At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Why Did Jesus Use the Language of Vocation & Economics in His Teaching?

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A recent article by Klaus Issler in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society highlights the pervasive presence of the topic of work in Jesus’ parables. The collection of charts and statistics make it clear that, while not the main substance of Christ’s teaching, work was never far from Jesus’ understanding of the human condition.

Issler notes that work is mentioned in 32 of the 37 parables in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark and Luke). This puts the topic of vocation in Christ’s teaching about 86% of the time. In some of these stories the theme of work is only incidental to the story, but none of the parables demonstrate a negative view of work.

That 86% of the parables have work as a discernible element should encourage us to cultivate our own view of work.

Christ and Commerce

Besides the concept of work, Issler finds evidence that Christ had a positive view of commerce. He writes,

In addition to including a range of work activities in the storyline of many parables, Jesus employed certain commercial terms and analogies to convey truths about spiritual realities.

For example, in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), Jesus uses a commercial term for “debts” to help explain the spiritual reality of being forgiven for sin. Additionally, in Matthew 6:26 and the parallel passages Christ uses specifically commercial terms of exchange and profit to explain the overwhelming value of the soul.

Much like the commentary on work, Christ’s use of commercial terms does not validate all forms of economic activity. In fact, Christ is particularly harsh toward those who engage in unjust commerce in the Temple (Matt. 21:12–13). The purpose and means by which economics are conducted determine whether commercial transactions are good. Still, the presence of economic language in Christ’s lessons in the Synoptic Gospels allows us to have a positive view of commerce.

Vocation & Economics

Issler finds three reasons for Christ’s use of the language of vocation and economics.

  • First, teachers do best to communicate truth in concepts that people understand. First century audiences would have found work and commerce familiar topics just like contemporary crowds.
  • Second, Issler notes that Christ himself was a craftsman, engaged in building for at least twenty years of his life. The topic of work was a part of Jesus’ personal experience.
  • Third, Christ focused on vocation to raise “the dignity and honor of all good work in the marketplace.” This leads Issler to conclude, “For the Christian there is no ‘secular’ work.”

What It Means for Christians Today

As we continue to discuss and evaluate economics, vocation, and justice from a Christian worldview, this Issler’s article helps to illustrate a few points:

  • Work and economics are a topic worthy of discussion in our churches. Our economic lives take a great deal of our time and energy, therefore we should be engaged in our Christian communities in trying to disciple one another by discussing how and why we do our work. Work cannot be all that we talk about, but it needs to be a frequent topic of conversation and teaching. These conversations need to go beyond promotions and sales quotas into the ways we interact with our customers and the reason that we do our jobs.
  • The economic realities of life can be a bridge to gospel conversations. It is not surprising that Christ uses the idea of having a debt forgiven to demonstrate the power of the gospel. He does this in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12) and also in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–36). Most of the people we work with either have debt or were debtors at some point in the past. Communicating the reality of the gospel forgiveness through verbal analogy to economic debt is both consistent with Christ’s example and can communicate clearly with a contemporary audience.
  • Our work can be a gospel parable. We don’t always get the chance to articulate the gospel in conversation, but we do consistently have the opportunity to demonstrate the gospel in our lives. Jesus used examples of good workers and poor workers to explain the gospel message to his disciples (e.g. Matt 20:1–16), so we have precedent to do our work in such a way that it illustrates the effects the gospel can have. Our actions can readily identify us as Christians (John 13:35) as well as point toward the future reality of heaven.

Work was never far from Jesus‘s understanding of the human condition, nor should it be from ours.

Download Issler’s IFWE research on Jesus’s views of work here.

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