The Meaning of Labor

A week from today the nation will observe Labor Day. Labor Day has been observed in the United States for more than a century -- on the first Monday of September. It came to this nation from Canada, but was established by President Grover Cleveland in 1884, in the aftermath of the Pullman strike. It was created as a means of reconciling with labor.

Next Sunday, I will depart again from the lectionary, and focus my attention on the meaning of work and its being a context for mission. I'll write more later on this end. But as I begin contemplating this sermon, which I'm going to base on Acts 18:1-4.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. (NRSV)
This text speaks of Paul's own trade -- that of a tent-maker -- by which he was able to support himself while preaching in Corinth (together with Priscilla and Aquila).

Our lives tend to center around our work. If we don't have a job, we feel like something is missing. And in this time of increasing unemployment, many Americans are feeling like something is missing in their lives. Of course, the value we place on work depends in part on the kind of work we have. Some people work so that they can do other things -- including paying rent, eat, etc. Others find great meaning in their work -- indeed there is great reward and enjoyment.

Such has not always been the case. In the ancient world, by and large, labor was equivalent to slavery. To be free was to not have to work. So, in many ways, Paul was not completely free.

Jurgen Moltmann, a theologian of hope, speaks of labor and work in his book On Human Dignity (Fortress, 1984). He writes:

We seem to fall into an irresolvable contradiction. On the one hand people in modern society are dependent on work; therefore, since the beginning of this society, it has been necessary to lift up the demand for recognition and maintenance of the human right to work. On the other hand, however, the existing essential, and paying jobs in this society are not always ones that can guarantee people a meaningful life. How does the right to work relate to the meaning of life, and how is the meaning of life connected with the right to work? (p. 38)

We spend much of our lives working. It gives many a sense of purpose and meaning. I remember watching Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, a movie about retirement and the difficulties of making that transition.

Coming back to work after vacation is always difficult, however, because we've tasted a bit of freedom from the tasks of our jobs. Now, we have to rearrange our lives to fit with work. It will control us, or easily does. So the question is -- what makes work meaningful? Or, is the absence of work our goal?


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