In the Old Testament, Micah tells Israel, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Indeed, chapter six of Micah concerns the Lord’s decision to punish Israel because of its practices that opposed God’s laws and intentions: Israel was full of those who used dishonest scales, who lied, and who were violent.
Many of God’s OT regulations were meant to protect those in weaker social and economic situations. Psalm 146 is a praise to God who, unlike mortal men, “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked” (7-9).
These ideals are certainly carried through into the New Testament, where it is emphasized that all are to be treated with respect and as one would like to be treated themselves, and that all persons are equal in God’s sight (Matthew 7:12; Galatians 3:28; 1 Peter 3:8). So what did God command concerning the rights of workers? What was expected of the employer (or master)? For one, all persons, including hired people and servants/slaves, were to have the Sabbath day for rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). Second, workers were to be paid at the end of the day (Leviticus 19:13b; Matthew 20:1-16). Third, employees are to be treated with gratitude, respect, and good will, as this verse from Ruth 2:4 exemplifies: “And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, ‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered, ‘The LORD bless you.’”
Verses that continue with this idea, but also provide the reason – that all humans are equal – include Job 31:13-15, Colossians 4:1, and Ephesians 6:9. For example: “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9).
God also gave warnings to those who would disobey His will and laws in the employer-employee relationship. In Malachi He says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against . . . those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (3:5). There’s more in Jeremiah: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages . . .” (22:13). James did not pull any punches when he wrote:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (5:1-6).
Another thing to consider about God’s laws and regulations is that they were more advanced and humane than those of the ancient near eastern societies that surrounded Israel. Some slaves in Israel were the poor who became too indebted. Instead of becoming homeless and/or being on various forms of welfare, “Someone would agree to pay their debt for six years (or fewer) of labor. After the time was over, the owner-employer sent them on their way, with funds and good.”
One law made it illegal to return runaway slaves to their masters! “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Laws such as these (and there are more) provided a big incentive for masters to treat all in their household fairly. In contrast, there is hint about how poor persons were treated elsewhere.
In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), the son receives his inheritance from his still-living father and then moves to a far-off country. He soon finds himself without any money left, “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (15-16). If the prodigal were paid every evening, would he be without food? If he had been even a slave in Israel, would he be without food and shelter? I am not advocating slavery (!) but am pointing out a result of our practice and attitude toward the less successful in our country (the United States): the slaves of Israel were better off than the jobless/homeless in America.
(c) Vicki Priest 2014 [edited on September 1, 2014; previously posted by the author at Examiner.com, in 2011]