Sermon title: Labor Day

Matthew 20:1-16

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, September 5, 2021

 

 

As we celebrate Labor Day this weekend,

with picnics and cook-outs

and other gatherings of family and friends,

it’s good to remember why we honor

working men and women at this time.

 

Throughout history most nations have consisted of

many, many working people—

usually poor, or on the edge of poverty—

ruled over by a relative handful of rich people

who didn’t need to work at all.

 

And that’s still true, to one degree or another,

all around the world today.

 

The common expression “the working poor”

describes the first group,

just as “the idle rich” describes the second group.

The working poor often envy the idle rich,

wishing there could be some way

to rise above the working poor and join the idle rich.

 

That aspiration is found in the lyrics sung by

the British character Alfred Doolittle

in the musical My Fair Lady.

 

Doolittle is a poor man who works as a trash collector.

 

He starts out his song with these words:

 

The Lord above gave man an arm of iron

So he could do his job and never shirk.

The Lord gave man an arm of iron - but

With a little bit of luck, With a little bit of luck,

Someone else'll do the blinkin' work!

 

Yes, his aspiration is to get out of having to work.

 

Luck is a pagan concept, associated with pagan gods

and goddesses of good luck.

Alfred Doolittle mixes that pagan superstition

with talk of “the Lord above,” and wishes that

with a little bit of luck, someone else will do the work.

 

And then, in the concluding stanza,

he expresses his hope of moving up to “easy street”—

the figurative address of the idle rich.

 

He finishes up by singing,

 

He doesn't have a tuppence in his pocket.

The poorest bloke you'll ever hope to meet.

He doesn't have a tuppence in his pocket - but

With a little bit of luck, With a little bit of luck,

He'll be movin' up to easy street.

With a little bit...with a little bit...

With a little bit of luck, He's movin' up.

With a little bit...with a little bit...

With a little bit of bloomin luck!

 

That first line—

He doesn't have a tuppence in his pocket—

uses British slang for two pence--a 2-penny coin.

 

There was also a half-penny coin they called ha’penny.

 

My grandmother grew up in England,

and she used to tell me how, when she was a girl,

her father would send her to the pub

with tuppence ha’penny and

an empty pail or bucket.

 

The pub would fill the bucket with beer,

and she’d carry it home to her father.

 

She told me the pail of beer cost tuppence hapney.”

 

So, knowing that “a tuppence” was a 2-penny coin,

we can better understand those lyrics

the express the aspirations of a poor working man:

 

The poorest bloke you'll ever hope to meet.

He doesn't have a tuppence in his pocket-but

With a little bit of luck, With a little bit of luck,

He'll be movin' up to easy street.

 

My grandmother was around 10 years old

when her dad sent her to the pub,

and she was born in 1895, so that would have been

around the year 1905

when she took the tuppence to the pub.

 

Another popular musical, Fiddler on the Roof, was set

in Czarist Russia around that same year, 1905.

 

If you’ve ever enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof,

you probably remember Tevye’s song,

“If I were a rich man.”

 

Tevye is a poor Jewish milkman.

 

And in his lines in the play,

he expresses the same aspirations as

Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

 

Before singing his song, Tevye says in prayer to God,

“Oh Lord, you made many, many poor people.

I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor,

but it's no great honor either.

So, what would have been so terrible

if I had a small fortune?”

 

Then Tevye bursts into song,

and the lyrics include...

 

If I were a rich man

Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum

All day long I'd biddy biddy bum

If I were a wealthy man

I wouldn't have to work hard

Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum

If I were a biddy biddy rich

Idle-diddle-didle-didle man

 

He goes on to sing about what he would do

if he were an idle rich man

who didn’t have to work hard.

 

He’d build a big, fancy house in the middle of the town.

 

And, in one of the stanzas he says,

 

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall

And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men,

seven hours every day

And that would be the sweetest thing of all

 

But all through the song he keeps repeating,

 

If I were a wealthy man

I wouldn't have to work hard

 

It’s a common desire of relatively poor working folk—

to become wealthy and not have to work hard.

 

Tevye the milkman and Alfred Doolittle the trash collector

both did hard, exhausting work.

 

And it’s normal and natural in those circumstances

to long for a pile of money

that would set you free from drudgery.

 

I know, because, at times in the past,

 I’ve experienced the same desire myself.

 

I haven’t been a pastor all my life.

 

As a young man,

I did janitorial work at the Brockton police station,

cleaning and polishing tile floors.

 

I also worked at a shoe factory in Brockton,

where I spent a year

picking up cartloads of newly-manufactured shoes,

and putting them away on shelves.

 

And, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof,

I’ve worked at a dairy, milking cows,

bedding down cows in their barn,

and using a pitch fork to shovel

straw, hay and silage.

 

I know what it’s like to swing a pick axe at frozen silage

until you get enough for a pitchfork full,

and then do it again—all day long.

 

So, I understand the longing you can have

when doing back-breaking work—the longing

to leave work behind and join the idle rich.

 

But being so rich that you’re idle,

and don’t have to work—

that was never God’s plan for mankind.

 

It was always God’s idea

for people to work with their hands,

doing physical labor.

 

Genesis 2:15 tells us,

“The LORD God took the man

and put him in the Garden of Eden

to work it and take care of it.”

So, Adam and Eve were not put in the Garden of Eden

to laze around all day, like the idle rich,

sipping sweet nectar

and just reaching out to grab a piece of fruit

whenever they felt hungry.

 

They were put there to work,

and to tend the garden.

 

God made us in his image,

and Scripture tells us that our heavenly Father works.

 

We recently looked at the Creation account in Genesis,

and it told us that God worked for 6 days

preparing the Earth to be our home,

and then making the plants, the animals,

and the first humans.

 

And then he rested on the 7th day.

 

The Creation account doesn’t number any more days

beyond those first 7.

But at John 5:17, our Lord Jesus said,

thousands of years later,

"My Father is working until now,

and I am working."

 

We are made in God’s image,

so it is good for us, too, to keep working.

 

Just as God looked at what he had made

at the end of the 6 creative days,

and Genesis 1:31 tells us,

“God saw all that he had made,

and it was very good,”

we too can find satisfaction in doing good work,

whatever our work may be.

 

Ecclesiastes 3:9 says,

9 What does the worker gain

from his toil?

10 I have seen the burden

that God has laid upon the sons of men

to occupy them.

 

11 He has made everything beautiful

in its time.

He has also set eternity

in the hearts of men,

yet they cannot fathom

the work that God has done

from beginning to end.

 

12 I know that there is

nothing better for them than to

rejoice and do good while they live,

13 and also that every man

should eat and drink and

find satisfaction in all his labor

—this is the gift of God.

 

It is good for us to work,

and to do our work well—whatever it may be—

so that we can find satisfaction in it.

 

The Bible makes it clear that manual labor

is good and honorable.

 

Ephesians 4:28 says,

“Let him who stole steal no longer,

but rather let him labor,

working with his hands what is good,

that he may have something

to give him who has need.”

 

Quite often throughout history, the idle rich have been

those who found ways to steal from the poor

without being punished for their theft.

 

We see that, when the poor working man

finds his income taxed,

while the wealthy use lawyers and tax accountants

to escape being taxed at all.

 

James 2:6 says,

“Are not the rich

the ones who oppress you?”

 

But God has always been on the side of the working man.

 

It was not by accident that our heavenly Father arranged

for his only begotten Son to be born of a Virgin

who was married to a carpenter.

 

That guaranteed that Christ would be born and raised

in a working family,

and that the young man Jesus

 would learn the carpentry trade

from his foster father Joseph.

 

Joseph evidently died while Jesus was in his 20’s,

so Jesus became Nazareth’s town carpenter.

 

At Mark 6:2-3 we read,

“He began to teach in the synagogue.

And many hearing Him were astonished,

saying, ‘Where did this Man

get these things?...

Is this not the carpenter...?’

 

So they were offended at Him.”

 

Yes, Jesus was the town’s carpenter—not a rabbi—

so people were offended when he began preaching.

 

But that passage shows us that Jesus

had evidently been working at the carpentry trade

for several years.

 

Christ in heaven knows what we go through

when we work at tough manual labor—

not just because he is God and knows everything,

but also because he walked in our shoes.

 

He himself personally cut and planed logs to make boards,

and sawed wood and hammered nails

in a carpentry shop for years

before he began his earthly ministry at the age of 30.

---------------------------------------

 

Our God has always identified with the working man,

rather than with the idle rich.

 

And he showed it in the laws he gave

to the ancient nation of Israel.

The best-known of those laws

gave working people a day off each week.

 

Exodus chapter 20 says, beginning in Verse 9,

 

“Six days you shall labor

and do all your work,

but the seventh day is the Sabbath

of the Lord your God.

In it you shall do no work:

you, nor your son, nor your daughter,

nor your male servant,

nor your female servant,

nor your cattle, nor your stranger

who is within your gates.

 

A weekly day off from work was unheard of

especially for manual laborers and even servants.

 

And we know that God instituted that law in Israel

for the benefit of the working people.

 

Jesus made that plain at Mark 2:27, when he said,

“The Sabbath was made for man,

not man for the Sabbath.”

 

The weekly day off from work was to benefit the workers.

------------------------------

 

God’s law to Israel also imposed rules on employers,

to make sure they paid their workers on time.

 

Leviticus 19:13 says,

"Do not make your hired workers

wait until the next day

to receive their pay.”

 

The employer usually has the upper hand

when dealing with workers,

but God did not want employers

to use their position of power to cheat

or to take advantage of the workers.

 

God’s law to Israel at Deuteronomy 24:14 says,

“Do not take advantage of

a hired worker who is poor and needy,

whether that worker is

a fellow Israelite or a foreigner

residing in one of your towns.

Pay them their wages each day

before sunset,

because they are poor

and are counting on it.

Otherwise they may

cry to the Lord against you,

and you will be guilty of sin.”

 

Back in the year 1894—about 120 years ago—

the federal government created the Labor Day holiday

to honor working men and women.

 

It was a new idea for the politicians—

to honor working people, and to protect workers’ rights,

but it wasn’t new for God.

 

----------------------

 

But, again, it’s easy to be discouraged,

if you’re doing your work without the Lord in view.

The writer of Ecclesiastes expressed that discouragement

when he wrote

at Ecclesiastes 2:17

“I hated life, because

the work that is done under the sun

was grievous to me.

For everything is futile

and a pursuit of the wind.”

18 I hated all for which

I had toiled under the sun,

because I must leave it to the man

who comes after me.

 

So, his thought was that he would die someday,

and all the results of his hard work

would be left to someone else,when he died—

so, what was the point

of accomplishing anything?

 

But, when he brought God into the picture,

his view of his work and accomplishments

began to improve.

 

He went on to say, in Verse 24,

 

24 Nothing is better for a man

than to eat and drink

and enjoy his work.

I have also seen that this is

from the hand of God.

25 For apart from Him, who can eat

and who can find enjoyment?

26 To the man who is

pleasing in His sight,

He gives wisdom and knowledge and joy...

 

And he finally concluded at Ecclesiastes 12:13,

13 When all has been heard,

the conclusion of the matter is this:

Fear God and keep His commandments,

because this is the whole duty of man.

14 For God will bring every deed

into judgment, along with every

hidden thing, whether good or evil.

 

So, he concluded that there would be an eternal reward,

when God would judge him in the end.

 

But the Old Testament prophets, like this writer,

had not yet received the further revelations

about eternal life

that Christ has given us in the New Testament.

 

Because everyone who puts faith in Jesus

has eternal life ahead of them,

our work is not

futile and a pursuit of the wind.”

 

1 Corinthians 15:58 tells us,

 

“Always give yourselves fully

to the work of the Lord,

because you know that

your labor in the Lord

is not in vain.” 

 

 

 

Our every-day secular work is “labor in the Lord”

if we do it as if we were working for Jesus,

rather than for our boss.

 

Colossians 3:23 says,

 

23 And whatever you do, work heartily,

as for the Lord, and not for men,

24 knowing that from the Lord

you will receive the reward

of the inheritance;

for you serve the Lord Christ.

 

If we are followers of Christ,

he has already given us the eternal reward

of everlasting life.

 

We belong to him—he is our real boss—

so we can find joy in our work,

as we do it to please our Lord and Savior.