your prosperity: so that you can share with those around you. In God's eyes, wealth brings the privilege of helping. That is the point and purpose of having resources. It follows that helping those around us is also the point of making a loan.

God says to make the loan even if it is the sixth year, the year before all debts are cancelled. That is, make the loan even if repayment is implausible. God commands you, do not harbour iniquitous thoughts when you find the seventh year, the year of remission, is near, and look askance at your needy countryman and give him nothing. [Deuteronomy 15:9 NEB.] If the point of making a loan were to make more money, then of course you would look askance — but that, God says, would be a sin.

Old laws and new love

But didn't Paul say that Christ ends the law? [Romans 10:4 NEB.] Yes, but Paul had already asked, Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? And answered, By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing. [Romans 3:31 NEB.] Jesus himself warned us, Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law … but to complete it. [Matthew 5:17 NEB.]

As for this particular injunction, Jesus not only did not abrogate the sabbath year's remission of debt; he expanded it. Jesus said, Even sinners lend to each other to be repaid in full. But you must love your enemies and do good; and lend without expecting any return. [Luke 6:34 NEB.]

So that's it: No 30 year mortgage loans, no lifetime student debt, no self-multiplying credit card account. Not for the Hebrew people. Not for the Bible-believing Christians.

But how can this be?

If you've been listening, you must also be muttering to yourself. That can't be right, you might be saying; how can we possibly live in the world as it is?

When Jesus first sent the apostles out to the cities and villages of Judea he told them, Look, I send you out like sheep among wolves; be [as] wary as serpents, [as] innocent as doves. [Matthew 10:16 NEB.] So let's be canny.

Borrowing and lending

God didn't say that you can't borrow if you need to. The Bible presumes that people will need to take loans sometimes and never says you shouldn't. The advice to Neither a borrower nor a lender be comes from Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet; it may be good advice for Laertes but it doesn't define any sinfulness.

If you have a 7 or 14 or 21 year old student loan and the bank won't forgive it, any sin is on the bank, not on the borrower. If you have a mortgage loan that you will be paying years into retirement, any sin is on the finance company, not on you.

God didn't say that you can't lend. On the contrary! God says, When one of your fellow-countrymen … becomes poor, do not be hard-hearted or close-fisted with your countryman in his need. Be open-handed … and lend on pledge as much as he needs. [Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NEB.]

So God allows borrowing and God encourages lending. But God says we should not make it our business to become wealthy on the back of other people's trouble.

How many of you have taken out a payday loan because you had an overwhelming surfeit of cash and were looking for a black hole into which to dump it all? People are much more likely to take out loans because they are in financial difficulty. In God's view, our neighbor's difficulty is most of all an opportunity for us to be helpful.

Perhaps someone in your neighbor's family got seriously ill. Perhaps your neighbor's employer went suddenly bankrupt and that last paycheck bounced. Perhaps your neighbor made some stupid investment decisions and lost her family's entire savings. Your neighbor wouldn't be the first in any of these situations. What does God suggest? Be open-handed … and lend on pledge as much as [your neighbor] needs. [Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NEB.]


We would get a lot of pushback if we tried to force Deuteronomy's sabbath year on modern society. But then, making mandates for others to follow isn't what the sabbath year calls us to do. The sabbath laws are always about us and about the community we build together. What God requires of us is to love, to be open handed, to do good.

The core of what God demands of us in the sabbath year is not so different from what I require of Alek Puppy. Alek Dog, I said to him, it is great that you are friends with Wheatley Cat and I'm happy that you can play together. But you may not become a predator.

NEB: Scripture taken from the New English Bible, copyright 1970, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.