For Labor Day

Monday, September 3, 2012 — Week of Proper 17

Prudence Crandall, Teacher and Prophetic Witness, 1890

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 983)

Psalms 25 (morning) // 9, 15 (evening)

Job 12:1-6, 13-25

Acts 11:19-30

John 8:21-32

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Note: Much of today’s article was printed as a Labor Day column I wrote for the Northwest Arkansas Times, September 1, 2008

The people of Israel began as a labor movement. Their Egyptian overlords instituted a policy of increased productivity — gather your own straw and meet the same output quotas. Having no union and no standing to negotiate with management, they cried out to God. God answered their complaints, and sent Moses to be their representative in some collective bargaining. Things didn’t go too well. So, under God’s impetus, Moses led a labor walkout. It turned violent when management called for troops to enforce a return to work. Through God’s intervention, however the people of Israel escaped Pharaoh’s economics of oppression.

They ended up in the wilderness, where most of what God taught them was about economics, labor and justice. Facing the stark realities of free life outside the imperial system, they had to learn a new way to sustain themselves. At first, they longed for the old slavery, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

But God taught them a new alternative economic practice. God rained down manna from heaven. You can see it as a miracle. You can also see it as metaphor of stewardship of the earth — agricultural cultivation as a divine gift, beginning with rain and ending with bread.

Moses gave them three economic principles: (1) gather only what you need; (2) do not store up or hoard more than you need; (3) rest on the Sabbath. God’s economy is radically different from Egypt’s.

Exodus 16:18 articulates the ideal: “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” We see the same practice in the early church centuries later: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44)

At the heart of this new economy was the Sabbath, a day when we would cease to exploit or control creation and begin to trust God to provide enough for all. Theologian Ched Myers says, “Sabbath observation means to remember every week this [divine] economy’s two principles: the goal of ‘enough’ for everyone, and the prohibition on hoarding. This vision is, of course, utterly contrary to economics as we know it. And our incredulity is rather humorously anticipated in the story itself: ‘Manna’ means ‘What is this?'” (from “God Speed the Year of Jubilee!”, Sojourners Magazine, May-June 1998)

The Sabbath cycle extends beyond the week. Every seventh year the people were instructed to let their land lie fallow so the poor and the undomesticated (wild animals) may eat. In the Sabbath year all debts were to be released. Every seventh Sabbatical year (7 X 7 = 49 years) all property would return to the original family ownership and all indentured servants or slaves were to be freed, reminding us that “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26) and that all humans are free people, created in the image and likeness of God.

Jesus picked up on the Jubilee tradition in his opening sermon, announcing “the year of the Lord’s favor” as he opened his proclamation of the Gospel, the “good news to the poor.” Debt-cancellation and land restoration was indeed good news to the poor.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of forgiveness of sin and forgiveness of debt interchangeably. He announced a kingdom where many who are first will be last and the last will be first. He urged a banquet table where the poor and those who cannot repay are the first to be invited, where all would receive their “daily bread.”

In a decade when our dominant economic policies have favored the wealthy and pressed for more production out of all levels of labor, some Sabbath and Jubilee and liberation seems to be in order.

Right now we languish in a recession brought on by the economics of Pharaoh — elite player in the financial industry manipulated housing loans until they burst everyone’s bubble. Poverty and unemployment have risen. Wealth and power are more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Politicians abandon the “common good” while justifying historically low taxes for the wealthy.

The poor and oppressed raise their voices to heaven and to ask for some divine intervention for liberation from this economy of Pharaoh. The economics of greed has not worked. It is time for our society to embrace Biblical principles of justice — God’s economy and “good news for the poor.”

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