Leaving Work

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This is the Labour Day weekend, so it seems appropriate that the scripture reading is about a labour dispute. This is the shortest of all of Paul’s letters, so what you heard is the whole letter. Paul is in prison again, persecuted for spreading the word about Christianity. Back then, prisons did not feed you, that was left to your friends and family. They could come and go, while you sat in chains. We hear that Paul is helped by a man called Onesimus [ oh-ness-ee-muss]. He is legally the slave of a Christian, Philemon [ Fuh-lee-mun], who is well known to Paul. Paul writes this letter to Philemon to gently suggest that he should free Onesimus, although he never quite comes out and says it.  

Why is Onesimus with Paul? It is likely that he has run away from Philemon. He comes to Paul as someone he has met before, probably in Philemon’s house. He knows that Paul is a compassionate, deeply principled man who is likely to be sympathetic to his plight. Paul knows, as everyone does, that enslaved people were barely considered people at all.   Socially, they were at the bottom of the heap. They were kept barefoot and dressed in rags, so everyone would know they were enslaved. Masters owned them, like they owned animals. That meant they could treat the enslaved anyway they wanted. They could be beaten, and even killed. It was considered the same as breaking a chair in your home. It’s yours, do what you want with it.   

To enslave someone was to strip them of their former identity. Romans used to say that slaves had no birthdays and no fathers. They were treated as though they had no families, no one to protect them. They were given new names. Onesimus means “Useful.”  

Masters could free a slave at any time, and many did after years of loyal service. But there was no guarantee this would happen. So enslaved people did as little work as possible and were always looking for a chance to run away. Those who escaped were usually killed, or their crime would be tattooed on their face, after a beating. So, Onesimus is in serious danger. If he is caught, or returned to Philemon, he may be tortured, killed, or both. He desperately needs Paul’s help.  

We don’t know why Onesimus has run away. But we do know that Paul tells Philemon, that he has come to value Onesimus, and he wants Philemon to treat him fairly should he return. The question is how to get him back without being killed or suffering horrible punishment.  

Why does anyone leave their workplace? That’s a question our entire society has been asking lately. We are in the midst of a surprising and unexpected labour shortage. After two years of the pandemic, everyone hoped the economy would spring back to normal: those who were laid off would get their jobs back, and office towers would be full again. But instead, we are experiencing what is being called the Great Resignation. For many workers, the prospect of returning to the workplace isn’t worth it, so they have been saying no. Service workers are in short supply all over the country. At first it seemed like people were holding back due to government subsidies like CERB. But when that subsidy ended, many people did not return to their jobs. Even employees who kept their office jobs throughout the pandemic are saying they have little desire to go back to their desks downtown five days a week.  

What’s going on? It appears that the experience of working remotely from home, or the cottage, has led many workers to take a hard look at office life, and they don’t like what they see. Working in an office means travelling there, in a city where traffic is a bear at rush hour.   

Before the pandemic, 87% of all workers in Toronto commuted to work. [1]  

On average, they spent almost an hour travelling each day.[2]

Half of all TTC riders spend more than 2 hours a day getting to and from work. [3]    

During the pandemic, many employees discovered that working at home without a commute can be much less stressful. It also keeps them closer to their families. For parents this has been particularly useful. The idea of standing on the TTC for an hour or sitting in a car inching along in a traffic jam seems downright irrational now. This logic applies to well paid employees and those who make very little. It appears that office life may be one of the many casualties of the pandemic.  

At the heart of the issue is our quality of life. Workers have had a chance to step back from work and ask themselves what they really want to do[4]. In Canada, one quarter of workers have changed jobs in the last year or so.[5] Among people 55 and older, there has been a 30% jump in workers choosing to retire early. [6] In health care, persistent labour shortages are fuelled by exhaustion and burnout. But many workers in the prime of their working lives are also saying no. Many young people have decided that there is no advantage to working hard if there is no prospect of buying a house or getting a promotion. So, they have decided to perform their job to the letter, but not beyond. No overtime, no working on weekends to get ahead on a project. This has been called “quiet quitting.” 

It is fair but speaks to a lack of faith in a workplace’s goals beyond delivering paychecks.  

Quiet quitting and the great resignation are both rooted in a conviction that our personal wellbeing should come first. The pandemic gave people a chance to think about why they work, and whether their job is worth it. For a long time, our society has defined people by what they do at work. Back when people went to parties, it was common to ask a stranger what they did for a living. That wasn’t considered rude because your job likely played a big part in how you defined yourself, or at least, what you did with your time, week in, week out. But the pandemic gave many people a chance to have some extended “me time”, without work. For employees who only receive two week’s vacation each year, the lockdowns were some of the longest stretches of alone time they may have ever had. We have had two years to slow down and think about what matters in our lives. And many people decided work doesn’t come first, or even second.  

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is asking us to think about the definition of wellbeing. Paul is a member of a growing Christian community which includes masters and the people they have enslaved. He wants to convince Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. But Paul wants Philemon to come to this conclusion on his own. He does not want to order him to do it. Ethical decisions are made by choice, moral ones can be imposed. Paul wants Philemon to free this man legally, but also in his heart. Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus in a different way, as a full human being. If he can accomplish this, Paul won’t just be helping the one who is enslaved, but also Philemon, the man who owned him.  

Paul comes up with a sly, clever plan. A key part of enslaving people is to strip them of their identity. They are treated as people without families, without anyone who might help them. Their birthdays were not celebrated, and they were given new names. Their former identity was erased. But in Paul’s letter, he gives Onesimus a new identity. Paul writes:    

"I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.  I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you."   

In just a few words, Paul has changed the rules of engagement. He has referred to Onesimus as his son, making Paul his symbolic father. Onesimus is no longer a man without family or advocates. Paul was born a freeman, so to enslave his son would be a terrible crime. Through this spiritual adoption, Paul has put Philemon into a bind. Legally, he can claim this runaway slave as his own. But as a Christian, he can no longer treat him as property since he is a member of Paul’s spiritual family. Paul refers to Onesimus as his own heart – would Philemon dare to whip or kill Paul’s heart?  

Paul is encouraging Philemon to see Onesimus in a new light. To see him beyond his role as a worker serving Philemon’s interests. Paul wants this Christian man, who owns a home and runs a household, to see Onesimus as a full human being, who has hopes and dreams. A man who has a heart, a spirit, and a life outside of serving his master. The fact that Paul writes this letter from prison is a reminder that Paul does not hold these values in a casual way. He has staked his life on this good news. He begins his letter by saying not that he is a prisoner of the Romans, but that he is a prisoner of Christ. His entire life is now devoted to this idea that every person counts, that every person is deserving of love and respect. This was a radical proposal in his time. In the heart of the Roman empire, enslaved people made up one third of the population. * They were a key part of the economy, and yet here was Paul suggesting that they were full people, too.  

Tomorrow is Labour Day, a day off for most workers. We have this holiday because of something that happened in Toronto, in 1872. At that time, unions and strikes were illegal.[7] People worked 10-12 hours a day, six days a week[8], with Sundays off to go to church. In March of 1872, the typesetters of the Toronto Globe newspaper decided they wanted a better deal. They went on strike, demanding a nine-hour day. Three weeks later, they staged a march to Queen’s Park, which swelled to include 10,000 people, almost ten percent of the city population. [9]  

The publisher of the Globe, George Brown, refused to budge, and police were sent in to arrest the protest organizers.  

But Prime Minister John A. MacDonald took note and used the strike against George Brown’s Liberal party. Macdonald’s government legalized unions because of the strike in Toronto. Unions were delighted that the strike had given them legal status. So, in the years after, they took the day off to celebrate.[10] This became known as Labour Day.   

The Canadian government made it a national holiday for everyone in 1894[11]. All because of that one strike in Toronto, in 1872.[12]   

The striking workers who demanded a shorter workday were fighting for the wellbeing of their families and themselves. Over the last hundred years, unions have fought to win the right to a five-day work week, eight-hour days, and paid parental leave. What we take for granted as our modern lifestyle is largely the product of unions. They have demanded that workers be given the room to have a life worth living. They have reminded us that life is more than work.  

After the pandemic, workers, blue and white collar, have reached the same conclusion. Employees are insisting on a better work-life balance, and better-quality jobs. To make this possible will take more than raising wages or better food in the work cafeteria. For people to thrive, there needs to be good, affordable housing, flexible schedules, and shorter commute times. Employers need to see us as human beings, not just as replaceable workers whose tasks can be shipped offshore if workers become too demanding. Our economy is meant to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around.  

Paul did not order Philemon to release Onesimus. Instead, he appealed to his compassion and his faith in Christ, who sees all as equally worthy. In our time, we may see another race to unionize workers, from the baristas at Starbucks to the accountants at major financial firms. Or companies may see that workers are people, first and foremost. People who want to be able to have a good life every hour of the day, not just after work. Let us hope that the pandemic will be remembered as a time when employers and employees arrived at a new deal about how to work, where to work, and why we work. Let us use our influence as Christians to help make a new age of labour possible, a wish and a prayer we utter on this Labour Day weekend.  



[1] https://www.blogto.com/city/2019/06/toronto-average-commute-time-2019/ [2] 84 minutes total each day: https://www.blogto.com/city/2019/06/toronto-average-commute-time-2019/ [3] https://moovitapp.com/insights/en/Moovit_Insights_Public_Transit_Index_Canada_Toronto_ON-143 [4] Peggy Noonan, “The ‘Great Resignation’ Started Long Ago,” The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2022 [5]24%:  Noella Ovid, “Posthaste: Almost a quarter of Canadians changed jobs amid the 'Great Resignation’” Financial Post, Jul 29, 2022 [6] DAVID PARKINSON, "The Great Resignation has arrived in Canada,” The Globe and Mail, August 11, 2022. [7] http://www.rankandfile.ca/the-nine-hour-movement-how-civil-disobedience-made-unions-legal/ [8] http://www.rankandfile.ca/the-nine-hour-movement-how-civil-disobedience-made-unions-legal/ [9] http://www.rankandfile.ca/the-nine-hour-movement-how-civil-disobedience-made-unions-legal/ [10] https://canadianlabour.ca/who-we-are/history/1872-the-fight-for-a-shorter-work-week/ [11] Craig Heron, The Worker’s Festival: a History of Labour Day in Canada [12] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/origins-of-labour-day-feature