Enforced Sabbath?

On a tumultuous day preceding Pilate’s careless, populist, hand-washing referendum that was to dispassionately determine the fate of Jesus, a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the ground for him as he entered Jerusalem, in a kind of instant royal celebration.

The crowd believed Jesus had come in fulfilment of his nation’s hopes - answering (for some at least) the longing for a king who would bring peace to earth from heaven itself.

Then Jesus entered the temple and the mood changed dramatically. In (another) deliberate and provocatively dramatised act, this time angry and disruptive, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and dove sellers. (Matthew 21:12)


The ancient people of Israel understood that they had been entrusted with the care of a particular portion of land, in what we now call the Middle East. They believed it to be their responsibility to live as a society that would honour God and model a community that would seek justice and be a blessing to the nations that surrounded it.

One aspect of their just society was to observe the Sabbath, not only as a weekly day of rest from work, but every seventh year to give the land they tilled a rest from over exploitation - a sabbath for the land. They were to treat the land as a precious gift over which they had been entrusted stewardship. If they abused the gift there would be consequences.

The Temple - Herod’s self-aggrandising vanity project, had come to embody all that was wrong with the nation of Israel, Jesus’ nation, at that moment in its history. Israel self-identified as the nation chosen to represent God to the world. Yet its leaders had bowed the knee to popular nationalism, exceptionalism, wealth, power, privilege and violence - subverting a vocation to reveal God’s creativity and beauty within the world. A vocation intended to bring blessing to the people of neighbouring nations.

Jesus’s outraged protest brought the Temple system to a temporary but grinding halt. A fleeting moment of enforced sabbath. Business as usual momentarily stopped.

An act of judgement. Perhaps a perilous last opportunity for repentance for some.

But nothing would halt the business of Temple and its vested self-interest.

Jesus had wept over Jerusalem, the city he loved. He foresaw the disaster that was to befall it. The idol of nationalistic aspiration and its embrace of violence, heedless of social injustice, would lead to an inevitable and devastating conflict with Rome. The Temple was to be destroyed, the city ruined, society unravelled. Business as usual heedlessly recommenced, pursuing a broad, careless way of indifference, would lead to disaster.

So what, if anything, does this have to concern us? That was then. This is now.

We of course live in incomparably different times, way beyond the purview of the gospel writers. Yet we too are standing at a moment when business as usual has been temporarily suspended. COVID-19, a globalised twenty-first century pandemic has enforced a grinding halt.

Are we, in continuity with the first-century residents of Jerusalem, at one of those defining moments of choice and decision?

Certainly we are experiencing a grim moment of sadness and loss and dislocation. A time of lament. But also a time of cleaner air, cleaner water ways, an unprecedented and unimagined fall in air travel. A pause in the processes of climate change. A moment, perhaps surprisingly, of community cohesion.

Our own enforced sabbath?

Fanciful allegorisation or a distant, faint echo of Leviticus 26:34-35, when the ecosystems of Israel were renewed, albeit through a time of societal trauma?

But will the world, will we, return to business as usual in a few months time - heedless of the harm our economic systems are causing to our planet, with unsustainable pressures on its habitats and ecosystems?

Or might we imagine a narrow, and counter-cultural way of challenge, change and subversion that mitigates our instincts to return to an ultimately unsustainable status quo?

Jesus, in his death, drew upon himself the violence and destruction that was to break upon his society. Christian faith is predicated on the belief that through the resurrection, violence and destruction do not have the last word - and that there is a narrow, counter-intuitive, but selfless way to a future that offers hope to people and the planet. A way that saves us from the wrath of potential environmental calamity, of which Covid-19 is perhaps an admonitory precursor.

What might that way look like for the church and our society and can we find the resourcefulness and prophetic courage to pursue it?

…when our limitless, hyper-competitive society’s CO2 levels reach our outermost atmosphere and literally hits the ceiling, when the law that everything must get bigger, faster, greater is set against our common survival, a new world stands at the door, and that world has never been as close as it now.[1]

Or as far away.



[1] Our House Is On Fire by the Thurnberg family (2020)

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