Both the Old and New Testament writers had a lot to say about labor. There are two basic attitudes about two distinct uses of the word labor in scripture. The first has to do with childbirth, or analogies about birthing. “As soon as Zion was in labor, she delivered her children (Is. 66).” There are also more direct uses of the word, like when “Rachel had hard labor” in Genesis 35. When we come across this use of the word labor in scripture there is typically a reference to pain. There are certainly those who know this better than I, but I think it would be okay to say that pain is a feature of this kind of labor. “With painful labor you will give birth to children (Gen. 3).”
A rigid explanation for the second use of the word labor in scripture is work that is directed towards an end or a goal. The end is not always good, but this distinguishes labor from play, withering, or any number of things. This is the labor that I am thinking about as we approach Labor Day. Labor has purpose, even if it isn’t always the laborer’s purpose. Labor can be the highest of all good things. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the parable of laborers in a vineyard to talk about what the kingdom of heaven is like. The prophet Isaiah says that the innocent shall eat the fruit of their labors, while rebuking the powerful for the oppressive treatment towards those who labor.
Labor can also be bad. When labor is bad the word ‘”force’’ is usually used right before it. The most common act associated with oppression in the Bible is labor that is forced. There is a proper and fitting ideal of labor. When labor is not being directed towards the virtues of holiness, it is estranged. This next part may seem obvious, but it is important.
God does not like it when labor is estranged.
You remember what Pharaoh says to Moses the first time Moses introduces him to the God of the Israelites. “I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go…Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your Labors!” This is estranged labor. Pharaoh could not afford a work stoppage.
Labor is a central theological concern in scripture, and I don’t think it gets the attention that it deserves. Here are some questions to think through.
- Is my job, labor? What is the purpose of what I do, and who benefits from it? Is it good?
- What can I do to provide dignity and purpose for those who seem to labor without it? Do they need better wages or healthcare?
- How do I benefit from the labor of others?
- Why are there so many people stuck in jobs with estranged labor?
A prayer for Labor Day from Bread for the World:
Almighty God, Creator of the world, we give you thanks for the gift of stewardship and work. Deliver us, in our various occupations, from the service of self alone, that we may do our work in truth and beauty and for the common.
God of justice, we pray for all workers, that they would receive fair compensation and treatment in their labor.
Make those who lead the industries and commerce of this country responsive to your perfect will. Build up in the leaders of our country a respect for all labors. Deliver us, Lord Jesus, from the maligning evils of greed, sloth, and gluttony that we may lead lives of holiness in service to you and our neighbor.
We ask all these things for our good and your glory. Amen.