Like every other holiday over the course of this craziest of crazy years, Labor Day 2020 is different from any we’ve had in the past. In fact, if we follow the emerging thinking of our current age, some might contend it’s not even be a day that should be celebrated.
The intrinsic and noble value of work is at the heart of the “Protestant work ethic,” a term popularized in the early 1900s by Max Weber in his book, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (I remember reading it as a college freshman.) A concept in theology, sociology, economics and history, it places high value in hard work, discipline and frugality. It views work as a commendable duty that benefits both the individual and society as a whole.
There are voices, however, that lump this long-revered philosophy of work with so-called “whiteness,” and are therefore seeking to discredit its principles. Without launching into a political debate, let me just say I find such thinking unfortunate. Especially because from the very beginning, hard work – and the rewards from it – have been God’s idea. And so it remains today.
We see it in the opening chapters of the Bible’s first book. One may choose to discount the Scriptures, but if you believe the Bible, you have no option but to accept the ethic of work.
In chapter 1 of Genesis, we see God actively involved in the work of creation, the entire universe: light; the earth and the seas: vegetation; sun, moon and stars; all living creatures, and then mankind. We read in Genesis 2:1-2, “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”
Whether we interpret the Creation process as six literal 24-hour days or a longer period – since there were no clocks, watches or calendars for charting time – is irrelevant for this discussion. God engaged in work, the greatest work of all time, and then paused from His labors.
Soon He delegated the work responsibilities to His prized creations, man and woman. The Lord didn’t present Adam and Eve with video games or puzzles to occupy their time. He entrusted them with the maintenance of the garden of Eden and the new world He had established.
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female…. Then the Lord blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.’” (Genesis 1:27:29).
In the next chapter we see Adam and Eve’s “job description” being affirmed: “Then the Lord took the man and put him in the garden of to tend it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
Then came the “oops” moment, however, when the first couple were enticed into eating of the one tree in the garden that God had told them was off limits – the first sin of disobedience. As a consequence, work became hard. The Lord declared, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…. In the seat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:17-19).
This did not diminish the importance of work in God’s eyes. It just became more challenging, frustrating, and sometimes fruitless. Throughout the Scriptures we see the virtues of hard work being extolled. The book of Proverbs, for example, has much to say about it:
“Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4).
“He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son” (Proverbs 10:5).
He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment” (Proverbs 12:11)
“Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor” (Proverbs 12:24).
“The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4).
“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).
“One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9).
“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29).
There are dozens of other similar verses, but the message is clear: Hard work and diligence eventually reap a worthwhile reward, while failure to work or unwillingness to put forth a determined effort will result in failure and want.
When Jesus was selecting His followers, among them were hard-working fishermen, individuals who understood the truth of the adage, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If they didn’t take their boats out to sea and cast their nets, there would be nothing to eat – or to sell.
A number of Christ’s parables dealt with farming metaphors, incorporating the essentials of cultivating, sowing and harvesting into His spiritual truths. Being a carpenter Himself for most of His adult life, Jesus was no stranger to hard labor.
When I try to understand God’s perspective of work, one other passage comes to mind: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9). The context refers primarily to evangelism and spiritual growth, but as we have seen from the start, we are all part of the Lord’s divine and eternal plan, whatever form our work happens to take.
Whether we’re black, white, brown, Asian, African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Caucasian, male or female, God has work for us to do. Therefore, we celebrate Labor Day.