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What Good is Work? (Part II)

The week before the seminary started its fall term, I was traveling in Scotland. My grandmother lives there and was in the hospital. I hadn’t seen her, or several other of my close Scottish relatives, for years. And yet, I hesitated when setting up my automatic email response on my seminary email. “Should I admit I’m away for personal travel,” I wondered, “or just have the response note I’m ‘out of the office.’?”

Last week Jonathan Malesic reframed work -- and our call to it. This week Jonathan considers work’s flipside. A call to…rest? I wish I had read it before my trip!

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders

What Good Is Work? (Part II)

Jonathan Malesic

Work and stewardship go hand in hand. Most churchgoers are only able to support ministries because they are paid for their labor. The work they do can cooperate with God’s creation by building on or repairing it, but much of the work people do in a technological economy is highly abstract, making its theological meaning hard to see. How does the work of computer coding or finance reflect the “tilling and keeping” that the first human beings were meant to do in the Garden?

Much of the work we do today also seems destructive of God’s creation, including both natural and human resources. People who are overworked without sufficient material or psychological rewards are susceptible to burnout and lose their effectiveness in the long run. Considering the importance our culture places on work as a source not only of money but of identity and dignity, the theology of work is a topic that every pastor should regularly broach with his or her congregation.

Conventional wisdom is that being a good Christian entails being a good worker. Christians are supposed to be honest, and what’s more honest than a hard day’s work, whether done in the home or out, paid or unpaid? As the sociologist Max Weber argued more than a century ago, there is an impulse in Protestant theology to regard hard work as a sacred responsibility.

Several passages from Paul’s letters support this conventional view. He advises slaves (that is, most of the workers in his time) to be obedient and to work “wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (Colossians 3:22-23). Along the same lines, Paul tells the Thessalonians that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” As for the idle, “we command and exhort [them] in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).

Jesus, however, tells a different story about work, upending our conventional wisdom. Matthew’s gospel is filled with references to work. The evangelist tells readers the occupations of Jesus’ followers, Jesus draws several parables from the world of work, and Jesus argues with the Pharisees about working on the Sabbath.

When Christians talk about their job as a “calling,” they forget that Jesus called his first disciples -- the fishermen Simon, Andrew, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew -- away from their ordinary labor. They had to quit their jobs to follow him. What he asks them to do as his followers is quite different from the paid employment we typically call work. They are to perform healings and exorcisms and, for all of this activity, “give without payment” (Matthew 10:8). Also, few bosses say at new employee onboarding, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” or “you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me” (Matthew 10:18). Discipleship is a special mission, with rules that don’t easily map onto the workplace.

Though working is difficult owing to the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:16-19), Jesus offers a way beyond the harsh toil of work: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In the old King James Version, “all you that are weary” is translated as “all ye that labour.” There is no reason to expect that the rest Jesus promises is just a break, a time to restore strength in order to go back out and work hard once again. He continues, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Resting in and with Jesus is the whole point. The Kingdom is not a realm of eternal work but one of eternal leisure, a festival in the presence of God.

Check out Part I and Part III of this series below:

What Good is Work? (Part I)

What Good is Work? (Part III)

For More Information

Jonathan Malesic has written about the meaning and value of work for America, The New Republic, the Wilson Quarterly, and several academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and taught theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for more than a decade. He is now a writer living in Dallas.


Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

"A break does not brake" image by Simon Matzinger. Creative commons license on Flickr. 

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