Work: A Four-Letter Word?

There is a certain ambiguity in Scripture about the meaning and value of labor, and I am aware of no clear and positive statement on the subject by the Church. Rerum novarum and Quadragesima anno just don’t really approach the subject, and especially not from a more modern scriptural viewpoint.

What I have to suggest on this topic hardly constitutes an exhaustive treatment of what the idea of work might be for a Catholic, but I do think it might open up some avenues for thought.

Genesis has God laboring for six days and then resting (Gen 2:1–4), although this does not seem to mean that labor is tiring even for God; it seems rather to show him as a model for our freedom on the Sabbath day, a gift God gives us by his example. Genesis 3:17–19, on the other hand, takes the position that labor is indeed a curse, at least in the way that Adam and Eve would have to do it after the Fall.

Job takes a very negative view of labor, likening it to slavery and worse (Job 7:1–4), but then Job is rarely positive about anything.

I could almost say that even Jesus himself set us a bad example in Mark 6:30–35, where he was about to spend some quality face time with his Apostles, debriefing them and teaching them most personally once they had returned from the mission on which he had sent them. They all went off by boat to a deserted place, but the people managed to arrive there before Jesus did. When he saw them, he dropped his plans and “taught them at length because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus is not exactly a workaholic, and his priorities are admirable, but I wonder if he ever did find the time to spend more personally with his chosen ones. We certainly do see him taking some time out, as in the visit to Canaanite territory even when he claimed to have no interest in dealing with non-Jews (Mt 15:21–28) or when he spends time with Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38–42; Jn 11:1–44). Nevertheless, the general impression is that he is always on the go, always off to “the other towns” (Mk 1:38; Lk 4:43).

In the same way, a passage such as Luke 12:35–48 might also make us think that Jesus has workaholic tendencies or at least unrealistic expectations, but there is no hint here of the perfectionism which is so often allied to workaholism. And the next two verses (Lk 12:49–50) indicate that what is in question here is more a matter of zeal, something mentioned in John 2:17 (following Ps 69:9: “Zeal for your house consumes me”).

When St. Paul offers the practical dictum that those in the Christian community who would not work for the community should forego eating as well (2 Thess 3:10), he makes work sound like a necessity and not a valuable aspect of our humanity.

On the face of it, then, what we have in this selection of Scripture passages is fairly negative when taken together, yet there are other passages which are far more nuanced and even quite positive.

Genesis 2:19–20 shows God sharing his creative power with Adam in missioning him to name the animals, somehow participating in the creative work of God. And Genesis 1:28 says that mankind is to “conquer,” “subdue,” or “manage” the earth, again in this same vein of sharing God’s role. It would seem that labor for God and for the innocent Adam is one thing, for the fallen Adam quite another.

In the story of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38–42), Jesus appears at their home with a number of his followers. Martha is not only busy about serving, she complains to Jesus about her sister and asks him to intervene. In this narrative are two separate yet related elements. First, Martha welcomes her guests in her own way, and in a way which is most natural in just about every culture: you offer a little food and/or drink to make the guests feel welcome and to set a tone for sharing your time together. As a matter of fact, in another passage, Jesus points out to Simon the Pharisee his failure to offer these customary courtesies when Jesus arrived at his house (Lk 7:36–50). The second issue is Martha’s complaining to Jesus, and his response might be equivalent to “you have your way of welcoming me, Martha, but Mary chose a better one. Don’t complain or try to make her be like you. She made a better choice.”

At this point we might well conclude that the passage is not solely about the superiority of prayer over work, but that there is more to it than that. Although Jesus says that “only one thing is needed,” there is no direct contrast here between prayer and labor. Any convent that would devote its time exclusively and rigorously to prayer alone would soon find itself without any food prepared, clothes washed, or rooms cleaned. We must remember that Christ was a teacher, and if he could make his point by painting clear polar opposites in order to speak more clearly about the middle ground (sheep and goats, weeds and wheat, the Pharisee and the publican in the Temple, etc.), he could also overstate a point and let his listeners penetrate to the reality on their own. Both tactics are among the tools of a good teacher.

We modern Americans resemble the brothers in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11–32), for we tend to identify ourselves too much with our laboring, which is not only making a living for us but often “earning” value, merit, or status.

The older son is a typical first child: he grows up fast, deals with hardships, and works hard. He has never really been a child, trusting and knowing love, that profound security that surpasses accomplishment or simple merit; he is all about earning love and not about receiving it freely, not recognizing that he is simply loved, that he doesn’t need to work to deserve it. He embraces things, concentrating on his work to earn his father’s love. He is not willing to love his brother and rejoice over his return: it’s all about him. He really doesn’t know or love his father, and while the father is always there, always loving him, the older son is not ready to receive that.

The younger son is less of an ant and more of a grasshopper, and since he feels himself “entitled,” he is more adventuresome and takes more risks. Right down to the end he is all about himself and his desires, embracing things rather than people like a self-centered four-year-old, no matter how his father feels about his departure or even his return.

Christ fits into this comparison when he “leaves” the Father out of love both for the Father and for us, and he comes to us precisely to be as prodigal as the father in the parable (and even far more so) with his own and his Father’s gifts. He feeds us and labors among us unclean people without ever fully receiving our trust or love, without being welcomed by his own (cf. Jn 1:9–11), but when his earthly labor is complete, he returns to his Father in a most glorious and loving manner, and even takes with him those who wish to live with him in his Father’s house.

Another Scripture passage touches on this question of labor, suggesting some interesting ideas of how it relates to us. In the parable of the ten coins (Lk 19:11–26), the future king first entrusts ten servants with money, telling them to engage in trade with it. When he returns, he asks for the money back. Jesus cites the results for only three of the servants, two of whom have done well and the other nothing at all. My conclusion is that the gifts of God, placed in our hands, are not ours but remain his, and one would assume that this has something profound to say about this business of being human. Jesus implies that once again the Father is sharing his creative power and activity.

The point of this parable that particularly calls out to my attention, however, is the reward that the king presents to the two productive servants: increased responsibility in an active field as governors of villages. The king expects them not only to continue their work for him, but also to do so at a more advanced level. God has created us as active doers, and it seems to me that Jesus is hinting here that when we appear before God, he might have further labors for those of us who have shown that we have some idea of what we are doing with his gifts.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul does not at all disdain working when he considers the results: if he had a choice between living to help the Philippians make progress in the Lord or dying to be with Jesus, he would prefer the latter, but would choose the former because of the good he could do (cf. Phil 1:20–25).

We need to work in order to take care of our basic human needs, regardless of whether we understand it to be as important as prayer or not. The Benedictines take “ora et labora” seriously, just as Jesuits seek to become “contemplatives in action”: work and prayer are complementary.

A simple and incomplete summary of this more complex approach to labor in Scripture would say that:

  1. God is active;

  2. his action is not reluctant but is a matter of love from start to finish; and

  3. he invites us to participate in his loving and creating.

I would like to consider what this sort of participation might be.

My choice of direction in life began with some simple words from my parents, who told me to become whatever I wanted, for if I loved it I would work well and would make all the money I really needed. They said I would be happy if I looked forward to my occupations of the day, and they were right.

I have come to see that God has provided just the perfect gifts for me and he offered me an identity and a life that I could choose in using those gifts. This was not so much a vocation or a call from God as it was his invitation. He offered (and still offers) me something to do with my life, something or someone to be, someone far better than I would have imagined or chosen by myself.

I could say that my work is of value to me because in performing it I contribute to the common good, but that approach is so limp and lifeless as to be meaningless to me. My activity is a response to the love of God—a way to build the Kingdom for the Father with the Son through the grace of the Spirit. Finding my own growth and development in all of this is strictly secondary.

St. Ignatius of Loyola says in the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God” at the end of his Spiritual Exercises that to labor is to imitate the God who labors:

This is to consider how God works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth, that is he conducts himself as one who labors. Thus, in the elements, the plants, the fruits, the cattle, etc., he gives being, conserves them, confers life and sensation, etc. (#236)

Ignatius asks us to respond to this consideration in prayer, clearly orienting us toward a response of gratitude and love that takes on an active form when he says that “love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words” (#230).

More recently, Pedro Arrupe, former superior general of the Society of Jesus, wrote:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

In my being and acting in generous love, I imitate the Trinity in three distinct but related ways. Using the power that the Father gave first to Adam, I have the power to co-create reality by the way that I treat all that creation holds, starting with my brothers and sisters. In doing that, in being a willing instrument of creation in the hand of the Father, I create not only humanity but also myself. I guide others—even father them—by my example, encouragement, and support, and by my personal encounter with them and my love and warmth for them, even beyond my actual deeds of love.

Then, first as a disciple of Christ, one who is learning from him, and consequently as an apostle, one whom he missions to work in his name (with his authority, his power), I must not only proclaim the Gospel but be that Gospel at all times and in every circumstance. I must teach, heal, feed, forgive, lead, raise up those interiorly dead in one way or another, and simply witness to God by my serenity and joy.

Finally, the Holy Spirit, most visibly in the Acts of the Apostles, creates a community of care among the Christians, and just as through Mary the Spirit has given the Second Person a Body in this world, in our time the Spirit works to bring the Mystical Body to a full and visible life in the same world. As a member of that Body, I have an identity, a role to play, a work to complete.

God is active in a creative way, not as labor but simply because he is love and true love is active (cf. 1 Jn 4:15–16). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each have a different role in this. This action, for them, is not drudgery or laborious toil; it is simply being who they are. I yearn to participate in their life and to imitate them in their creative love and so to grow to the stature of Christ, and it matters little whether I am a neurosurgeon or am cleaning toilets.

This is who I am and this is what I do, and I know of no one who has put this essential equivalence of being and doing more elegantly than Gerard Manley Hopkins:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Whatever role I fill, if God is loving the world today he is using my heart; if he is solving the world’s problems he is using my mind; and if God is healing and feeding the world he is using my hands. It is a measure of the dignity that God has given us, of the respect that he bears for us, that he has given us such a role in our world that we have such power and such responsibility to care for his creation in his name. It is who we are: lovers and consequently doers.

Is “work” a four-letter word? No more than love is.

Featured Image: Caravaggio, Martha and Mary, c. 1599; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Charles Kestermeier, SJ

Charles Kestermeier, SJ teaches English composition and ancient world literature in the English department at Creighton University (Omaha, NE), where he also serves as campus chaplain. Fr. Kestermeier is also a frequent contributor to Our Sunday Visitor.

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