False sense of freedom

It happened again last night. There were no Celtics or Bruins games and the Red Sox had an afternoon game. So in the evening, I could find nothing interesting to watch on TV. I have hundreds of channels on cable but nothing to watch.

Obviously cable has not given me entertainment freedom. If none of the hundreds of channels is interesting, the freedom to choose among them is a false sense of freedom. If I had the energy, I could serve myself better by reading a book, or better yet write something or shoot the next viral video. But I did not have the energy, so I just vegetated on the couch staring at a meaningless screen as a faithful member of the Society of Overweight Americans.

What I just experienced yesterday evening probably is representative of a large segment of our lives: choices pretending to be freedom. In a world driven by monolithic giants, consumers are not really free, they just have the illusion of freedom.

True freedom is not measure by the number of choices presented, but by the diversity of capability generated those choices. Choosing between McDonald’s and Burger King does not generate a high degree of freedom. Choosing between a larger variety of food (e.g. Italian vs. Chinese) entails more freedom. Having the ability to purchase healthy food and cook dishes according to one’s particular taste provide significantly more freedom. Freedom is not measured by number of choices or quantity of products but by their diversities and capabilities. Freedom is not enhance by consumption, but by creativity.

Consider China. With the economics boom, the average Chinese have much higher purchasing power than she had a few years ago. However many of them have to flock to Hong Kong and even overseas to buy baby formula. They breathe polluted air, drink polluted water, eat untrustworthy food. Money does not buy freedom – trustworthiness and truthfulness do.

Here in America, we value democracy. However we are continually being taught a “democracy of consumers” instead of “democracy of citizens”. We superstitiously believe that democracy equal voting. So we believe we are free because we can go to the voting booth and select between a politician with an “D” and a politician with an “R”. When both parties are equally untrustworthy, are our choices truly free?

True freedom is not choosing between “D” and “R” the way we choose between McDonald’s and Burger King. True freedom is to be a citizen instead of a consumer. True freedom is to running for office yourself if your have the ambition or to love your neighbor when your ambition is not as grand.

Let us not be deceived by the false sense of freedom promised us by consumerism. Instead, let us truly exercise our freedom by being active agents of God in this land.

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31-32

What do you owe?

Just got a letter from the IRS that I owe them about $40 – I have paid off my taxes alright, but that is the interest and penalty from 2 years ago. Uncle Sam always gets you up to the last penny you owe him.

Leviticus 26:33 I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.

In the Old Testament history of Israel, we learn that Israel have been unfaithful to the Lord and therefore the Lord punished them through exile into Babylon. We have learned that they were punished because of idolatry. Leviticus 26 put the exile in a different light. The exile is also a punishment for violating Sabbath.

When we reflect upon this statement, violation of Sabbath is indeed both a form of idolatry and a result of idolatry. Worshiping idols in pagan temples demonstrates a lack of Faith in one’s religious life, violating Sabbath demonstrates a lack of Faith in one’s social-economic life. If you decide to work on Sabbath instead of honoring the Lord, you are showing the world that you have more faith in your bank account than in the Lord’s provisions.

Leviticus 26 also tells us that when we violate Sabbath, we owe a debt to “the land”. I have explained in previous blogs that “the land” is not a inanimate piece of real estate. Instead “the land” is an organic entity God created to sustain both the rich and the poor, both domesticated animals and wild beasts – what we would call an ecosystem. When we violate Sabbath, the environmental condition worsens; the land cannot adequately provide for the poor, and social-economic conditions worsens.

The land belongs to the Lord, and the Lord will be its advocate. Back to the example of Old Testament Israel: let’s say the nation began with King David, who rose to the throne circa 1010 B.C – give or take a few years as David did not rose to power overnight. The nation was destroy by the Babylonian around  590 B.C. also give or take a few years because the were a few rounds of destruction. (Jerusalem was captured 586 B.C.) So the nation lasted roughly 420 years. For every six years of working the land there should have been one year of Sabbath. 420 divided by 6 is 70. How long was the Babylonian captivity? 70 years. (Jeremiah 25:11) Bad news – God is a good accountant.

How much debt have we accumulated as a society against the environment? How much debt have we accumulated against the poor? How much do you owe personally?

I have bad news for you and for all of us – God is a good accountant.

Essential vs. non-essential

Isaiah 5:8 Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

Within the Sabbath regulation is an elaborate control over land ownership (Read Leviticus 25 if you need a refresher). That include provision for land to be redeemed to its original owner during the Year of Jubilee.

Had that provision been followed, the situation as described in Isaiah 5:8 would never have happened. Wealthy land owners would not be able to purchase large expanse of land and build huge mansions (add house to house) and large farms (join field to field cf. Lev. 19:9).

What is the consequence of violating Sabbath provisions? Economic collapse. As we see in the next verse:

Isaiah5:9 The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:

“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.
10 A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath[a] of wine;
a homer[b] of seed will yield only an ephah[c] of grain.”

Those who are familiar with Old Testament history will realize that such collapse indeed occurred within the Northern Kingdom of Israel and led directly to its downfall.

Back to our modern time. We are not unfamiliar with economic collapses within our own generation. Our tendency to use land ownership as a mean of profit making has been and will be our downfall. Land belongs to the Lord. He grants us stewardship of the Land so that He can provide for everyone, rich or poor.

Be care not to use life’s essential resources as investment vehicle, or you may find yourself standing between the Lord and those He cares.

Leave some for others

Lev 19:9 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

Let me share the testimony of a elder in my church. In the past, he would mow his lawn on Sunday afternoons. He never thought of it as “work”. As he aged, it has become more and more taxing on his body for this weekly routine. What used to be a simple routine had slowly become a tiring job.

After hearing about the importance of keeping Sabbath, he decided to hire a neighbor to mow his lawn. Now, in this new arrangement, his neighbor appreciates the extra income. The elder has a more restful Sabbath and spends more time with his wife. His wife does not have to worry about him having a heart attack mowing the lawn. Friendship develop between the elder and his landscaping neighbor, and a door for the gospel is opened. Everybody win.

Modern management teaches maximizing profits. Sabbath teaches us to take a step back and remember that maximizing may not be optimizing. In our business life and our private life, leave some for others. Let other people help you even if you don’t necessarily need the help. Be careful that being “lean” does not become being “mean”.

Excess capacity

Lev 25:3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

One of the first questions people ask when I talk about Sabbath is “what should we do on Sabbath?” For those of us who are so used to being busy all the time, finding something to do is a genuine challenge. Surely we cannot sleep through the entire day. After we minus the 8 hours of sleep and 3 hours of church, we still have 13 hours of not knowing what to do.

If we have a problem staying still for one day, imagine how we can survive for a Sabbath year. Even when we think we are secured in finance and career, we just cannot image having nothing to do for a year.

When we read Leviticus 25, we can see that even without sowing and pruning, the land will produce something. Living systems are constantly productive. Somebody who is truly alive will always be creative. We are so used to being crowded by “sowing and pruning” that we have forgotten to be naturally creative. It is when we intentionally cease “artificial production” that we can discover our natural productivity.

What do you want to do on Sabbath? Do things that naturally come to you. Painting, poetry, make music, hanging out with friends. You will be amazed how productive you are when you are not trying.

Living on top of a living land.

Leviticus 25:1-7:  The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai,“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops.But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

The sabbatical system is much more than one Sabbath every seven days, it also consists of one sabbath year every seven years, and the Year of Jubilee. By reading the above passage, we can see the complexity of the Sabbath commandment, and God’s intention behind Sabbath.

  1. Sabbath is “to the Lord”. It is a reminder that the land and its productivity are gifts from God. By dedicating one year out of every seven years or one day out of every seven days to the Lord, we are saying that the entire productivity of the land comes from the Lord.
  2. “The land is to have a year of sabbath rest.” – it is not only human beings who need rest. The fact that the land need rest means that, like humans, the land is a living system.
  3. “Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year…” – even if we don’t sow or prune, the land is still productive. This is another trait of living systems, living systems are naturally productive. In fact, living systems that have regular rest are more productive than living systems that are over-worked.
  4.  “for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land.” – the land as a living system does not exclusively serve the land owner, instead it sustains both the rich and the poor, both domesticated and wild animals. The land is healthy when the ecosystem living upon it is healthy.

Those who honor God honor God’s creation. To honor God’s creation means that we live in a mutually beneficial relationship with our land and our environment. The land is not a lifeless piece of resource we can exploit.

Magic 7

While we have been following a 7 day week calendar for what seems to be forever, scholars have been trying to find out how did Moses come out with the idea of a 7 day cycle of Sabbath in the first place. For “scholars”, divine revelation is not an acceptable answer, so a hunt for an alternative is necessary. The first theory is that Moses copied it from other ancient cultures, most likely the Egyptians. The scholars tried hard, but could find no records in any other ancient culture of anything similar to either a socially accepted work-rest cycle or the number 7 being somehow special.

The other theory is that 7 has some mathematical or astronomical significant. This theory failed also. The number 10 make sense, because human and monkeys have 10 digits. The number 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, 24, and even 60 have been used as units of measurement of time, mostly because they can be easily constructed with simple geometry (i.e. you can divide a line or an angle using straight lines and a pair of compasses into halves and thirds, thus making the measurement of movement of sun, moon and stars easy). But the number 7 is particularly difficult to construct geometrically. The best theory is that 7 is almost one quarter of the lunar cycle (one lunar cycle = 29.53 days). But 10 days (= one third of lunar cycle) would be a much more convenient and accurate unit for that.

So we are stuck with the theory that either Moses really suck at astronomy or the number 7 comes from divine revelation.

Regardless, the number 7 is the signature of Sabbath. As in the coming weeks we go through scriptures to look for the number 7, we will discover that Sabbath is much more than a weekly religious ceremony but an elaborate system for a sustainable economy.