• Charlene Jin Lee

A Prayer for Shmita

A Prayer for Shmita

​On Labor Day 2020

Some three-day weekends are like an unplanned visit from a friend you’re always ready for. A long weekend is welcome on my calendar any time. If you are like me, the rituals and meaning of Labor Day pass by without much thought, making the weekend just that, a nice treat at summer’s end, marking autumn's beginning. When I was working at church, Labor Day marked the weekend before Kick-Off or Welcome Back Sunday. When I was teaching, it helped gauge when I should be mentally ready for the start of classes in the new term. This year feels different.

With so many struggling with unemployment and others working in vulnerable conditions, I pause to reflect on this holiday set aside to recognize the work of those who keep our communities and society moving forward. Labor Day was a hard-won national response to activists and everyday working people asserting dignity of the human person too often discounted under the prize of production and profit.

What was declared true in 1894 is true today: workers are more than components of an assembly-line, more than useful agents of economic systems. We are humans, people with basic and superfluous needs, desires, and hopes.

We need the dignity and reward of work. We need the dignity and reward of rest. We are best when we can be innovative, productive, disciplined. We are best when we can pause, wonder, sit with loved ones without an agenda.

12-hour work days were changed to 8-hour days thanks to those who fought in the first organized labor movements. Harsh working conditions and lack of policy protections were continuously challenged by subsequent waves of significant movements that chart our nation's progress on humanizing a collective ethos of work.

For people of faith who find grace and practical principles in the Bible, we draw from an ethos of work established by Creator God. The Genesis narratives tell a compassionate story of God who provides work and rest for creation. People made in the image of God are given the responsibility of stewarding the earth and given charge to be fruitful. Then God blesses a particular day set aside for rest. It is the only day (the seventh day) in the creation narratives specifically attributed to being holy (Genesis 2:2-3).

The people of God abided by this holy ethos of work and rest. When imbalances struck because of human greed, impatience, insecurity, and possession, God provided principles for returning to holiness. The Sabbath laws were among such provisions. We are to stop from the work of our own hands to remember that we belong to God, that we are beloved and worthy beyond and before our productivity.

Among the Sabbath laws is the shmita (שםטה). Lands were to remain fallow and all labors cease every seventh year, the shmita, literally meaning release. This was so that the poor among communities may eat from the previously harvested fields, so that the workers and foreigners may rest free from the pressures of those who hold power over them (Exodus 23:10-23; Leviticus 25:1-7). This mandated release provided a necessary pause for everyone to reset their ways, a long-awaited relief for laborers, hope for the weak among the community.

As we continue in this blurry season, the pains of the multiple crises in our midst are palpable for so many. Relief and restoration, hope and healing for those who are hurting can come in the form of bills and policies as well as in the generous decisions of ordinary people who see those in need of relief, recognize the resources in their reach, and move into holy action.

Until all who are weary make their way to the fountain of God’s mercy, the beloved community of faith is called to feast at the table of grace and open wide the extensions of this abundant table so that all can hear and feel the welcome invitation to come—to come and eat, to wonder, to sit with loved ones without any agenda, except to be mended and loved by their Creator.

As we bring the scatterings of this unusual Labor Day weekend, I invite you to collect hope from a word—for yourself, for your loved ones, for our world—in the offering of a prophet’s glimpse of the kin-dom of God.

May we pray with our hearts and with our deeds:

On earth as it is in heaven...


Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-12


Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found, call upon the Lord while the Lord is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that the Lord may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Amen.