Today the city streets are quiet, and the parish office is dark, but we are gathered in this well-lit place at God’s altar. On this Labor Day we thank God for the gift of honest work. The green vestments I’m wearing might remind us of dollar bills, and the laborer certainly deserves his pay. But the fundamental purpose of labor is not to make money. God has given us strength and intelligence to glorify His awesome majesty, and to build up a well-ordered human community. A man once told Mother Teresa that he would not do what she was doing (picking worm-infested people out of Calcutta’s gutters) “for a million bucks.” She replied, “neither would I.”
Today’s Gospel from Matthew 6 just happens to contain these words: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Either we work for money, or we work for the sheer joy of serving the Almighty’s perfect will. “Therefore,” Our Lord continues in His Sermon on the Mount, “I say to you: do not worry about your life, what you will eat, nor for your body, what you will wear…. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither labor nor do they spin,” and yet God provides for them. How could our labor improve on God’s natural beauty, and yet He commands us to join Him in sacred work. Honest work is our privilege, and today we celebrate labor by thanking God, first of all, for giving us the capacity to build and to plant.
The work is God’s, not man’s. A friend of mine here in San Francisco is an illegal immigrant. He has been trying to get a “work permit” for several years, begging the government permission to join America’s labor force. The bigger the U.S. government gets, the harder it is to get a work permit. Certainly governments must do their best to rightly order the societies entrusted to their oversight. But “it is better to trust in God than to trust in men,” as every piece of money in our country states: “In God we trust.” Government can only do so much to order our lives, and truly the government that governs least governs best. In the words of St. Philip Neri, “He who wishes to be perfectly obeyed, should give but few orders.”
Today’s Mass includes these words in the gradual, from Psalm 117: “It is better to trust in the Lord, than to trust in men. It is better to trust in the Lord, than to trust in princes.” We don’t have “princes” in America, but we do have 20 million government employees. They do the best they can, I’m sure, but their ability to regulate labor, and every other aspect of our lives together, is quite limited. Obey just laws, certainly, and respect civil servants, but put not your absolute trust in anyone but God. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His justice” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, “and all these things shall be added unto you.”
From Father Illo’s blog. Illo is pastor of Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco.