Theology of Work in New Testament


In the Gospels, ordinary work is usually mentioned only in illustrations. Some exegetes hold that the life and sayings of Jesus underplay the value of work. Though subsequent tradition has made much of Jesus’ work as an artisan or carpenter, only Mark 6: 3 mentions it, and there is part of an attack that keeps Jesus from working miracles. Jesus is nowhere pictures as actually doing manual labour, but rather as an itinerant preacher. John stresses Jesus’ work, but that work is the gospel: “My Father works even until now, and I work” (Jn 5: 17). Jesus exhorts his followers to “work not for perishable food,” since only the “bread which comes down from heaven” gives life (Jn 6). However, many of the parables depict people involved in the labour of daily life: the farmer who sows seeds, the shepherds looking after sheep, the merchant in search of pearls, women at the mill, the baker woman and the leaven, etc. There is also use of imagery from a life of work: the woman in travail in child bearing. Jesus also chose his disciples who were involved in different activities of life: fishermen, tax-collectors, zealots. The disciples leave their work to fish for human beings. Trust in God is contrasted with worrying about livelihood (Mt 6: 19, 34; Lk 12: 13-41). Doing the work of God is to have faith (Jn 6: 29).

Further in the New Testament one notes that we are “co-workers with God” who plants and builds the faith of the community, and we are co-workers of one another in that same activity (1 Cor 3: 5ff; Rom 16: 3, 12; Col 1: 28ff; Mk 16: 20). The New Testament found no special religious significance in the mundane tasks of life. We have to be clear that the New Testament idea of vocation does not refer to our earthly occupations. This is a more modern understanding, where every field of activity is a vocation, a calling.

Subsequent centuries commonly cited Paul’s example, his judgements, and his motivation for work: first, Paul himself continued to work; second, Paul rebuked those whose expectation of an imminent Parousia led to idleness: no work, no eating; third, Paul’s motives for his work were independence and almsgiving, and he encouraged others to work because then they will mind their own business, avoid trouble, and keep a quiet spirit (1 Thess 2: 9; 4: 11ff; 2 Thess 3: 7-12; Eph 4: 28).

The Epistles assume that ordinary work is simply part of life, and they do not see any intrinsic worth in manual labour. The ‘house rules’, oriented to domestic slaves, provide both common place injunctions to be faithful and obedient to one’s superiors as well as Christian counsel to suffer injustice. These Virtues are transformed by doing all willing as imitators and “slaves of Christ” (Eph 6: 5-9; Col 3: 17-25; 1 pet 2: 18-24). Patience and indifference in work are fitting because this world will be utterly consumed in the fiery Coming of Christ (2 Pet 3: 10-13; 1 Cor 7: 29-31).

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