“The Sabbatical Year” a Sermon from Deuteronomy 15.12-18

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What would it be like to have everything work out okay? Imagine making a mistake—or, not even a mistake—imagine things went really bad and you had no control and lost everything. In ancient times, that could lead to become a debt slave.

How could things work out?

Becoming a debt slave is just like the kind of slavery you might imagine, but instead of being born a slave, life went wrong, and you became a slave. Maybe you sold yourself into slavery. Or, maybe you invested in a bad business venture, and instead of just declaring bankruptcy, your debt collector showed up and said, “You work for me now.”

The daily grind of slave life might feel like it has no end. I’m going to be doing this forever! Then, after 6 years of work, the debt collector says, “You’re free.” It’s unbelievable. But, we’re all about unbelievable things. We follow an itinerant rabbi who went around healing and feeding people, loved them where they were, challenged them to change beyond what they could imagine, and rose from the dead. The distinguishing characteristic between our family of faith and really nice secular humanists is this unbelievable grace and transformative love.

This transformative love can take many different forms. So often, people associate churches with rules, and when we look at passages from the Hebrew Bible, a rules-based religion feels like what’s on the page. Our Old Testament lesson this morning is no exception. It comes from Deuteronomy 15.12-18 and addresses the third of three variations on the sabbath laws. The fourth Commandment is “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5.12; Exodus 20.8).

As is the case with almost anything of any value, it isn’t quite that simple. Remember that faith is about transformation. It isn’t a transaction where we do something—in this case, keep the sabbath holy—and God does something for us.

Sabbath-keeping finds its basis in God’s love for humanity. There is a rhythm of life, like in the Gaia (Guy-ya) hypothesis, which suggests that all life is intertwined and interdependent.[i] In the Bible, we see references to a holistic view of the world. E.g., Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it.”

Sabbath-keeping reflects our consciousness of the divine order of time. It means that “time is as much a gift of God as is the territorial domain of space.”[ii] That’s why Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath” (Mark 2.27). Yet any notion of sabbath-keeping violates the transactional world in which we live. Pausing to spend time in reflection, worship, rest, and meditation in anathema to the profit-driven, productive culture of twenty-first-century America.

Even when people get the notion of sabbath-keeping, we pervert it to our own purposes and find endless excuses to exclude God from our sabbath. This comes out as, “I just need some me time…” Maybe that’s the case, and we all need time to ourselves, but not at the expense of time to let God transform our lives.

Deuteronomy 15 is about radical transformation. This triptych on sabbath laws begins with tithing (14.22-29). It follows the agricultural year and the process of birth, maturity, and rebirth within the flocks and herds. The point isn’t to take some part of what the farmers have. It’s about recognizing the divine order of time.

The second variation on the sabbath law (15.1-11) addresses debt. For those following this sacred observance of time, the law means that debt shouldn’t last forever. That’s radical and unbelievable.

The third part, our reading, focuses on debt slavery. Again, the law says servitude shouldn’t last forever. And, again, that’s radical and subversive.

These three variations on the sabbath theme break the cycle of poverty. Whether it was illness, a drought, crop failure, bad decisions, poor cash management, or any other reason, this ancient law provides an exit ramp to suffering and servitude. After someone provides 6 years of labor, the one who received the free labor must set the slave free.

One commentator writes about this passage: “Two of our most common assumptions about the nature of human existence—that time is linear and not cyclical or repeatable, and that the causal nexus of events cannot be broken or interrupted—are shattered on the sabbatical principle of the Old Testament.”[iii]

We think of time as moving in one direction. Whether we are looking at the world as living, breathing organism, or recognizing the repeated cycles in life, God transcends time and can move in any direction. Freeing slaves recognizes this pattern of life. The second assumption this passage shatters is the idea that things will never change. Life is full of changes. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was right. Change is constant.[iv]

As God moves through these changes, the act of freeing slaves gives life. The law in Deuteronomy recognizes the benefit the landowner would have received from free labor,[v] so it makes sure to say, “Don’t send your slave out empty handed. Provide liberally out of your flock” (15.14). In other words, you should be grateful to have had a free servant and be happy to send that one out with resources to begin a new life.

This is a calling to be generous. “The literal expression in 15.14 is, ‘You shall make a rich necklace for him (or her—the law explicitly refers to females as well as males; cf. 15.12) out of your flocks, threshing floor, and your wine press.’”[vi] It’s saying that we should richly load her with products from all your personal resources. The released person should have the resources to establish a place in society.

When we look around and think about those who have less than we do, we remember the sabbatical year. Working for 6 years should be enough to break the cycle of poverty. That’s God’s justice. Not only is this lesson from Deuteronomy about giving something away; it’s about being generous in what we give. Just because there are poor people does not mean we have to accept things as they are.

In ancient times, this poverty led to debt slavery. Today, things aren’t so different. People can still be slaves to debt and poverty. And the Deuteronomistic authors called ancient Israelites, and, in turn, us, to be generous and exercise “liberality consonant with the blessing one has received.”[vii] When we talk about food insecurity and helping feed the hungry, we join this lesson from Deuteronomy and seek to live it out. This is one of those meaty, rich passages. When we take the time to study and understand what it’s talking about, it can impact how we live.

Everything is going to work out okay. God is at work in the world, inspiring and leading us and allowing us to be the hands and feet of Christ. If you have the opportunity, make someone’s day. Love your neighbor, feed the hungry, give to the poor, and be the light of the world. Amen.


[i] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992).

[ii] Ronald E. Clements, “Deuteronomy,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 407.

[iii] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, and Paul J. Achtemeier, Interpretation, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 138.

[iv] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London: Penguin, 2001).

[v] Matitiahu Tsevat, “The Hebrew Slave According to Deuteronomy 15:12-18: His Lot and the Value of his Work, with Special Attention to the Meaning of mshnh,” Journal of Biblical Literature 113, no. 4 (Wint 1994).

[vi] Miller, Deuteronomy, 137.

[vii] Miller, Deuteronomy, 138.

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