Leading Question: What’s the agenda here: a lesson on “work” in a series on education?
Many of my students have told me that their parents have drilled it into them that they should get an education so that they don’t have to dig ditches the rest of their life. If one looks at the spectrum of “jobs” available in our world, one moves from the very concrete world of menial labor to the cerebral world of the PhD. The mental capacities of some limit limits their options. But using formal schooling as a norm can be terribly misleading. The life of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, is a primary example. Raised by adoptive parents, he says that he learned more in his 4th grade year in school than in any other. His teacher bribed him (“I really want you to finish this workbook. I’ll give you $5 to do it.”) – and she finally broke through and his mental activity flourished. He enrolled at Reed College, but dropped out after one semester. So his highest formal qualification was a high school diploma. He knew how to work; he knew how to study, but his formal qualifications in education were not strong.
For this lesson on “work,” we will simply go through some key biblical passages that will help us understand a biblical approach to “work” and “education.”
Sin changes the nature of human work.
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
Exodus 31:1-5 (NRSV):
God inspires those skilled people who work with their hands.
“The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 6 Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you.”
The Psalmist Talks about the Work of Our Hands
Psalm 90:17 (NRSV):
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!”
The Wise Man Talks about Work
Proverbs 6:9-11 (NRSV):
9 How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.
Proverbs 10:4-5 (NRSV):
4 A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
5 A child who gathers in summer is prudent,
but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame.
Proverbs 12:24 (NRSV):
The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the lazy will be put to forced labor.
Proverbs 16:26 (NRSV):
The appetite of workers works for them;
their hunger urges them on.
The “Preacher” Talks about Work.
Ecclesiastes 2:24 (NRSV): Work should be fun (Part 1).
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.”
Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 (NRSV): Work should be fun (Part 2).
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”
Note: At our university graduation services several years ago, a student who was receiving a degree in our flying program, once spoke a great truth to told our student body: “If you enjoy what you are doing, then you never have to go to ‘work.’”
Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NRSV): Whatever we do deserves our full attention.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”
A New Testament Perspective on Work
An English poet, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929) wrote a poem about the Carpenter:
“Close by the Heedless Worker’s Side”
From The English Spirit, p. 205
Close by the heedless worker’s side,
Still patient stands
The carpenter of Nazareth,
With pierced hands
Outstretched to plead unceasingly
His love’s demands;
Longing to pick the hammer up
And strike a blow;
Longing to feel his plane swing out,
Steady and slow,
The fragrant shavings falling down
Silent as snow.
Because this is my work, O Lord,
It must be thine;
Because it is a human task
It is divine.
Take me, and brand me with thy Cross,
Thy slave’s proud sign
Question: What was the work experience of Jesus’ disciples?
Comment: We know very little about the work qualifications of most of Jesus disciples. Here is the list of names as found in Matthew 10:2: “Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot.”
Of these, four were fishermen (Andrew and Peter, James and John) and Matthew was a tax collector. That’s all. Acts 4:13 puts it bluntly: “The members of the Council were amazed to see how bold Peter and John were and to learn that they were ordinary men of no education. They realized then that they had been companions of Jesus” (Good News Translation).
Yet Jesus also called Saul of Tarsus, a highly educated man. Thirteen of the 27 New Testament books have traditionally been attributed to Saul. He was highly educated, but still a tentmaker.
Acts 18:1-3 (NRSV). Paul, an evangelist, also worked with his hands.
1. After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together – by trade they were tentmakers.
Comment: Perhaps it was Paul’s strong work ethic that led tohis pointed comments about work in in his second letter to the Thessalonians:
2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 (NRSV):
10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
C. S. Lewis’ poem, “In Praise of Solid People,” contrasts the life of the ordinary working man with that of the highly educated person, a tension that seems to be built into the very fabric of our sinful world:
“In Praise of Solid People”
Visionary Christian, 6-8; Spirits in Bondage, 62-65.
Thank God that there are solid folk
Who water flowers and roll the lawn,
And sit and sew and talk and smoke,
And snore all through the summer dawn.
Who pass untroubled nights and days
Full-fed and sleepily content,
Rejoicing in each other’s praise,
Respectable and innocent.
Who feel the things that all men feel,
And think in well-worn grooves of thought,
Whose honest spirits never reel
Before man’s mystery, overwrought.
Yet not unfaithful nor unkind,
with work-day virtues surely staid,
Theirs is the sane and humble mind,
And full affections undismayed.
O happy people! I have seen
No verse yet written in your praise,
And, truth to tell, the time has been
I would have scorned your easy ways.
But now thro’ weariness and strife
I learn your worthiness indeed,
The world is better for such life
As stout, suburban people lead.
Too often have I sat alone
When the wet night falls heavily,
And fretting winds around me moan,
And homeless longing vexes me
For lore that I shall never know,
And visions none can hope to see,
Till brooding works upon me so
A childish fear steals over me.
I look around the empty room,
The clock still ticking in its place,
And all else silent as the tomb,
Till suddenly, I think, a face
Grows from the darkness just beside.
I turn, and lo! it fades away,
And soon another phantom tide
Of shifting dreams begins to play,
And dusky galleys past me sail,
Full freighted on a faerie sea;
I hear the silken merchants hail
Across the ringing waves to me
– Then suddenly, again, the room,
Familiar books about me piled,
And I alone amid the gloom,
By one more mocking dream beguiled.
And still no nearer to the Light,
And still no further from myself,
Alone and lost in clinging night
– (The clock’s still ticking on the shelf).
Then do I envy solid folk
Who sit of evenings by the fire,
After their work and doze and smoke,
And are not fretted by desire.