Some day I hope to preach on Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” Unjustly neglected by our lectionary, this verse is both poetic and, in its way, evangelical. Is there an earlier legal admonition to treat beasts of burden humanely while they are in the midst of their labor? It is not obvious why there should be. There are prudential reasons to ensure that one’s ox be adequately cared for; no law on the matter is necessary. But grain was valuable and letting an animal graze on the grain it processes while in the harness seems to me to be a commandment of grace. It suggests that even animals are entitled to a reasonable and necessary share of the fruit of their labor. It suggests that the life of a beast is, in some sense, an end in itself. I was reminded of this law recently while I listened to an oral history made by my late grandfather, who described the unwillingness of his own father to make a trip to a distant town by carriage. “He didn’t believe in running the horses. He worked them hard, but he didn’t run them.” So my great-grandfather walked to the nearest town and took two trains instead.
The saddest aspect of the New Atheism is its abuse of the Pentateuch. It’s not hard to pull up the King James Version and do a word search for slavery or stoning, while missing the deep roots of everything from forgiveness of debts to animal welfare that a more patient reading turns up. This is typical of our age, in a way. The “moral” laws we inherit from the Biblical tradition are treated as self-evident while the “ceremonial” and “judicial” laws are exposed to scorn and outrage, often in ignorance of the larger social ethic they serve.
Lutherans are ancient offenders in this. We have inherited a long tradition of interpreting the stern, beautiful command to Sabbath rest as a strictly spiritual matter. Luther glosses the third commandment as an obligation to worship. “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or hearing God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly learn and hear it,” Luther says, in his uncharacteristically obtuse explanation of the third commandment (reflective, it must be said, of his deeper hostility to that law expressed throughout his writings). What we have lost in our emphasis on Godly worship — on the work of the people — is the primal command to rest, and in so doing to enjoy the fruit of labor that is expressed in handing one-seventh of life over to this devotion. It is rest ordained not only for us who are part of the sacred community, but for those whom we employ, believer and pagan alike, and even the animals who work in our stead.
Like many parish pastors, I find myself dismayed that so many faithful are prevented from participating in the worship that I am both called and compensated to lead. I am familiar with the obligations — both real and imagined — imposed by sports teams, book clubs and travel, obligations that render monthly participation in the assembly as sure a mark of piety as weekly participation was in my grandparents’ day. But what I hear just as often is the overwhelming obligation to work. When I hear a parent offer sports as a reason they can’t attend, I am tempted to urge a reordering of priorities (though I do not, perhaps because I am not confident that a reordering would be to the advantage of divine worship). When a member pleads 70 or 90 hour workweeks, however, I don’t know what I would say even were I bold enough to try. After all, I am a freelance writer as well as a part-time pastor. Often I have to file a column by Monday morning, and when I am preaching this means working late on Sunday night. It is a privilege to do this and it is soft work by any measure. But my household depends on this work, and however one views the pastoral labor of the Lord’s Day, my freelancing is nonetheless a violation of the Sabbath. And it is a violation that cannot simply be solved by transferring the command to rest either to Saturday, where it arguably belongs, or to another day of my family’s choosing. As the labor market for professionals — leaving aside the temporal and familial indignities visited upon service-sector wage workers — comes to resemble the working life of freelancers and academics, the idea of a true “day off” comes to lose all meaning.
Did the power of the labor movement to create a designated period for rest promote the conditions for the post-war revival of religion in America, the revival against which we usually measure our own contemporary trials?
This idea of a semi-mandated day of leisure owes its faint existence to Christian labor activism, which segregated Sundays from a previously unlimited work week. The role of Jews in the American labor movement is probably the source of the weekend, with the two sabbaths placed side by side. Did the power of the labor movement to create a designated period for rest promote the conditions for the post-war revival of religion in America, the revival against which we usually measure our own contemporary trials? Did the broadly shared affluence of 20th-century America allow our churches to swell with parishioners given what amounted to paid time off? Is the decline of the weekend part of the reason that formal church participation has declined more quickly among non-college graduates than among the more educated?
If so, Christians will need to recover the political dimension of the Sabbath along with its ritual dimension. Once you were slaves in Egypt, the Lord tells the Israelites by way of explaining the command. We will have to recognize that secularization is an economic phenomenon as well as a religious one, a muzzling of the ox as it treads out grain at any hour and day its master wishes. Worldly matters like wages, hours, and working conditions have powerful religious consequences. This is something the Law of Moses grasps with uniquely fine intuition: devotional practices are inextricably entwined with economic circumstances, and the ethics that govern both are ultimately the same, without respect to the sacred or even biological status of the one who works. The command to worship and the command to rest spring together from the truth that all time and all labor belong to God. If we don’t demand fairness and enjoyment for those who sleep in on Sunday, we can’t expect people to hurry, as St. Benedict admonished his monks, to the work of the Lord.