An intriguing phrase caught my attention while looking over the Mass readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B). The first reading comes from the end of 2 Chronicles, as it recaps the story of the Babylonian captivity and subsequent restoration of Jerusalem. It clearly teaches that God allowed the Israelites to be taken into captivity because of their infidelity. He had sent the prophets to warn the people to stop sinning, but when they wouldn’t listen, he allowed them to be taken prisoner and Jerusalem to be destroyed by the Babylonians. Then comes the intriguing sentence:
“All this was to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah: Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled” (2 Chron 36:21).
The reading concludes with the restoration of Jerusalem as King Cyrus of Persia ends the Babylonian captivity, allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem, and rebuilds the temple.
But the idea of “lost sabbaths” stayed with me. Other translations say, “until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths.” The people had stopped observing the Sabbath day of rest, explicitly contrary to the law of God. Not only were they supposed to rest on the seventh day of the week, they were also supposed to allow the land to rest every seven years (see Leviticus 25:4). If they neglect this, God lays out the punishment quite clearly: “And you I will scatter among the nations at the point of my drawn sword, leaving your countryside desolate and your cities deserted. Then shall the land, during the time it lies waste, make up its lost sabbaths, while you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land have rest and make up for its sabbaths during all the time that it lies desolate, enjoying the rest that you would not let it have on your sabbaths when you lived there.” Lev 26:33–35
If they neglect the Sabbath rest, God is going to find a way to allow the land to rest—even if it means removing the Israelites from the land He gave them. We see the warning of Leviticus 26 clearly fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity.
While it’s clear the Israelites are being punished for sinning against the explicit law of God, the idea of “lost sabbaths” also brought to my mind lost opportunities through the deadly sin of sloth. Sabbath rest is not ordered to laziness, but rather orders our lives toward holiness.
One of the ways sloth manifests itself is through physical laziness. But the sin of sloth is particularly talking about laziness in the things of God. It’s a lack of drive when it comes to the spiritual life. So sloth might look like sitting on the couch all day watching TV. Or it might look like the exact opposite: extreme busyness, activism, and preoccupation—at the complete neglect of our spiritual lives.
We work so hard on other things in life—advancing in our career, being the best parent we can be, reaching our goals—are we working with the same passion to be holy? Are we setting goals for our spiritual life? Are we passionate about our relationship with God?
Where are my lost sabbaths? Where are the opportunities I have squandered in my vocation of holiness? There have been Sundays I could have “kept holy” in a better way. There have been times I could have spent in prayer instead of wasting time and energy on a frivolous activity that didn’t even bring me rest and joy. There have been times I could have spent with and for others instead of on myself.
It’s important to remember, when we’re examining our consciences at the end of the day, that we are not only judged on our sins of commission, on things we’ve done… but also on things we haven’t done. There are also sins of omission.
This isn’t a call to hyper-analyze our actions and intentions and beat ourselves up for not saving the world. But we shouldn’t be too easy on ourselves, either. Have I failed to truly keep the Sabbath rest? Have I done unnecessary work on Sunday because wasted time on Saturday? Have I treated Sunday the same as any other day?
Do I allow myself to be distracted in prayer, or “phone in” my prayers in without attempting to unite my heart to my words and thoughts? Do I cut corners in my daily duties or neglect to finish projects? Do I fail to stand up for Christ or His Church when my beliefs are being misunderstood or attacked? Do I only serve others when it is convenient, pleasurable, or when I am forced to do so? Do I choose not to use my talents or gifts for others out of laziness or neglect?
I was recently asked about the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30). If you remember the story, three men are giving differing amounts of talents, each according to their ability. In their master’s absence, the men with the five talents and three talents both go out and make more money for their master. The man with one talent buries it out of fear and laziness and is condemned by the master. I was asked how this was fair. At least the man didn’t lose the talent. Was he really being called wicked simply because he didn’t do something with what he had been given? Could that be what the parable means?
Yes. That’s exactly what it means. When we think of sin, we usually think of our sins of commission… but what about our sins of omission? What have we done with what we have been given? We are going to be called to account for that as well.
During this season of Lent, let’s examine the “lost sabbaths” in our lives. Where have I been slothful in responding to the commands of God? What good have I failed to do today and what good have I done badly? Let us return to God recommitted to a life of service, as the Jews returned to Jerusalem in the first reading. Much is required of us, because much has been given us. As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Eph 2:10).