Bishop David: Feast of Joseph the worker “Imbues our work and rest cycle with meaning”

Normally when public holidays in South Africa follow each other in rapid succession we celebrate long weekends, just as we celebrated one last week with Freedom Day occurring on Thursday. These long weekends can certainly take time away from our productive lives. And that is the point of departure for this reflection. We have long become used to being productive units and feel quite restless and lost when we are not producing. Productiveness is important but then so too is rest. And this is why the feast of Joseph the Worker is so important. It imbues our work and rest cycle with meaning.

Our first reading for today’s feast comes from the first chapters of Genesis showing the creative work of God and seeing it God declared that it was good. It had a purpose. And then on the seventh day, God sanctified time, hallowed it and rested (Gn 2:3). We too, have been called to rest. Remember the comforting words of Jesus: “Come to me all who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest… I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29). The term ‘rest’ is repeated. It was important for Jesus. In Mk 6:31 he calls his disciples to a lonely place to rest for a while. It is important to note that in both texts the call to rest is not a mere invitation. Both are in the imperative form making it a necessary dimension of Christian life. Even Jesus sought to be alone and away from the workplace as it were (cf. Mt 14:23; Lk 5:15-16). In fact, there are numerous times in the gospels when Jesus sought solitude. Remembering the sabbath and keeping it holy is a divine commandment (Ex 20:8-11). It is God’s law.

What exactly is the Sabbath and why is it so important? The rest which Jesus took was respectful of ‘a deeper rhythm… when the moment for rest had come, the time for healing was over.’[1] Sabbath is a gift of time ‘in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace to fall away’. Sabbath is ‘sanctuary time’[2]. There are certain blessings which can only reach us when we are still. Therefore, we have to close the factory and shut down the computer. Sabbath is when we are intended to take delight but unfortunately, over time it became legalistic and in itself quite burdensome. Therefore, we have a sacred duty to rescue the sabbath to its original form and intent. As Jesus would have it: the sabbath is for the human being and not the other way around (cf. Mk 2:27).

Let’s look at our life situations. For so many of us life is tiresome. Many people do not work to live, they actually live to work. I recently saw on television that a woman had to leave home a 3:30 am in order to reach work as a cleaner by 8 am. She finished work at 5 pm and returned home well after 9 pm. She did this five days a week. How she must have longed for the sabbath. Maybe she, more than most who have so many escapisms knows better what the sabbath means. The sabbath is a subversive act which contradicts our constant efforts to acquire commodities. Pharaoh is the supreme example of stockpiling in the Bible. He had grain and used what he owned to enslave the Israelites. Sabbath means saying a resounding ‘NO’ to inordinate greed which can turn neighbours into slaves[3]. In the Bible, all are called to rest: sons, daughters, slaves, immigrants, and even the animals – all are equal when it comes to sabbath rest (Ex 20:8-11). Not all are equal when it comes to production and consumption.

In South Africa today there is a great gap between rich and poor. Sadly, one’s worth and one’s significance is measured by what one has. The sabbath subverts all these notions of inequality as God makes his sun to shine on all and his rain to fall on all (cf. Mt 5:45). In high school I studied a poem called ‘Death the Leveller’ by James Shelly. The poet shows how all become equal in death. Well, the sabbath tells us that we need not wait for death to bring equality, we can celebrate it now. With the call to sabbath rest we can be led to the green pastures and restful waters indicated in Ps 23.

Bp. Sylvester David OMI

Vicar General/Auxiliary Bishop of Cape Town Archdiocese

[1]     Muller, Wayne 1999. Sabbath – Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our busy lives. London, Bantam Books (p 25).

[2]     Ibid. p. 26.

[3]     Brueggemann, Walter 2014. Sabbath as Resistance – Saying No to the Culture of Now. Louisville, John Knox Press,



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