Labor Day anchors the last long weekend of summer. Vacations are ending—at least for some. The number of youthful, well-heeled retirees these days makes travel and leisure activities more year-round than in previous generations.
Children and youth are heading back to school. Millions of Americans make one last mad dash to the theme parks or the beach, or stay home for a last lazy weekend before football and soccer and PTA projects begin in earnest. Backyards and city parks fill with the aroma of charcoal grills.
Churches are about as empty as they get in our society, which is more religiously observant than many other countries, particularly those in Europe.
Labor Day! But do we stop to think about what it means to dedicate a holiday to “labor,” to the meaning and importance of work? For many Americans, work is not only a source of income, but a primary source of meaning and identity as well. “I am a teacher/plumber/accountant/software programmer/nurse/realtor/fashion designer/electrical engineer/etc.”
For others, work is a drudgery to be endured, a necessity for survival. Our weekends—if we have them free—are too brief; our retirement is a distant dream.
Some types of work make folks fabulously wealthy; other types—just as honorable and necessary to our social fabric—hardly allow people to put food on the table and find a place to sleep. In today’s Los Angeles, hotels that charge $400 and more a night for their rooms have those rooms cleaned by minimum-wage workers.
Most of America’s poor are not welfare recipients or “skid row” residents, but working people employed full-time. Much of our society’s hardest and most useful work is economically invisible: housework, parenting and the volunteer work that maintains churches and other social institutions.
Despite the importance of work, the theme is rarely addressed at church. Yet the Scriptures are full of references to work. Can you name some?
What about the creative work of God (Gen 1:1–2:3; Ps 104:1-30)? What about the admiring description of an industrious woman in Proverbs 31:10-31? And how about Jesus’ challenging description of a landowner who confounded the expectations of his hourly laborers after a day’s work in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16)? We are familiar with the biblical principle that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Lk 10:7, 1 Tim 5:18), but we tend to think of it only as an argument for paying our ministers adequately.
Will you stop on this Labor Day to look at your work, and even our national and global economy, in the light of your faith? And will you expect your church to have something to say about this incredibly important theme?
Let’s listen to Scripture and to one another as we think and share about our work.
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”