At Work & Theology 101

The Meaning of Work in Life – and Death

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Recently, I had the privilege of having dinner with Michael Novak, the author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and winner of the Templeton Prize. A fellow dinner guest asked Michael what he would want college students to know about faith, work, and economics.

He paused for a little bit, then said,

God could have sent his Son and placed him in any circumstance, but when he sent the Word of God to earth, he was for many years in a particular vocation. I would want them to know that Jesus was a small businessman.

This sanctifies business as a valid calling.

Jesus Christ and the Meaning of Work

The idea that Jesus was a carpenter is probably a half-truth. New Testament scholar John Meier says that the “fact” that Jesus was a carpenter hangs by the thread of a half verse.

The Greek term translated “carpenter” is the word tekton. The word tekton appears twice in the New Testament, in Mark 6:3 (“Is this not the tekton?”), and in Matthew 13:55 (“Is this not the tekton son?”).

J. I. Packer says,

Though carpenter is the common rendering here, tekton could equally mean ‘mason’ or ‘smith’ (as indeed some of the Church Fathers took it); or it could mean that Joseph and Jesus were builders so that carpentry and masonry would have been among their skills.

Jesus probably worked with stone, wood, and sometimes metal, and was probably more like a general contractor.

Harold Hoehner estimates Jesus’s age at thirty-two or thirty-three when he began his public itinerant ministry. If that is correct, then Jesus pursued the calling as a small businessman for about twenty years.

If this was where God wished to place his son for so many years, then working with your hands and running a small business must be valid callings.

The Meaning of Work in Life and Death

I recently attended the funeral of a close friend and was caused to ponder the meaning of life and death anew. He died suddenly, leaving a wife and four children.

He was a brilliant philosopher and theologian, taught numerous times, and made some audio and video tapes that were extensively distributed. However, he made his living by working with computer software. He was a small businessman.

How do you evaluate such a life? Is what is done in a “ministry” setting, such as preaching, teaching, or doing apologetics, more important than teaching and consultation on information technology? Is what is done in the “spiritual” realm more important than what is done in the professional realm?

Those working in the faith and work movement would say no – that business is just as valid a calling as teaching Sunday school or in a church or seminary.

In I Corinthians 15:58, it says that what is done in the Lord is not in vain.  N.T. Wright has a great quote about this in Surprised by Hope. He writes:

What you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

Perhaps we could add to this list of things that are not in vain: a nail well placed so that a table holds together, stonework that gives a strong foundation for a tower, providing goods and services that enhance peoples’ lives, and helping people manage information so that their businesses run more smoothly.

If the Son of God was a small businessman, then we know that God values the mundane as well as the sublime, work and productivity, as well as miracle working, providing for your family as well as preaching to the multitudes.

Not only did Jesus make good tables, but his toil was not in vain. If Jesus’s work for twenty years was not in vain, then how does that change the way we evaluate our own lives or those of others?

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