Eric Liddell is famous as the Olympic gold medalist who refused to run on the Sabbath, due to his Christian convictions. He is heroic in the sense that he stood up for his beliefs, when there was a great deal of pressure on him to do otherwise. That kind of stubbornness is always to be applauded.
But did you know that later on, he acted in a different way? Twenty years after winning the Olympic Gold Medal, Liddell found himself in an internment camp for enemy aliens in China.
|Except from Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way|
And when Liddell had the choice of holding running meets for the children under his charge in that camp on a Sunday or not at all, he chose to award prizes for running on a Sunday.
What brought about that change? And what exactly is the Biblical basis for prohibiting running on a Sunday?
Old Testament Provisions Concerning the Sabbath
Here below is the text from the ten commandments, concerning the Sabbath:.
זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ. שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לַיהוה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יהוה אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ יהוה אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ
Remember the Day Off to keep it holy. Six days shall you work and do all your tasks. And on the seventh day, it is a Day Off to Jehovah your god. Do not do any work, you, and your son and your daughter, your slave and slave girl, and your animal and your alien resident who lives in your city gate. Because six days Jehovah made the sky and the earth and the sea and all that is in them and he rested on the seventh day. That's why he made the Day Off and blessed it.
The translation above is my own. I translated the word "Sabbath" as "Day Off", because that is essentially what it is, and once we take the veneer of sophistication that comes with the borrowing from Hebrew into English, then we can see exactly what is really going on here. This is a provision for a weekend, back in ancient times. It is there to make sure that people who are forced to work for other people have a day off.
The Sabbath is not for the benefit of the free man (or woman) who is commanded to keep it. It is for the son and daughter, who have to obey their parents and do everything they say. It is for the slave man and the slave woman, who otherwise might not have any time off at all. It is for the guest workers who live in the city, but get no vote, because they are aliens. It is for all the working animals, the beasts of burden, the oxen who have to help plow the field, to make sure that they, too, get a day off. The one commanded to keep the Sabbath is the owner and employer of all those who are to be let off work. They are not commanded to keep the Sabbath. He is!
Yes, this is couched in religious terms, but there is a very simple reason for the Sabbath. It's to give people -- even animals -- who have no control over their own time a break from working for somebody else. It is to make sure that forced labor does not go on forever without a day of rest. This does not mean that those granted the day of rest have to sit perfectly still while on that break. For some, it would be torture to do so.
When is the Sabbath?
Under the Hebrew calendar, the Sabbath is the seventh day, and the first day of the week is Sunday. So the Sabbath is Saturday, and that's what Saturday is called in Hebrew -- שבת. Seventh Day Adventists follow the Hebrew calendar, and they have Saturday as their Sabbath, too. But most Christians celebrate Sunday as the Sabbath, because they start counting the days of the week on Monday.
For all intents and purposes, it does not matter which day you use, as long as one in seven is your Day Off.
What is Work?
The Sabbath is a time to cease from work. But what exactly is work? Is breathing work? Is walking work? Is changing a baby's diaper work? Is preparing a meal for you and your family to eat work?
We all think we know what work is. It's a very simple concept, after all. But the definition of work changes depending on whether we are talking in terms of physics, employment law, taxation regulations or some other specialized field. Is anything we do when we are not at rest work? Or does it have to be paid for by others? What if you are a landlord? If your income is not considered "earned income" as defined by the tax code, does that mean you are not working to earn it? Or what if you are an amateur runner in the Olympics and have no professional standing? If you don't get paid, is that not work? Does it have to be something you dislike in order to be real work? If you are doing it just for fun, is it not work then? What if instead of being paid to do it, you have to pay somebody else for the privilege? When people take a music lesson, is that work? If they practice the piano, is it work? If they sing in the Church choir, is it work? What if you are the pastor and get paid to preach on Sunday? Is that work?
I wrote about this subject in great depth here:
The bottom line is that for purposes of working on the Sabbath, "work" means being employed by somebody else with strict orders about what you must do and when you must do it.
Whom Does This Commandment Protect?
A mother's work is never done. No matter how religiously observant, no mother has ever said: "I won't feed my baby today, because it's my Day Off." No owner of a small farm ever said: "I won't milk the cow or feed the animals. because it's my Day Off." No one who is in business for himself has ever said: "I won't deal with this urgent order, because it is my Day Off." It would be as self-destructive as deciding not to breathe because it's the Sabbath.
The prohibition is only against the employer, owner, or master forcing a dependent to work non-stop, seven days a week. The reason behind the Sabbath prohibition was to spare the forced worker. It was not to keep the self-employed person from feeding himself or the joyous amateur from being happy on his day off.
But over time, tradition obscures the reasons for almost every religious or government-decreed commandment. So by the time they were in the diaspora, many observant Jews interpreted the Sabbath prohibition to be something that applied to them, but not to foreigners. They felt they could not prepare a meal for themselves on the Sabbath, but they could employ a "Shabbes goy" (a gentile of the Sabbath) to do work for them, on the holy Day Off. This went exactly contrary to the words of the commandment about the alien in your gate. Except that by now, they were the aliens in somebody else's gate. But these people were still the employer and the outsider was still their employee.
The United States government has also issued many rules to keep people from working every day of the week. These rules are supposed to spare helpless, dependent servants and employees from being exploited seven days a week, but do not apply to owners of businesses. If you have ever owned a business, you know that like a mother's work, it's never done. You work every day, all day long, till the task is accomplished. Yet when employers petition for an employer identification number, so they can withhold wages and give them to the IRS, the government's website keeps them from filing an application after work hours. This is not to spare the would-be employer, of course. It's to keep the clerks who work nine-to-five hours at the employer's expense from having too much work to do after the long weekend.
What Does the New Testament Say About the Sabbath?
The original prohibition against working on the Sabbath was written at a time when every task in any household was performed by a person or an animal, not a machine. Your drawer-of-water was a person, not an electric pump. Your tiller, operated by a man, was powered by an ox or a horse. Boiling water meant cutting wood and starting a fire. You could not just turn a switch. Driving a car - or chariot -- involved using horses, not just horsepower.
But when those tasks became automated, and therefore did not involve anybody sentient working at all, the ritualized observers of the letter but not the spirit of the law continued to believe that driving a car is work, and that's why religious zealots in Jerusalem today will stone you for driving a car on Saturday. Apparently throwing stones on Saturday is not considered work.
Even by the time of Jesus of Nazareth, there were a lot of people who had turned the law into a ritual that went contrary to the original meaning. What did Jesus have to say about this?
"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
So is it okay that Eric Liddell changed his mind about running on the Sabbath when he was interned at Weihsien? I think it's more than okay. It's a step in the right direction.
|The Monument to Erc Liddell at Weihsien (Weifang)|
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