by Dr. Gene Edward Veith
We often talk about recovering the true meaning of Christmas or the true meaning of the Fourth of July. What, though, is the true meaning of Labor Day?
That national holiday, observed on the first Monday of September, has become little more than the last day of summer vacations—a last chance to grill out, go to the beach, or enjoy a day off work before the autumn grind takes over again.
The first Labor Day was held on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. It was an activity of the local labor unions, back in the early days of the industrial revolution when unions were first getting organized to combat subsistence wages and miserable working conditions.
It became a national holiday in 1884 when President Grover Cleveland pushed a bill to that effect through Congress. President Cleveland was atoning for his decision earlier that year to send federal troops to break up the Pullman strike, in which 13 railway car builders were killed. That tragedy created a backlash of political sympathy for the unions, so Congress unanimously passed the proposal for a new holiday honoring the dignity of labor.
That is the history of the holiday, but, again, what does it mean? The connection between the 13 dead strikers and having the last picnic of the season remains obscure. Fewer than 9 percent of Americans belong to labor unions these days. Most people who enjoy the Labor Day holiday probably have no idea what they are celebrating or commemorating. And what does “the dignity of labor” even mean today?
Christians, and Lutherans in particular, are in a position to revitalize Labor Day. The early church took over pagan holidays and gave them a distinctly Christian meaning. Christians today can do the same with Labor Day, turning it into a holiday that honors, celebrates, and reflects upon the doctrine of vocation.
God’s Labor and Our Labor
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). The word vocation comes from the Latin word for “calling.” It means that God assigns us to certain courses of life and then calls us to different tasks, offices, and avenues for service.
The doctrine of vocation is Luther’s theology of the Christian life. It has to do with how Christians are to live in the world, how they exercise their faith, and how their ordinary lives are charged with meaning.
More specifically, vocation addresses how God works through human beings. He gives us our daily bread through the vocation of farmers, millers, and bakers. He protects us by means of the governing authorities. He grants healing by means of the medical vocations. He creates works of beauty by working through artists and musicians. He creates new life and cares for children by means of mothers and fathers.
God is at work in all of the people who do things for us—the ones who built our houses, made our clothing, prepared our food, picked up our trash, designed the technology that we enjoy, worked in the factories to manufacture what we need, gave us services to make our lives easier—and He is at work through us. Luther goes so far as to say that vocation is a “mask of God,” that behind the server in the restaurant who brings us our food, behind the shopkeeper, behind the business executive, and behind us in the things that we do for others, God Himself is hidden.
Luther writes, “What else is all our work to God— whether in the fields, in the garden, in the city, in the house, in war, or in government—but just such a child’s performance, by which He wants to give His gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the masks of God, behind which He wants to remain concealed and do all things. . . . He could give children without using men and women. But He does not want to do this. Instead, He joins man and woman so that it appears to be the work of man and woman, and yet He does it under the cover of such masks. . . . God gives all good gifts; but . . . you must work and thus give God good cause and a mask” (Commentary on Psalm 147; Luther’s Works 14:114 AE).
When we thank God for our meals and for all of our other blessings, we are acknowledging His labor that is manifested in human labor. Vocation is another example of the Lutheran principle that God works through means. In His spiritual kingdom, God works through the Word and Sacraments. In His earthly kingdom, He works through vocation to care providentially for all of His creation.
Being conscious of vocation makes us appreciate all the people through whom God serves us, helping us see in every laborer the presence of God.
Laboring in God’s Estates
Contrary to today’s usage, the word vocation does not just mean “job.” Each Christian has multiple callings that can be categorized into what Luther describes as the three estates that God has established for human life: the church, the household, and the civil government (Large Confession 1528; Luther’s Works 37).
All Christians have been “called by the Gospel” and, by virtue of their Baptisms, are made part of the Church. God calls pastors through whom He proclaims His Word and administers His Sacraments. When the pastor, “as a called and ordained servant of the Word,” forgives us our sins in the stead of and by the command of Christ, Jesus Himself is forgiving us through the pastor’s word of absolution. Laypeople, too, have callings in the Church, as they serve each other in the ordinary work of the congregation: singing in the choir, serving on boards and committees, passing out bulletins, and taking part in the church’s ministries.
God has also called us into families, into the vocations of the household. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters are all, in the words of Luther’s Small Catechism, “holy orders” in which God has placed us. Luther classifies the work by which we make our livings for ourselves and our fami-lies—the modern sense of vocation—within the estate of the household, thus subordinating work to family. One might wonder why on Labor Day, we don’t work on a day that honors work. For Luther, spending time with our families is one of the most important vocations that we have.
God has also called us into a civil society—into a community, a nation, a culture. Thus, we have the vocation of citizen. Christians should thus exercise the duties of citizenship, which for Americans include voting, deliberating on the issues of the day, and actively participating in the culture where God has placed us.
To these estates, Luther adds a more general category he calls “the common order of Christian love” (Large Confession 1528). This is the realm in which we interact with people from all vocations in the course of everyday life. It includes friendships, informal interactions, and the realm of the Good Samaritan. Here too we are called to service.
The Purpose of Labor
The purpose of every vocation, according to Luther, is to love and serve our neighbors. Scripture tells us to love God and to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Our relationship to God, though, is not based on what we do. Nor is our love for God anything of our doing. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Our relationship with God is based solely on the gift of His Son. But our faith in Him bears fruit in love for God, who then sends us into our vocations to love our neighbors (see The Freedom of the Christian; Luther’s Works 31).
Each vocation has its own neighbors whom we are to love and serve. Marriage presents us with only one neighbor whom we are to love and serve: our spouse. Husbands love and serve their wives, and wives love and serve their husbands. Parents love and serve their children. Children love and serve their parents. In the workplace, laborers love and serve their co-workers, their bosses, and, above all, their customers. In the state, rulers are to love and serve their people, and citizens are to love and serve their fellow citizens.
Notice that even vocations that include the exercise of authority are to do so in love and service. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42–43). Whereas non-Christians—and many Christians today who have forgotten vocation—turn authority into the exercise of power over others, vocation turns authority into a way of serving them.
The Priesthood of All Laborers
Of course, we also sin in our vocations. Instead of loving and serving our neighbor, we often despise our neighbor and insist that our neighbor serve us. These sins we confess to God. In the section on Confession and Absolution in the Catechism, we are told to consider “our station in life”—a synonym for vocation—in light of the Ten Commandments. These we confess to our pastor, either privately or in the Divine Service, who then uses his vocation to give us Christ’s forgiveness, which we receive from the pastor “as from Christ Himself.” At the end of the service, having been built up in our faith through the Word and the Sacrament, we are sent back to our vocations—to our marriages, our parenting, our jobs, and our culture— to bear the fruits of our faith. Next Sunday, we are back again, confessing how we have sinned in our vocations. But then, hearing the Gospel once again, we are sent back into our callings. This is the pattern of the Christian life.
It is in vocation that sanctification happens. It is in vocation that evangelism happens, as when parents bring their children to Baptism and teach them about Jesus and in the natural conversations that take place in the workroom and in the opportunities to bring our friends to church. It is in vocation that Christians become salt and light to the world, influencing the culture as a whole by living out their faith in every profession.
Vocation is part of the priesthood of all believers. That does not mean that every Christian is a pastor. It means that Christians do not have to be pastors to be priests. A priest is a member of a “holy order,” which is how the Table of Duties in the Catechism describes marriage, parenthood, and laboring in the workforce. To be specific, a priest is someone who offers a sacrifice. This does not mean replicating the sacrifice of Christ, which is a once-for-all propitiation for the sins of the world. Rather, those who know Christ’s sacrifice are called to present their bodies as “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).
This happens in vocation. The laborer in whatever field who comes home from work exhausted has presented his body as a living sacrifice for his family. The wife who submits to her husband and the husband who “gives himself up” for his wife (Eph. 5:22–33) are both offering themselves to each other as living sacrifices. Every vocation involves a sacrifice of the self for the good of the neighbor. But in that sacrifice is the cross of Jesus Christ Himself who works in and through vocation.
Luther on Labor Day
Christians have good reason to celebrate Labor Day, which, in light of vocation, can be an occasion to thank God for His gifts and His presence in the work that He gives us to do and in the work through which we are blessed by others.
Luther wrote centuries before the institution of Labor Day, but he sums up well the true meaning of the holiday:
If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen. . . . All this is continually crying out to you: “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” (The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat; Luther’s Works 21:237).
About the Author: Dr. Gene Edward Veith serves as provost at Patrick Henry College, the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, and is the author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.