Today’s readings: Genesis 1:26-2:3; Psalm 90; Matthew 25:14-30
One of the things that I remember vividly about my childhood is how hard my parents worked. My Dad worked more than one job at a time for several years. And in his main job, he was with the company for well over forty years, finally retiring from the company he worked for since his late teens. My mother, too, worked outside the home, and still does on a part-time basis. They encouraged me to work as well, and the experience of the work I did in my late teens is something that I carried with me throughout my pre-seminary work years, and continue, really, to benefit from to this very day. And that’s how work is supposed to be: participation in God’s creation, enhancing our human dignity, bringing forth our gifts, and helping us to be better people. Work should also help us to sustain our lives and our families, and to provide for their needs, including health care and retirement. The Church has consistently and loudly taught these truths about work ever since Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891.
As we observe Labor Day this year, though, I think those principles are in jeopardy. Our economy is a broken one, and far too many don’t have the resources that work provides. The bishops of our nation publish a yearly Labor Day statement, and this year they write about the hard statistics our economy presents:
“Officially over 12 million workers are looking for work but cannot find a job and millions more have actually given up seeking employment. Millions more are underemployed; they are willing and able to work full time, but there are not enough jobs available. Over ten million families are “working poor”–they work hard, but their jobs do not pay enough to meet their basic needs. The sad fact is that over 46 million people live in poverty and, most disturbingly, over 16 million children grow up poor in our nation. The link between joblessness and poverty is undeniable, as Pope Benedict points out:
“’In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 63).’”
The bishops then go on to call for a more just economy, beginning with fixing the broken economy in which we find ourselves. No easy task! They do point out that they find a lack of concern for the poor and lack of support for workers among all political candidates right now to be ominous and disturbing. It is then, our task to hold them accountable for that as we vote, one of many important issues that demand our attention in the upcoming election. It is also, of course, our job to pray for that reality. The bishops write:
This Labor Day, our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs. Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation. As people of faith, we are called to stand with those left behind, offer our solidarity, and join forces with “the least of these” to help meet their basic needs. We seek national economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life.
This Labor Day reminds us that we don’t have permission to write off human labor as some kind of necessary evil or a commodity to be bought and sold. We are reminded that the economy exists for the good of people, not the other way around. We must truly venerate all labor, that of our own efforts as well as that of others. We must vigorously defend the rights and dignity of workers, particularly of the poor and marginalized. And we must always offer all of this back to our God who created us to be co-creators with him. May we pray with the Psalmist this day and every day, “Lord give success to the work of our hands!”