Examining Jesus’ Inclusion of Work Roles in his Parables

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What early life experiences could best prepare Jesus to be formed for his distinctive divine-human role as Messiah and Savior of the world? To set the context for this question, imagine being invited to observe that special planning session in eternity past, when our Trinitarian God considered creating the world and mapping out a plan of redemption. Adopting a finite human perspective, consider what might have transpired at that divine brainstorming session. These options come to mind.

It might be important for the Messiah to grow up in a family closely associated with the Temple, such as a priestly household. Days could be devoted to studying Scripture, prayer, and daily access to the temple precincts. That was the heritage for both John the Baptizer and for the Old Testament prophet Samuel who lived by the Tabernacle. Although Samuel’s parents were not priests, after Samuel was weaned, he grew up with Eli’s priestly family. Or, perhaps the Messiah could be raised within a Pharisee’s household as was true for the Apostle Paul. This lay movement was highly devoted to God and zealous for the application of Old Testament Scriptures (Torah and tradition) to daily living.

Instead, Jesus was sovereignly assigned to an ordinary couple, Mary and Joseph, who worked in a “secular” trade. After returning from their brief sojourn in Egypt, Jesus’ family moved north to Galilee, a couple of day’s journey from Jerusalem. During his young adult years, Jesus lived far away from the temple precincts, devoting his days to getting his hands dirty with building materials as a “blue collar” construction worker.

That may seem remarkable in light of a commonly held view today that deems secular work as of lower value than “full-time vocational ministry.” Yet by taking a deeper look at Jesus’ teachings and his own “secular” work experience prior to his public ministry, we may come to appreciate how this form of work had a significant role in Jesus’ life, and how it continues to have a vital role in God’s ongoing work today. Part one of this paper considers what can be inferred about Jesus’ life as a construction worker of that day. Part two surveys the many parables that include a reference to work within the storyline, with a view to discerning some connections to Jesus’ own work experience. Finally, a few implications are offered regarding our participation in work today.

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Klaus Issler is a Professor of Christian Education and Theology at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA. He is the author of Living into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character and Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introduction to Christology, among other publications.

This paper was sponsored by a grant from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Some of the material is adapted from Klaus Issler, Living into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012, Chapter 8).

For further technical details regarding this topic, see Klaus Issler,“Exploring The Pervasive References to Work in Jesus’ Parables,” JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.2 (2014) 323-39

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