June 3, 2018


Mark 2:23-3:6

Deuteronomy 5:12-15


Max was a backpacker from Belgium who was in Australia on a working holiday visa. According to the rule, to be able to extend his visa for one more year, he had to work for 88 days. The work had to be done in specific jobs in rural and regional areas. So Max worked in a farm in Queensland picking pumpkins.

One day, Max told the farmer that he could not go on picking anymore. But the farmer insisted that he picked the normal quota. The next day, the temperature reached 35 degrees and the field where he worked was very hot with no breeze. Max collapsed and, hours later, died in the hospital.

Friends, it’s an open secret in the rural and regional areas that backpackers are often poorly treated and exploited. Sexual harassment, substandard living condition, breaches of safety rules, and financial exploitation are not uncommon. Backpackers are often underpaid and crammed into a rundown house or room. Female backpackers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. They don’t have much choice because they need the work to meet the condition on their visa.[1]

I tell you this tragic story to remind us all that slavery is alive and well in today’s world, including here in Australia. Now, it may not be fair to equate what happens in these rural areas to the kind of slavery that people endured in ancient time. But any kind of exploitation is a form of slavery. And we all should work together to eradicate this kind of exploitation from existing.

The Sabbath was also given with slavery in mind. Sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb shabat, which means to rest or to cease. In the book of Exodus, people must rest on Sabbath because God rested on the seventh day of creation.[2] But the book of Deuteronomy gives a different reason. In Deuteronomy, Sabbath is to be observed because otherwise people will be in danger of being enslaved again.

Slaves do not rest or, at least, they do not have the right to rest. What happened to Max, the backpacker from Belgium, sadly proves this point. And slaves do not rest because they do not have a choice. Slaves are at the mercy of their masters who decide when and how they must conduct their work.

Kanye West, one of the biggest American rappers of all time, recently made a controversial comment. In a television interview, he said that 400 years of slavery in America was a choice. It was an irony because he himself is an African-American who, I suspect, must be a descendant of slaves in America.

The comment is widely condemned. And it is rightly so because his comment could not be further from the truth. Slavery is never about choice. No one, in his his/her right mind, ‘chooses’ to be a slave.

One of my favorite mini-series on television is Roots. It tells the story about generations of a particular family of slaves in America. It’s a painful movie to watch; you can feel the agony of this family, shackled in slavery. In the movie, you can see how slaves were not allowed to have dignity in their lives. Since they were born, their life and destiny were at the hands of their masters who treated them as they wished.

The people of Israel suffered greatly in Egypt where they lived for generations as slaves. Even after they were liberated and settled in a new land, the pain of slavery was still imprinted in their consciousness.

The Sabbath was born in this context. It was given to safeguard generations after generations from the blight of slavery. Sabbath is to be observed so that no one will ever be exploited as slaves any longer. And this protection includes animals as well.

But in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees seemed to have forgotten this fundamental origin of the Sabbath. Generations had passed and the pain of slavery in Egypt had become a distant collective memory. The Pharisees thus turned the Sabbath into a religious tradition that must be observed at all costs. As such, ironically, they turned Sabbath into another form of slavery. At the hands of the Pharisees, what once a tool to liberate people had become a tool to oppress people.

Indeed, if we are not careful, religion can become a tool that put people into the bondage of slavery. Religion turns into slavery when we live our religious life at the expense of our or other people’s wellbeing. Religion turns into slavery when our religious life creates or brings death in our or other people’s life. Religion turns into slavery when our attachment to a belief makes us see others as less than human beings.

In India, a 15-year-old teenage boy was brutally murdered by a mob of 20 men with knives on train. The teenager was Muslim, but the mob were Hindus. The mob bullied and then murdered the teenager because he ate beef. Cows are sacred animals for the Hindus in India and consuming beef is a contentious issue in some regions.

Sadly, this incident was not the first one. People have been killed for transporting cattle in India. Muslim men, particularly, have been killed by Hindu mob for storing beef. A 55-year-old farmer was once killed after he was accused to be a cow-smuggler.[3]

But it doesn’t have to be dramatic like these. Religion turns into slavery when performing a religious duty has become more important than caring for others.

Indeed, we must take Jesus’ words seriously: the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Sabbath, or any religious duty or belief, is given for our wellbeing. If performing a religious duty or honoring a religious belief has led us to a destructive act or behavior, we need to stop.

Jesus has come to bring life in all its fullness.[4] Following Jesus means receiving and sharing new life to all people as well as to all creatures. God sent God’s Son not to condemn the world into slavery, but to free people from all kinds of bondage. We are children not of slavery or fear, but of the Spirit that brings freedom and empowerment. Let us share this good news to everyone and everything in the world.

Toby Keva

[1] Anne Davies, Death in the sun: Australia's 88-day law leaves backpackers exploited and exposed, an article on www.theguardian.com (last modified on Monday, May 21, 2018 21:04 AEST)

[2] Exodus 20:8-11

[3] Soutik Biswas, Is India descending into mob rule?, an article on www.bbc.com (June 26, 2017)

[4] John 10:10