A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 4, 2011.
9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer* among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood* of your neighbour: I am the Lord.
A point of personal disclosure is in order. My mother worked for a time as a household maid. My father’s mother was a maid for a pharmacist in the town where she lived for many years. I had maternal aunts who were domestic workers.
So I’m personally interested in Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel titled “The Help” about the experiences of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. A motion picture has been produced from the book. As with any subject dealing with race in the United States, the book and movie have attracted attention. Some people like the book and movie. Some don’t. The reasons vary.
But the debate over the book and movie ignores a more fundamental question about how working people are treated. Regardless what people may think about the book and movie, both deal with injustices suffered by working people—in this case working women of color—that privileged people somehow ignore or take for granted.
People at the bottom of the income ladder have always been easy to mistreat. The oppression they suffer is overlooked most of the time. Politicians and corporate leaders blame the pension benefits for automotive workers for the decline of the U.S. automotive industry. Governors in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and other states are blaming health care benefits for teachers for state budget problems. If it weren’t for the workers and their “greedy” unions, we’re told that the nation would be better off. Governors in Alabama, Georgia, and Arizona blame immigrant workers for crime and the financial woes of the health care system.
It’s odd that this is the case in a society that claims to be morally influenced by the Holy Bible. Worker justice—and divine condemnation of those who mistreat workers, poor people, and other vulnerable people—is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Today’s lesson from Leviticus illustrates that theme.
- Workers should be given their wages promptly.
- Employers should not cheat.
- The society should provide for people who are poor.
The Bible denounces oppressive workplace practices like what happened to the Hebrew people in Egypt during the time of Moses. The Bible doesn’t promise divine rewards to employers who exploit workers, but divine judgment.
So how did a society like the United States, a region like the American South, and a state like Arkansas come to embrace slavery, objecting to the minimum wage, fighting Social Security for workers, and protecting corporations that steal pension benefits? Why do people who carry Bibles to church refuse health care benefits for the people they hire?
Consider the following word by Jesus that we find at Matthew 13, verses 7 and 22.
7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
God’s grace and truth can be strangled, choked, and unproductive in the lives of people who’re consumed with “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.
Greed chokes the Gospel of divine grace and truth. And when that happens, workers—”the help”—are victimized.
- Coalminers are sent to work in mines where safety alarms are disabled.
- Wal-Mart “associates” are locked into their workplaces and forced to work overtime.
- Hotel housekeepers are cheated on their wages and benefits.
- Teachers have their collective bargaining rights stripped by politicians.
- And politicians try to dismantle Social Security by either diverting money from it under our eyes or by telling us the government has no business looking out for workers when they’re too old to work.
Is there a gospel for “the help?” There is if we read the Bible from the perspective of Moses. There’s a gospel for “the help” if we read the Bible from the perspective of the Hebrew slaves Moses led from Egypt. There’s a gospel for “the help” if we take to heart what the Bible says about paying workers on time and not cheating our neighbors. There’s a gospel for “the help” if we see how Jesus spent his days around hard-working people.
The issue isn’t whether there’s a gospel for “the help” in the Bible. It’s whether people who claim they’re living by the Bible are producing what the Bible represents as gospel results (fruit).
According to the Bible, caring for the poor and for workers isn’t charity. It’s the gospel fruit of living according to divine love and truth.
According to the Bible, keeping promises we make to workers about what they’ll be paid and the benefits for which they’ve bargained isn’t “liberal politics.” It’s the gospel result of living according to divine love and truth.
According to the Bible, providing for the elderly and disabled isn’t about “wasteful entitlement spending.” It’s the gospel result when people live according to a divine sense of justice rather than by the morals of Wall Street or some other marketplace.
According to the Bible, treating immigrant workers the same way we treat everyone else isn’t “coddling aliens.” It’s the gospel result of seeing immigrants as our neighbors and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
According to the Bible, justice for workers isn’t about winning and losing elections. It’s about living according to the love and truth of God.
And according to Jesus, whenever we allow the weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun to strangle the gospel of divine grace and truth, …nothing comes of it. We simply become a society of Bible-carrying, hymn singing, hand-waving people in church buildings surrounded by a world of injustice we’ve elected, selected, preferred, or simply chosen to ignore because we’re addicted to getting more and wanting everything under the sun.
Politicians and profiteers don’t want a gospel for “the help.” They want a gospel for “the wealth.” We shouldn’t expect people who think of themselves as emperors to embrace a Moses-kind of gospel. Don’t expect people who live like Herod to embrace a John the Baptist kind of gospel. Don’t expect Pontius Pilate to embrace Jesus. Don’t expect Barack Obama, your governor, and your mayor to embrace the Biblical gospel for “the help.” They’re closest advisors believe in a gospel for “the wealth.”
So what’s the good news? What’s the gospel for “the help?” It is this: God is always moving to make gospel for “the help” happen. God is sending prophetic people to challenge the empires of wealth and power that oppress workers, immigrants, those who are poor, elderly, weak, and otherwise oppressed. God’s gospel is always working on people, working in people, and working toward justice. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it’s working. Sometimes we think it’s working too slowly. But God’s gospel for “the help” is always working.
Remember Moses. Remember Jesus. Remember Dorothy Day. Remember Mother Jones. Remember Caesar Chavez. Remember Martin King. Remember Edward Kennedy. Remember that God has a gospel for “the help.”
Then start living it with every breath and heartbeat. Live it in the power of the Holy Spirit. Live it no matter what the emperors around you say, think, or do. Live it because you’re living for God. Live it because you love God more than stuff and wealth. Live it because God loves you and has called you to love “the help” the same way God loves you.
God has a gospel for “the help.” Live it.
Thank you, God, for calling us to live before you and with each other according in love and truth. Thank you for sending prophets of love and truth to reveal to us that the emperors of wealth are not sovereign. Thank you for calling us to be agents of your gospel of grace and truth.
Guide us and use us, God, to challenge the gospel of wealth in our time and places. Quicken our minds and strengthen our efforts so we can be effective prophets of your gospel for “the help.” Help us, by your Spirit, to remember that you’ve sowed the seed of divine grace and truth in us so we can produce divine results in the world.
Thank you for calling us to be agents of that gospel. Thank you for using us to make that gospel produce realities of love and truth in the world. Thank you for calling us alongside Jesus to produce justice, the real gospel, for “the help.” Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.