Home Columns A theology of work

A theology of work


“You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me…In six days I, the LORD made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested.” – Exodus 20:9-11

Labor Day Celebration

Labor groups all over the world gather together every May 1 to celebrate International Labor Day.  In our country militant labor groups often use this occasion to conduct mass actions and protest rallies calling for higher wages and better working conditions.  Government officials, especially the President, are also expected to give promises of benefits for the labor sector, even if sometimes such promises are insincere and are bound to be broken.

Political economists tell us that there are indeed economic systems that are inherently exploitative. And unless such systems are changed, protest rallies would always be expected even if it is not Labor Day.  Of course, labor groups are organized in order to protect and promote the interests of the labor sector and prevent exploitation by the powers-that-be.

The capitalist system of economy, for instance, is exploitative; for its ultimate goal is not the good of the human, but profit or surplus.  After returning the capital investment and paying the laborers’ wages, all the surplus or profit go to the capitalist, even if both sectors have equally contributed for the means of production. Thus, the capitalist becomes richer and richer, while the laborer becomes poorer and poorer.

There was a time when the late former Labor Secretary Bobbit Sanchez courageously tried to change the whole system by introducing a profit-sharing scheme so that the laborers would benefit more from the fruits of their labors.  But unfortunately, he was sacked by Malacañang due to strong pressures from the business sector.

What is happening in our political and economic life is simply expressions of a deeper problem of our souls as a people.  There is a deeper aspect of human life that we need to consider as we reflect on this issue.

Work Attitudes

It is significant to note that the Greeks whose cultural traditions gave birth to the Western world had a different attitude towards work from that of the Hebrews whose cultural traditions were enshrined in the Biblical Scriptures.  To the Greeks work was something for the slaves.  Aristotle’s “perfect man”, for instance, will not soil his hands. Some historians believe that this attitude towards manual labor is one of the reasons why the Greeks made little progress in natural science as contrasted with their achievement in the area of philosophy or mathematics.  Perhaps, this is also where we got our modern-day aversion against blue collar jobs as well as the exploitative practice and condescending attitude towards the labor sector.

The Hebrews, on the other hand, regarded work as a divine command from which no one was exempted.  Thus, it is written in the Ten Commandments, “You have six days in which to do your work” (Ex. 20:9).  All through the Bible, work is regarded as a divine ordinance for human life.  Among the Jews in the New Testament times no rabbi was allowed to receive payment for his teaching or other professional activities, but each rabbi must learn a trade and support himself and his family by honest toil.

Apostle Paul continued to follow the rabbi’s practice of self-support, even though he held that in principle it was right for the missionary of the Gospel to be supported by the church (cf. I Cor. 9:4-15; II Thess.3:7-10).  Later in church history, the dignity of work was upheld by the work ethics of the Protestant reformation.  For the Protestants, slothfulness is a grave sin.  Prosperity as a result of honest toil is a sign of responsible Christian stewardship.

Work as a Curse

Now, some people think that the Bible teaches that work is a curse laid upon humanity as a punishment of sin (cf. Gen.3:17-19).  This however is a distortion of the meaning of Genesis 1-3.  Work is a divine ordinance for humankind even apart from sin.  Even before the sin of Adam and Eve, God has created humanity to “have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control” (Gen.1:28) and “placed the man (humanity) in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and guard it.” (Gen.2:15).

This teaching is in line with the general standpoint of the Bible that work is the normal, natural and healthy routine of human living.  Honest toil is blessed by God in the abundance of a good harvest or in the prosperity of a family (Ps.65), but labor which is not blessed by God is fruitless (Ps.127).  Thus, the Biblical point of view is that work as such is neither a curse nor a punishment but is an integral part of God’s original intention in the creation of the world.  It is God’s gift for humanity.

Nevertheless, like every other aspect of human existence, work has fallen under the curse which is the consequence of human sin.  The result of human sin is that work, which should have been congenial and enjoyable activity, now becomes a discipline and a task to be endured in obedience to the law of God.

God of Work

The God of the Bible is a God of work.  The Bible says, “In six days I, the LORD made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested.” (Ex. 20:11).  The Biblical doctrine of God as the great Architect and Master-Workman of the universe rejects the view that work is degrading and fit only for slaves. It also justifies the view that work is honorable and dignified and a necessary activity of a good life.

Moreover, it is of deepest significance for our Christian doctrine of work that God, when for the sake of our salvation he most wonderfully and humbly chose to be made human, was incarnated in a village carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth, and not in a king or statesman or philosopher or capitalist.

Co-workers with God 

This is where the worker’s identification with the Christ becomes real.  The likeness of God in us becomes clearly visible as we become truly creative – when through skill of brain and hand, we share in the creative activity of God and find joy in our daily work and see that it is good (cf. Gen. 1:31).  It is in our creative workmanship that we most truly share God’s lordship over creation. We, too, become craftsmen and women, artists, scientists – co-creators with God.

But God’s gift of work becomes exploitative, a curse and a burden for humanity if and when it is used for selfish ends.  Work is not end in itself: we work in order to live a life in all its fullness, and not simply live in order to work. # nordis.net

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.