The holiday we celebrate this weekend grew out of laborers’ desires to be valued beyond their jobs and to have lives beyond their work.
The history of Labor Day traces back to a demonstration by the Central Labor Union on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. This New York City trade union organized a parade (some might call it a march) from City Hall to Reservoir Park in Union Square. At the park, there were picnics, a concert and speeches calling for an eight-hour workday.
At the time, the average workweek for a full-time manufacturing employee was 100 hours. That works out to about 14 hours per day, seven days per week. Imagine working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. That doesn’t leave much time for anything else.
Congress passed legislation creating Labor Day in 1894. However, it would take 48 years for the speeches made in Reservoir Park in 1882 to bear fruit. The eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek did not become the standard we know today until 1940.
Yet, many of us still struggle to find a balance between our work and the rest of our lives. Even as we celebrate Labor Day, we might be tempted to peek at email or check our office voicemail just to be sure we haven’t missed anything important.
We want to believe our lives are more than what we do, yet our inability to disengage from our jobs tells a different story. We still tend to measure our lives by what we do—our roles, our jobs and our informal social statuses.
Some of us view ourselves much in the same way Philemon had once viewed Onesimus—only useful at work. Philemon is a homeowner and conservative church man in Bible times when slavery meant something different than its recent history in society. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, well treated, even honored, and given a good life in the household. But he’d run away.
The apostle Paul runs into him, gets involved in Onesimus becoming a Christian, and then talks to Philemon. He says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me”(Philemon 1:11).
In Christ, Onesimus became full of use. He found his true self, his usefulness. He is no longer a slave whose sole purpose is to serve Philemon. Instead, Onesimus is a disciple of Jesus Christ, called like Philemon and Paul, to serve Christ by serving others.
We, too, are full of use—
whether we are employed, unemployed or underemployed;
whether we have much or little;
whether we feel satisfied or frustrated with our work;
whether our employer appreciates us or not;
whether we feel empowered or powerless.
We serve Christ when we give a full day’s wage, when we do our job well and conscientiously and as persons of integrity. We are full of use as we go to our jobs or go to school; when we parent our children or care for our parents; when we drive the kids to soccer practice or when we give food to a neighbor.
Labor Day is a time to give thanks to God for our jobs. We thank God for work! Around the world, many thousands of people would love to have a job. On Labor Day, we also thank God for all of those who worked to normalize the 40-hour workweek.
On this Labor Day, we can also recommit ourselves to finding our usefulness in Christ, rather than just in our jobs. We are more than our jobs. We are full of use for Christ and his kingdom.
PRAYER: Dear Jesus Christ, your work on this earth made a difference because it was a work of love to glorify your Father. Bless the work we also do, as your disciples, that its motive may be love and its purpose may be to glorify you by serving others. Amen.
FURTHER MEDITATION: Rejoice in further prayer, giving thanks for at least 5 blessings of the workforce in the US or your country. Read the book of Philemon (only one chapter). And consider this article about slavery in the Bible https://www.