Meaningful Work

Lk. 17:5-19

I have been thinking for some time that one of the failures of the Church has been to address adequately the issue of the meaning of work. There has been little or no discussion of the nature and meaning of work. Much has been written on this subject in the past. John Calvin certainly articulated a theology where God is rational and purposeful and our lives are determined to live out His plan, which is to some extent preordained. There are “orders” in society for responsible Christian behavior. The Puritans adopted some of this perspective and it culminated to some extent in what Max Weber called “the Protestant ethic.” I grew up in the Midwest where that ethic was prevalent, and still is in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, etc.

Now some of this was brought to a head the other day when my son, Chris, called up from New York City to whine and complain. He is 35, an editor and is really good at moaning and groaning, having inherited that gene from me. He and I had just gotten back from a trip we took to California, where I did a funeral for a former member of the parish. I thought we “bonded” and got a long well. Instead, the trip depressed Chris. In his phone call he said, “You and mom have meaningful work. Mom is helping people learn and dealing with education. You help people with their lives and beliefs. All I do is help someone else get rich. What I do really doesn’t make a difference.” His mother assured him that he was a wonderful person, smart and conscientious and of course what he did was important. My reaction was, “You got a paycheck. Tough.”

In retrospect I realized that what we do breaks down to career, vocation, avocation, occupation, job and work. What Chris was complaining about was not having a sense of a meaningful vocation. Most of us don’t have a vocation. We may have an occupation or a job. What we do most of the time is “work,” and “work” is essentially defined as “energy expended,” at least it was in my physics classes.

Now I cannot solve the problem of developing a theological understanding of occupation or work in this homily, after all, I have just begun thinking about it. But this week’s passage from The Gospel of St. Luke brought me up short, for it reminded me that if we are going to find meaning in what we do we have to first start at the religious point, and that is having faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ and dedication to Him sets the framework for dealing with the issues of occupation and work. Indeed, the passage from Luke combines hard-nosed realism with confidence in God’s grace and a sense of joyful expectation.

When Luke speaks of being a servant, I immediately think of my grandmother, Jenny Bloomquist, who was servant in the household of a super rich family. She was a good Swedish Lutheran and had a sense of what was proper and understood her place. She had what we would now call “a good sense of boundaries.” Grandmother knew that work was work. You did it. There was none of the “all I do is work, work, work” self-pity. She didn’t complain about “the same old grind,” nor would she have understood the phrase, “I’m worth it.” Jenny had her Bible and she had her faith.

My mother said that Jenny was the sweetest person she ever knew. My father said she was one of the most bull headed Swedes he ever met. The truth lay somewhere in between. Some of Jenny’s traits were handed down to me, and during much of my young years I got where I was through self-discipline and dogged determination. One of the places I ended up at was managing a bookstore at the Methodist Conference Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A popular item in the store was a necklace which had at the end of it a mustard seed inside a plastic teardrop. The necklace was a reminder of Jesus’ words about having faith like a seed of mustard. All of the young girls who came to the center wanted one of those, and ironically, I made a small fortune selling the mustard seed necklaces.

The stark realism and work ethic of my Lutheran grandmother partly propelled me into the family business in 1968. I made a change from the life of a scholar to running a small business because of family obligations. I felt at the time that the first obligation of a Christian is to be responsible and to take care of one’s parents and family. I also thought that work is work and you just do it. A minor pleasure of my business was that each summer I hired a high school or college student to handle my duplicating and mailings. Sometime in the 1970’s I hired a college boy whose parents were parishioners at Trinity Church out on High Ridge. We would chat while we worked and one day he said, “You know, I had the darndest conversation with my mother. I said to her yesterday that I have always behaved myself, am not rowdy, study and work hard and don’t cause any trouble. Never have I been thanked for being a good kid. Do you know what she said?” “No, but I expect you are going to tell me.” “She said, that is what is expected of me. I have been reared to behave myself and to maintain certain standards of conduct that are reasonable and important. That’s just the way it is. Why would I expect to be thanked for what I ought to do in the first place? Isn’t that the darndest reply?” he asked. “Well, we both know your parents love you, but I really can’t comment since I wasn’t there.”

Now I think there are some parallels between my stories about the mustard seed, the college boy’s comments and Luke’s Gospel passage for today. When the disciples ask Jesus for faith, he replies with the metaphor of the mustard seed. Faith is trust. It is commitment. It is the power of God acting in the world. The hand of God is present in faith. Hence there is always a foreshadowing of an apocalyptic expectation. Dramatic change is possible. A tree could even grow in the sea! Such a tree would dwarf a mulberry tree. Faith then is not to be trivialized. It is not a talisman or a good luck charm. It is not a decoration. It is a statement of the fact of the power of God. It is commitment.

Jesus goes on to say that a servant does his/her job. He/she does not expect to be rewarded for what he/she does. To have a master, to have a Lord, is to have a given discipline, a given role, a given vocation. One is to serve. Jesus is implying that to follow Him, to serve Him as one’s master, is a life of total commitment. The grace or reward that one receives is beyond anything that one can do to earn it. It is possible to lose one’s place or to lose the reward and grace of the Lord, but grace is always unearned. Everyone is a servant. Faithfulness is having a standard, being responsible, responding to a Lordship. There can be no strutting around, brandishing the Bible or wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve.

There is a peculiar hard-nosed realism in these comments of Jesus. He knows that life involves sacrifice and the making of hard choices. He anticipates martyrdom and persecution. He is speaking to the downtrodden Ð servants, slaves, the poor and outcast as well as to a few who are persons of means but otherwise on the periphery. He is not promising a sudden sociological change or revolution as did Barabbas. Nor is Jesus counseling withdrawal and retreat as did the Essenes. `Rather Jesus is saying that in the real world His followers have real work and the discipline of real service. Their reward is what Jesus will do for them, not what they will earn. Jesus will become the vessel of God’s mercy and redemptive love.

Perhaps Jesus’ hearers remembered that they were once slaves in Egypt or in Babylonia. Perhaps they understood what it is to live under occupation or at least restrained circumstances. But they understood His words. They knew that God had redeemed Israel in the past and had promised to redeem continually those who trust in Him. His mercy, His grace is unearned. There is no such thing as works’ righteousness. They are called to be disciples and eventually to be apostles. They are called to focus on what God has done for them and is doing even now for them.

So too are you and I called. You know, my grandmother, Jenny, may have been sweet and she may have been stubborn. But she read her Bible and in her Swedish Lutheran way she picked up on what it is to be a servant of the Lord in her own circumstances. It may even be that the instincts of the young Methodist girls in Arkansas were right when they wanted to have a mustard seed encased in a plastic tear drop. They wanted to be reminded of who they were and to whom they belonged. Knowingly or unknowingly, they wanted to be reminded of their baptism. And just perhaps, my college boy’s mother was right in her tough love when she said, “We expect you to behave appropriately. It is a given. You do it because it is right.” There is a Christian realism in that expectation, even though it does not cover all situations.

To you and me, Jesus speaks of the mustard seed and of being a servant as metaphors for living lives of faith. We live those lives not seeking to gain His approval but rather in our awareness of the undeserved grace and unearned love. That is the starting place from which to begin to work though a theology of work. When we begin at that point, we have set the groundwork for basic meaning and purpose in our lives. Then we can use our God-given reason and talents (as Calvin would have us) to work though the issues of preparation, vocation, occupation and employment. Our life, our calling is that of a pilgrimage as we deal with how we spend our time, execute our responsibilities, earn our money and handle our affairs. It has to be done, first of all, in the context of faith and discipleship. To young people and to older, who flounder on the issues of meaningful work, how we earn and spend our money and execute our responsibilities, the starting place is going to Church and laying those issues before the Lord.

When I review my life, I cannot believe how fortunate I am. In the final analysis a realistic life of faith is not about us, not about “me”; it is about what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ for us, for you and me. My favorite hymnist, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) nailed it perfectly when he wrote, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that we an offering far to small; love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” (1) Ð Amen”

p. 474. “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” The 1982 Hymnal. The Church Hymnal Corporation, NYC.