Theology 101

Two Historic Teachings of Work

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This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

                                                                                                       — Jeremiah 6:16

If we look back over the last 2,000 years of Christian history, we discover that the idea of vocation has been understood quite differently at various times. Prior to the Christian era we find two sharply contrasting views of everyday work among the Greeks and the Jews.

The Greek View of Work

During New Testament times, Roman and Greek attitudes about work were shaped by Aristotle, who taught that it was demoralizing and demeaning to work with your hands or to work for pay. For example, he wrote in his book Politics,

The object which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends, or with a view to excellence, that action will not appear illiberal; but if done for the sake of others, the very same action will be thought menial and servile.

Aristotle said that to be unemployed was good fortune, because it allowed a person to participate in the life of contemplation. He argued that the contemplative life is the happiest life. Greek society was organized so that a few could enjoy the blessings of leisure while work was done by those in lower social-economic positions and slaves.

The Hebrew View of Work

Although the Jews also valued the opportunity to think about issues and engage in contemplation, they held a different view of work. The Old Testament placed a high value on work, even menial labor. Work was part of God’s purposes in creation. Theological reflection would be done by people who were also daily engaged in everyday life in the world. It is significant to note that Jewish teachers, unlike their Greek counterparts, were not expected to live off the contributions of their students, but were expected to have a trade to support themselves.

Saul of Tarsus (who would become the Apostle Paul) was a perfect example of the Jewish idea of work in the first century A.D. He was a Roman citizen, which afforded him a somewhat privileged social status with respect to laws, property, and governance. He was the brilliant student of Gamaliel the Elder, considered one of the leading Jewish minds of his time. Yet Saul would have been expected to learn a trade to support himself. In his case, he learned to be a tent-maker.

As we will see in future posts these two visions of work will constantly contest for the consensus view in the Church over the next 2,000 years.

Question: Have either of these views influenced your understanding of work? Leave a comment here.

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