There’s this story at the beginning of the Bible. You probably know it.
There’s this man and this woman and this garden. There’s this tree and this fruit and this snake. And the snake convinces the man and the woman to eat the fruit of the tree. And their eyes are opened. And the world changes.
And when God finds out that they ate the fruit, God punishes them. And part of the punishment … is toil.
And the thing that we miss from that story—the thing that we skip over—is that toil is not part of the created order. Creation begins with a garden, and we were made for a garden. There was work, of course. We had to till the garden and keep it. But when we wanted to walk, we walked. And when we wanted to sleep, we slept. And when we wanted to eat… we plucked the fruit from any tree but that one… and we ate.
Then we messed up. We came to know good and evil. And there was toil.
And not just the toil that God gave us. We are good at finding toil. We are good at creating toil.
That is why, for example, every brilliant new technology that promises to connect us to each other… becomes email.
I have a bunch of email addresses. There’s my official church pastor email address. There’s my professional non-church email address. There’s my old personal email address that’s for family and friend and junk. There’s even an email address that is specifically for junk. I use it to sign up for stuff.
I check three of those email addresses regularly. And when I do, I see a few things that I want. I see a few things that I care about. And I see a lot of things that have an unsubscribe link. And I know that I should click that link. But I don’t. I just throw the messages in the trash and move on.
And Facebook is the same way… and so is Twitter… and Instagram… and LinkedIn… and the rest. I open them… and there are alerts… and I don’t care about most of them… but I have to go through the motions and clear the notifications, and…
Well… the thing is that those social media networks are designed to do that. They are built to ding. So that I will look. So that they can learn what I pay attention to. So they can sell me to advertisers. They’re designed to get into our heads.
And the upshot of that is that all of things that were supposed to connect us… all of these things that were supposed to be relaxing and fun… become work. They become toil.
We are good at finding toil. We are good at creating toil. We are good at making things that should not be toil… into toil.
There is a story later in the Bible. You probably know it.
God leads the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob out of slavery in Egypt. God leads them out of the house of bondage, through the wilderness, towards a land of milk and honey. And God makes a covenant with the people. And part of that covenant goes like this:
Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. For six days you shall work. But the seventh day is a sabbath. You will not work. Your children will not work. Your servants and slaves will not work. Your livestock will not work. No one who lives among you will work. (Exodus 20:8-9)
And for six years you shall sow your land and gather in your crops. But the seventh year you will let the land rest. And the poor of your people can eat from the land; and what they leave, the animals can eat. And you will do the same thing with vineyards and orchards. It is a sabbath for the earth. (Exodus 23:10-11)
And anyone who works on the sabbath will be cut off from the people. And anyone who profanes the sabbath will be put to death. (Exodus 31:14)
The sabbath is serious business. The God who gave the first people work also gave the people rest. On the seventh day and in the seventh year thou shalt not work. Rest is holy.
And because the sabbath is serious business… people started trying to figure out what counts as ‘work’… and making rules about what counts as work… and trying to figure out ways around the rules about what counts as work.
We started—maybe, just a little bit—making rest into something that we had to do exactly right. We started—maybe, just a little bit—making rest… into toil.
Today, we see Jesus on two sabbaths.
On the first sabbath, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the fields, plucking grain and eating it. And some Pharisees are there to see them, and they say, “It’s the sabbath; you’re not supposed to do that.”
On the second sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and sees a man with a withered hand. And some Pharisees are there to see them. And Jesus knows that if he heals the man right then and there, then those Pharisees will say, “It’s the sabbath; you’re not supposed to do that.” So Jesus says, “You can do good on the sabbath; you can save a life on the sabbath.
And it’s easy to cast the Pharisees as villains. It’s easy to cast the Pharisees as enforcing pointless rules. It’s easy to cast the Pharisees as the creators of work. But they’re just trying to keep this covenant among a dispossessed people in an occupied land; this covenant that God had made with their ancestors on the way from slavery in Egypt to a land of milk and honey.
And they’re just saying, “This day is holy; take the day off.”
And it’s easy to think that Jesus is doing something revolutionary here. But he’s not. He’s doing something obvious. He’s saying—maybe, just a little bit—“This is my day off; I’m keeping it holy by being myself. I’ll eat when I’m hungry. I’ll heal the world.”
So much of the world’s brokenness flows from our desire to make work. So much of the world’s brokenness flows from our desire to make toil.
We can make rest into toil. We have those social media alerts to check, those messages from friends to respond to, television to catch up on, that new diet to start, yoga to do, and that side hustle to keep going.
We can make helping into toil. Read the books, research the nonprofit, budget the money, track the impact, be effective and be efficient. Or, on the other side: fill out the forms, prove the need, show up for the appointment, get the voucher, attend the class, be good.
We can make loving into toil.
And here’s the thing. We were not made to toil. We were made for a garden. There’s nuance of course. We were made to do stuff. There has always been work to do, and we need to till the garden and keep it. But we were not made for toil. We were not made to eat by the sweat of our brow.
And here’s the other thing. Walking when you want to walk is good for you. Eating when you want to eat is good for you. And doing good… is good for you. Really. Being generous—cultivating habits of generosity—make people happier and healthier. It gives people a sense of purpose and encourages personal growth. It’s almost like we were made for generosity.
So maybe… maybe… in these moments… on these sabbaths… Jesus is showing us how to be human: walk when we want to walk, eat when we want to eat, heal and restore when we feel the call to heal and restore. Take a break from the toil; for we were not made for toil. And do the work; till and keep the garden that God has given to us.
And maybe… maybe… we, too, can start to be human. We can start with little sabbaths, when we set aside the toil of our lives and be who we are called to be. And those little sabbaths can grow, bit by bit, until we are who we are called to be. All the time. And we can live in the joy of being the people of God… and see the whole world turned into a garden.