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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Economic and Labor Justice
Consider the Sabbath commandment we read in Exodus:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
Inherent in the original Sabbath institution was an element of economic and labor justice for workers. Today I would argue that one day is not enough to ensure laborers, workers, or employees are not being exploited. I wasn’t alive in the time of Exodus, but I would guess that it was only a start back then too.
Also notice that the Sabbath commandment in Exodus does not put the onus on children, slaves, animals or vulnerable immigrants to refuse to work for those subjugating them. This would only place undue stress on them, adding moral implications to something which they had no choice about.
No, the commandment is rather addressed to parents, masters, and livestock owners. To apply this to our context: the Sabbath commandment does not tell employees not to work for their employers on the Sabbath. The commandment tells employers not to exploit their employees and not make their employees work on every day of the week. If someone is working on the Sabbath, the person responsible is their employer who demands that labor be done, not the employee faced with the choice between observing a Sabbath or putting food on their family’s table.
As the gospel of Mark reminds us, “The Sabbath was made for people. People weren’t made for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
This is a deeply Jewish theme of contrasting people’s strict religious observances with their actions about others’ concrete justice needs. We encounter this contrast of values and priorities all the way back in the prophetic justice tradition of the Hebrew scriptures:
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17, emphasis added)
Today, I think this still tracks. We still see in our communities some of us who can be very intentional about our observances within our religion while we ignore the social justice concerns of others. Christians can sometimes be among the worst offenders in this.
But the last thing to note this week is that this is an ableist story.
We’ll unpack that next.
(READ PART 3)