When we look at the biblical laws in the first five books of the Bible, we often see laws that are not obviously relevant to our own lives and to our own experience. Most of us do not prepare sacrifices at the altar, most of us do not have oxen and cattle that we take care of, and most of us do not wear tassels on our garments or hire manservants or maidservants whose Sabbathkeeping we are responsible for. However, even in the more obscure pages of the Law there are laws which are without a doubt relevant for us today. Let me ask you a question, and you can raise your hands in response. How many of you all have ever received wages for your labor? [Watches hands raise.] That’s about what I figured. Most of us beyond a certain wage will have an experience with work, where we will receive wages for our labor. Those wages will be a large part, often the only part, of the funds we have to budget for our food, rent, mortgage, insurance, savings, entertainment expenses, clothing budget, and all of the other purposes to which we put our money. Today I would like to look at a law that we find in Leviticus that looks at wages from a perspective that we may not be used to, and that is very relevant to us, whether we are in the position of receiving wages, or whether we are people who hire others and pay their wages .
We find this law in Leviticus 19:13. In the midst of various moral and ceremonial laws, Moses gives this law from God, and Leviticus 19:13 reads: “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.” This law and the principle behind it is so important that it is given again in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, along with some of the reasoning behind the law that explains its purpose. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 reads: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.” Why is that in two places in the law God commands employers to pay their employees their wages daily? In Leviticus 19, we see no rationale, simply the command. In Deuteronomy 24, though, we see that wage earners are assumed to be people who are not well off, who live from hand to mouth, or paycheck to paycheck as many of us do, and who did not have land to serve as collateral for low-interest loans. Then, as now, those who were poor enough that they had to work for others to earn their daily bread were in a position where exploitation was very possible. To withhold wages from such people was to subject them, as it subjects people now, to ruinous rates of interest from those who saw in these working poor a bad credit risk but a possibility for profit all the same. Let us note that God takes the plight of the working poor quite seriously, and he says that if these poor cry out because their wages have been withheld overnight by their employers, that it will be a sin.
This is a serious matter. Most of us who work, myself included, have their wages withheld, sometimes for long periods of time. Most people are paid biweekly, some even monthly, and wages are often withheld for weeks at a time or even a month or more. In God’s view, this is theft. When we start a job, we incur a lot of expenses, such as transportation, food, our rent or house payments, and so on. These expenses must be paid for somehow, and so often people find it necessary to borrow much money until they can pay it off once their wages come over. At times this can be a serious burden to people. This was true in the ancient world, even if it was a simpler world, and it is true in our own world today. This law is one whose relevance to us cannot be denied. We still face the negative repercussions of having our expenses be due with cash on delivery while having our wages withheld by those who have greater economic power than those who labor by their wits or the sweat of their brow. This is a form of theft that is rampant in our society, and one that seems to attract little moral outrage, largely because these laws seem not be widely known by people, much less enforced.
Let us ask ourselves an obvious question, that if these laws are important, can we find them referred to or alluded to in the New Testament? The answer is yes, and these laws form part a large part of the context for three New Testament passages relating to work and wages. Let us turn to these passages now and see how these laws regulating the daily payment of wages is alluded to by Jesus Christ, Paul, and James in the New Testament. Let us first turn to how Jesus Christ alludes to this law in one of the most famous parables of the Gospels, the parable of the generous landowner. In Matthew 20:1-16, we have the parable of the generous landowner. Most of us are familiar with the parable of Christ as a landowner who hires people at the beginning of the work day and goes throughout the day to hire more workers throughout the day, all the way until one hour before the close of labor. Let us focus our attention here in Matthew 20 on the verses that deal with the payment of wages, though, verse eight. Matthew 20:8 reads: “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’” Here we see the generous landowner acting according to the law, in settling accounts with his hired works on a daily basis, all of which received the same wage, the denarius which was the standard wage for unskilled agricultural labor. The generosity to those who had worked only an hour or for only three hours or only six hours angered those who had worked all day for the same wage, but we see that the landowner was generous to those who might have been judged as thieves of time by less sympathetic employers. We see, though, that the prompt daily payment of wages as commanded by law is referred to here.
Let us now turn to another familiar scripture where the prompt payment of wages forms part of the context. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 gives us a familiar verse from the writings of Paul about the importance of honest labor among believers. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 reads: “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” This verse comes somewhat loaded with assumptions, but in its basic form it can be understood that those who are able-bodied are expected to earn their food through working and not mooching off of others. It is to be expected that people who are able to work will be able to earn the wages from their labor that can provide for their needs. In order for this assumption to hold, the wages of those who labor need to be paid in a prompt manner. If someone labors but is not paid until weeks later for that labor, they will not likely be able to eat in the meantime without begging, borrowing, or stealing, which defeats the whole point of Paul’s message here. In order for people to work in order that they may eat, they need to be promptly paid.
There is one more passage that deals with the prompt payment of wages and it is a very fiercely written passage that we find in James 5:1-6. James 5:1-6 gives us a message about economic exploitation that could have come from the minor prophets: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.” It should be noted that James is not condemning all of those whose economic position allows them in these last days to earn a good living or to acquire wealth, but specifically those who do so by exploiting their workers by withholding their wages by fraud. Those who profit off of the labor of others while being lax and dilatory in paying wages earned are viewed as thieves and murderers and condemned in harsh language by James. Hopefully none of us have ever behaved in such a fashion that he could be speaking about us. Clearly, this passage demonstrates that the concern in the law for the prompt payment of wages for labor is a matter of the highest ethical concern for the Church of God today.
What are we to do about this? Most of us are in the position of those who from time to time cry out about the injustices and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable in this wicked and corrupt world. That said, to the extent that we are in a position of paying wages for the labor of others on our behalf, whether as customers paying for cakes or pastries for a wedding or farmers paying for seasonal labor or entrepreneurs and small business owners paying wages to others for work on our behalf, we cannot take advantage of those who labor on our behalf. People who work incur expenses if they labor on our behalf in preparing goods or in transporting ourselves and feeding ourselves to where labor is done or putting a roof over our heads. To withhold the prompt payment of wages to those who labor on our behalf, regardless of our own convenience in keeping those wages in arrears, is to steal from them and to bring upon ourselves judgment as thieves and exploiters of the poor and vulnerable. Let that never be said about us.
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