The message from the Old and New Testaments on the dignity of work is clear – those who labor deserve to be treated with respect. As with most social justice issues, the Biblical witness around economic oppression was radical at the time and crucial for today, driven by a call for fairness and equity.
Both Testaments have plenty to say about economic oppression of the poor, wages, and systemic inequalities between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Beginning in the Pentateuch and continuing through the Prophets, the Old Testament gives a clear and consistent witness against such practices as poverty wages, wage theft, economic disparity, and the exploitation of those in need. For example, many texts offer protection for vulnerable populations – often described as “widows” and “orphans.” From Jesus to Paul to James, the New Testament witness is also very clear when it comes to respecting workers.
Recent economic analyses of the Roman Empire, which included the birthplace of Christianity, show that an estimated 55 to 68 percent of the populace lived at or below the subsistence level, with an additional one in four people being only just above the subsistence level (Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World, 45-46). Even worse, the vast majority of the time, the religious, cultural, and legal context of the day favored the rich and helped keep the non-elite in poverty. Exploitation and oppression were tolerated.
Therefore, when biblical writers from Old Testament prophets to followers of Jesus decry wage theft and speak against oppression, they challenge common and prevalent practices and stand in sharp contrast to the wider culture that condoned such conduct.