Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




 “Labor Justice and Bricks Without Straw”

Sunday, September 2, 2007



Exodus 5: 1-18

Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder


The biblical story about the Israelites in Egypt and Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron is a story about labor organizing and worker justice.


When Moses and Aaron began organizing the Israelite workers, one of their first requests (well, it was a demand, really) was for holidays. “Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, Let my people go so that they might celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”


One of the functions of religion is holidays. They are very important. While most of us find much of our meaning in life from our work, and while the rest of society tends to define us in terms of our jobs, holidays are statements of the truth that we are more than our work, more than our jobs, more than our functionality and utility.


There is a drive inside of us to be productive, so much so that people without jobs often figure out how to work anyway, but religion insists that we have inherent value that transcends our work and usefulness, and one of the ways it does this is through holidays and Sabbaths when work is prohibited. We are valuable and precious even when we are not working.


So one of the first efforts that Moses and Aaron made in Egypt on behalf of the Israelite workers was to demand of Pharaoh holidays for the workers.


Pharaoh’s response was to increase the workers’ work load…to require them to make bricks without straw. Pharaoh’s response was to say that if the Israelite workers thought they had time for holidays then they had time to do more work.


“Bricks without straw” is the symbol of all the expectations of all the Pharaohs who see workers not as people but as instrumentalities, as tools, as factors in a productivity equation. “Bricks without straw” is the symbol of all of the Pharaoh’s inhumane expectations.


“Bricks without straw” is the expectation that people can be healthy without access to health care…the expectation that people can be learned without a good education…the expectation that people can be skillful without training…the expectation that people can be productive without rest…the expectation that people can live stable lives without decent wages.


I am old enough now that I have listened to I don’t know how many debates about increasing the minimum wage. Every time it is debated you will hear on the news dire predictions about businesses having to close down if the minimum wage is increased. Yet, when the minimum wage goes up, I’ve never seen a McDonald’s close.


Every time labor has pushed for more straw – more reasonable hours, better benefits, health care, vacations – there have been dire predictions that businesses will close down, yet it seems to me that after every labor victory the economy has become stronger.


The grave economic crises in our nation’s history have not happened when labor achieved better working conditions and more rewards for workers, but when Capital became greedy and tried to elevate profits beyond real productivity.


The primary message of Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh is that the Israelite workers are God’s people, God’s children. They are human beings of inherent value, precious beyond their utility and usefulness.


We all need rest in order to work, food in order to be strong, stability in order to be dependable, healthcare in order to be healthy, education in order to be capable. No one can make bricks without straw.


I want to say two more things about the story of the Israelite workers in Egypt and Pharaoh and Moses and Aaron.


First, I’d like us to notice that when Moses and Aaron asked for a holiday for the workers and Pharaoh reacted by requiring the Israelite workers to make bricks without straw, the workers did not become angry at Pharaoh. They became angry at Moses and Aaron.


It is not easy being a labor organizer. If you are a labor organizer, you are liable to have both the Israelites and Pharaoh upset with you. It is not easy being a labor organizer, but we need to remember that Moses and Aaron were called to their work by God.


Organizing on behalf of the humane treatment of God’s working people is a God-given calling.


The second thing I want to add is that the Pharaoh many of us need to deal with the most is the Pharaoh inside ourselves. Part of the reason the world’s Pharaohs have so much power is because most of us have a Pharaoh living within our own souls.


We have inhumane expectations of our own selves. We expect of ourselves that we should be able to make bricks without straw.


I have had to learn these past years to take a Sabbath…to take care for my body, mind and spirit. None of us can make bricks without straw.


This is one of the reasons spirituality is important. Most of us don’t really believe about our own selves that we have inherent value that is greater than our work and productivity…that we are precious not because of what we produce but because we are God’s people, God’s children. Spirituality connects us to a divinity who loves us unconditionally.  


May the Moses and Aarons within us speak boldly to the Pharaohs within us so that we might contribute to labor justice, not only by the way we act politically, but by the way we treat our own selves and live our own lives.