Theology 101

How Jesus’s Work Influenced His Teaching

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Jesus was a shrewd observer of life, offering wisdom gleaned from birds, flowers, and the weather. Last week we explored Jesus’ work experience – perhaps his time in the workforce also provided insights that he included in his parables.

Work Is a Prominent Theme in Jesus’ Teaching

It turns out that of the thirty-seven parables in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), thirty-two mention some form of work-related activity as part of the storyline.

  • Among these thirty-two parables, Jesus alludes to twenty-two different kinds of work activities or roles.
  • For twenty-five of these parables, the identified work roles are a main part of the storyline.
  • In seven parables, identified work roles were only minor details.

Though many of Jesus’ work examples occurred in a different setting and context than a modern workplace, he addresses issues that we can still relate to today such as thoroughness and honesty.

Two Examples of Jesus’ Personal Experience?

In light of Jesus’ own work experience, might some aspects of these stories have a personal connection? As theologian Ken Campbell notes,

Jesus’ employment of stories and metaphors was based on:

  • His intimate knowledge of the Scriptures.
  • His own hard-won experience growing up on a terraced farm in Nazareth, participating in the cyclical life of the village, going to work every day, attending synagogue, and interacting with his family, clan, neighbors, and strangers.

Might Jesus have used examples from his own life to illustrate his teachings just as modern pastors draw upon their life experiences for sermon illustrations?

Two Foundations

One example of this is the parable of the two builders and two houses in Matthew 7:24-27 which concludes the Sermon on the Mount.

The practice of ensuring a solid rock foundation under a house was probably an accepted building practice of the time.

Imagine young Jesus working with his father, digging a foundation for a house near the sea. Jesus asks, “Is this trench deep enough, Dad?” Joseph replies, “Have you hit rock yet, son?” “No.” “Then keep on digging.”

It did not pay to do shallow work on the foundation—one would need to return sometime later and fix the problems.

The Unfinished Tower

When Jesus teaches on the cost of discipleship in Luke 14:28, he notes that one should have the funds at the start to complete a tower.

Might Jesus have built a tower for a client who never paid? If Jesus helped build some new barns for a rich client, that experience could be the back-story for the parable of the rich fool found in Luke 12:16-21.

These work-situated parables offer a continuing reminder of Jesus’ hidden years that do not get much attention.

Unless there was an infusion of moral virtue when Jesus was a baby, we can infer that Jesus’ day job—where he interacted with people and the elements of nature—played a key role in his own character formation to become the kind of person the gospels portray.

Do you think Jesus’ work experience influenced his teaching? 

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from Klaus Issler’s white paper entitled “An Examination of Jesus’ Inclusion of Work Roles in His Parables.” Read the whole paper here.

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