The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A THEOLOGY OF WORK

Delivered 9/5/99
Text: Matthew 12:1-8; Deuteronomy 5:12-15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Labor Day Weekend. Our unique American end-of-summer holiday that celebrates work by not working. Wonderful!

Most of the world observes May 1st as Labor Day, but not us. The September date was chosen way back when because it was halfway between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. September 5, 1882 saw the first American Labor Day parade. It was held in New York City with 20,000 participants carrying banners calling for 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for recreation. Samuel Gompers, the founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor said of Labor Day it "...differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."(1)

OK. But, to be honest, contrary to Mr. Gompers, our national Labor Day observance DID grow out of a conflict. Let me tell you a story...a true one. Are you familiar with the name George Pullman?(2) His company made the sleeping cars for the railroads, the "Pullman Car." In 1880, George designed and built a town near Chicago - Pullman, Illinois - to provide a community for his workers that would be protected from the seductions of the big city. The town was strictly organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would stay while they were in town. The residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, with their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly wages. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.

But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in the economic depression that gripped the entire nation. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained had to take pay cuts, even while their rents in Pullman-owned homes stayed at previous rates. So the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher wages.

The American Railway Union, led by a fiery young socialist named Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the strikers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, looting, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in. The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the work stoppage a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when US deputy marshals fired on protesters near Chicago. Finally, on August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his union was disbanded, and Pullman employees signed a pledge that they would never again unionize.

As you can imagine, Labor was not happy. Protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority; after all, 1894 was an election year. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike. The President seized the chance for conciliation, and Labor Day was born. The ploy did not work - he was not reelected. In a final irony, ever since then, Labor Day has been seen as the unofficial start of the campaign season.

A century has passed. The American Labor movement is not what it once was. These days less than 15% of American workers belong to unions, down from a high of nearly 50% in the 1950's. Now Labor Day is seen by most folks as the last long weekend of summer, the day to celebrate work by not working.

Let me ask you a question. From a biblical perspective - and that would be an appropriate perspective here in this sanctuary - from a biblical perspective, is work something to celebrate? The answer is ambivalent.

The first encounter we have with work in scripture is the story of creation in Genesis. God made everything, including us, then, "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it."(3) From the beginning, we had employment. Good, so far. But the next mention we get of work is only a chapter later; it comes after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and been found out:

To the woman [God] said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground...(4)

Suddenly, work is not so attractive anymore. I know you recognized our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy as part of one of the readings of the Ten Commandments. You heard the fourth commandment which establishes a day of rest, a sabbath. The rationale cited is the memory of all the unrelenting hard work that was endured during the centuries of slavery in Egypt. Unrelenting hard work is not good.

Sabbath observance to this very day serves as the distinctive mark of the Jewish people that separates them from Gentiles and presents a testimony to their faith. In times of duress, faithful Israelites would rather die than break God's law by profaning the sabbath. To observant Jews, the sabbath has been a joy, not a burden, a festive day of rest from labor, a day of eating and drinking on which it was forbidden to fast, a day of justice as servants and slaves received a much-needed rest of which they could not be deprived, a day for the poor and hungry to be fed.(5)

By the time we get to the New Testament, we find that this sabbath had become more than just a day of rest from work, but was now most holy ritual. Because it was so special, rules and regulations had grown up around it. Thirty-nine basic actions were forbidden on the sabbath - sowing, plowing, reaping, threshing, grinding, baking, shearing, washing, weaving, tying and untying, trapping, slaughtering, bearing a burden, building or tearing a building down, starting a fire, stopping a fire, hitting with a hammer, and so on and so on.

Wearing shoes with nails in them on the sabbath was prohibited, because in the view of the religious authorities, the nails in the shoes were a "burden" and since carrying a burden was work, this would be verboten. Even walking through grass was not allowed, because some of the grass might be bent and broken, which constituted threshing. The religious leaders taught that, if a house caught on fire on the sabbath, its inhabitants could not carry their clothes out of the house to spare them from the flames, because that would be bearing a burden. However, they were allowed to put on all the layers of clothing they could wear and thus remove the clothes by wearing them, which was acceptable. Hmm.

The story we encountered in Matthew's gospel is reflective of the custom. Jesus and his friends were apparently walking along one of the narrow strips used as a right-of-way between the cornfields. As they walked, some stomachs must have begun to growl, so famished folks reached over and did what was OK most days - plucked off an ear or two of corn, rubbed the kernels in their hands, and ate them raw. Perfectly acceptable. In fact, the Law expressly said that the hungry traveler was entitled to do just what the disciples were doing, so long as only hands were used in the plucking, not a sickle.(6)

But this was a sabbath day. Big problem. By plucking the corn the disciples were guilty of reaping; by rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing; by separating the edible from the inedible they were guilty of winnowing; and by the whole process they were guilty of preparing a meal on the sabbath day, for everything which was to be eaten on the sabbath had to be prepared the day before.(7) Guilty, guilty, guilty, said the Pharisees.

Jesus said no. He recalled the action of David on the occasion when he and his young cohorts were so hungry that they went into the tabernacle and ate the shewbread which only the priests were allowed to eat.(8) He noted the sabbath work of the Temple and the ritual there which always involved work - the kindling of fires, the slaughter and the preparation of animals, lifting them on the altar, and a host of other things - WORK for the priests, but apparently acceptable in God's eyes. Finally, he noted God's word to the prophet Hosea: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice,"(9) the point being that if the Temple sacrifice is OK (and all agreed that it was), how much MORE OK is a merciful provision of food for hungry travelers. In a parallel passage we hear Jesus say those familiar words that we learned in the language of the King James Version: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath."(10)

So, where does that leave us in our search for a biblical understanding of work? AMBIVALENT. Some good, some not so good. We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. In fact, when Jesus invited people to follow him, they QUIT their jobs as fishermen or tax collectors or whatever to join in the entourage. Some still do that even today.

Not everyone, of course. No problem there - people can still be dedicated Christians in any kind of occupation. That was the special insistence of the protestant reformers who pressed the position that one need not be a priest or a nun to do God's work, but all those who did their own honest work well, no matter what that work might be, were being equally faithful. They called it "the sanctity of common life."

So saying, while honest work may be a good gift of God, that gift (just as any gift) can be abused. Remember those signs people carried in the Labor day parades a hundred years ago calling for 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for recreation? We got that. 1938 - The Fair Labor Standards Act. Then we began to hear that the work week could shrink even further - 35 hours, even 30. John Maynard Keynes, this century's most influential economist, parodied the gospel in expecting his grandchildren to be like "the lilies of the field, who toil not, nor spin."(11)

That never came, and, in fact, nowadays we seem to be going in the opposite direction. All the so-called labor-saving devices - fax machines, cellular phones, e-mail, laptop computers, and so on - do not free us from the workplace, they simply allow our workplace to follow us everywhere. And we contentedly go along (and you know very well that I am as guilty as anyone). The result is a work week that, according to projections, will be as long at the beginning of the new millennium as it was in the 1920's.(12) Not good.

Years ago, the irrepressible May West said, "Too much of a good thing is...wonderful." Yes, work is God's good gift, but too much of it is NOT wonderful. Furthermore, our work's relationship to materialism and accumulation of goods is another cause for concern. The Bible is rather relentless in its attack upon the rich. Never in scripture are the poor blamed for their poverty. It is the rich, those who work and accumulate, who are in big trouble. The message writ large is BE CAREFUL.

Sometime back I ran across a magazine article with the intriguing title, "If God Isn't a Workaholic Maybe We Shouldn't Be."(13) The author noted our Presbyterian penchant for busyness - the compulsion to work is in our blood, injected there by John Calvin himself. But note was also made of the cycle of work and rest built into creation, and then two questions were asked. What if God would like us all to take more time out for playing? What if God takes time out to have some fun?

"Imagine it: God has finished creating the skies and seas, and the animals of the fields and forests, and the birds and fishes and ants and bees and cockroaches, and people. Then God says, 'I just don't feel like working today. Believe I will have some fun.' So that is what God did...had some fun. And having fun, created a number of things that are fun:

  • Baseball, for one. Except that baseball eventually required the invention of catcher's masks and Louisville Slugger bats and such - all of which God put off until it was time to work again.


  • And monkeys. It seems certain that God created monkeys for fun. Except that sometimes monkeys act like people, which surely must not be much fun for the monkeys.

  • And hugging. That was one of God's better creations that fine day, hugging was.

  • And Spring. Surely God created Spring for fun. Not the Spring that causes people to get their muscles all sore and hands all blistery from trying to rearrange what God planted--trees, grass, flowers and things like that. But Spring with fluffy clouds and lazy afternoons and balmy evenings and which as a bonus gives a start to all the loveliness that is Autumn.


"It may even be that God created Presbyterians for fun. Except that like some of God's other good creations, they began to take themselves so seriously that they mostly were no fun to God and in fact were so serious that the very thought of fun made them nervous. It may have been much the same with Congress, and assistant managers. You could add many more categories to the list."

Here then is our theology of work. God gave it to us as a gift, and certainly we hard-driving Presbyterians do our share. But God also gave us gifts like baseball and monkeys and Autumn and other things that are called fun. ENJOY THEM, and glorify God in the process...especially on a holiday called Labor Day.

Amen!


1. Quoted by Samuel Trumbore, http://www.cyberstreet.com/trumbore/sermons/s891.htm

2. Historical background courtesy of the Online Newshour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/september96/labor_day_9-2.html

3. Genesis 2:15

4. Genesis 3:16-19a

5. M. Eugene Boring, "The Gospel of Matthew," The New Interpreter's Bible, CD-ROM, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998)

6. Deuteronomy 23:25

7. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

8. 1 Samuel 21:1-6

9. Hosea 6:6

10. Mark 2:27

11. Peter Marshall, "Living Like Gerbils," Christianity Today, 4/27/92, p. 15

12. Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 1

13. Vic Jameson, Presbyterian Survey, 9/90, p. 2

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