We are All Tentmakers: The Duty to Work and Contributive Justice
We are called to contribute to the Common Good by our work and in our life together
It is an unfortunate error that advocates of economic reform, particularly liberals, tend to think of "social justice" only as something that relates to what people ought to get from society. Short shrift has been given to an understanding what people ought to give to society. In other words, liberals pay a lot of attention to distributive justice, but have no concern with. and pay little lip service to, contributive justice.
No one is excused from contributing to the extent of his or her abilities to the common good of the greater society in which he or she lives. This means that we all have to work to the extent we can, first to support ourselves, next to support those that are "our own," i.e., our families and communities, and finally to support the greater common good.
In fact, as Christians we are to go beyond that and work so that we can give to the poor, to the needy in an exercise of charity. How, asks St. Basil to his monks in his commentary on his rules known as the Regulae Fusius Tractate or Astetikon, is one to minister to the Christ who comes in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked, and the sick? How are we to perform the works of mercy if we have no means? What is true for St. Basil's monks is equally true for the Christian laity, indeed for every human being.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is rather blunt about contributive justice: "No Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others." (Compendium, No. 264) Freeloaders, who are to be distinguished from the truly needy, are anathema; they are parasitically unjust to those upon whom they rely for support. They are not to be coddled, since they act against both justice and charity.
We need to inculcate in society the spirit of St. Paul who worked (he was a tentmaker) so as not to be a burden to his congregations. He told the Ephesians that "these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions." (Acts 20:34)
While in Corinth, St. Paul stayed with the Jewish couple Aquila and Priscilla and "stayed and worked with them" mending and making tents to support himself. (Acts 18:1-3) Any other way of living--to eat food free, to fail to work "so as not to burden any of you"--St. Paul considered "disorderly" and unseemly.
He instructed the Thessalonians while among them "that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should one eat." (2 Thes. 3:10).
St. Paul had a well-developed notion of contributive justice.
The early Christian church anticipated the second coming of Christ (what is called the parousia) as imminent. They were taught that "the form of this world is passing away." (1 Cor. 7:31) Even so, they were expected to work to support themselves and to meet the demands of contributive justice so as to be, as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "dependent on nobody." (1 Thes. 4:12) Not only would this comply with contributive justice, but earning money through work also allowed the Christian to supply charity to "those in need." (Eph. 4:28)
In other words, Christians were expected not only to work so as not to take from the common good and therefore act unjustly. They were expected to work so as to be able to give to the common good in charity. It follows that failure to abide by one's duty was a sin against justice and a sin against charity.
Idleness was viewed with great disfavor by the early Church. Witness the declamations of St. John Chrysostom against idleness:
"Which is the useful horse, the pampered or the exercised? Which the serviceable ship, that which sails, or that which lies idle? Which the best water, the running or the stagnant? Which the best iron, that which is much used, or that which does no work? Does not the one shine bright as silver, while the other becomes all over rusty, useless, and even losing some of its own substance? The like happens also to the soul as the consequence of idleness: a kind of rust spreads over it, and corrodes both its brightness and everything else. How then shall one rub off this rust? With the whetstone of tribulations: so shall one make the soul useful and fit for all things." (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, XXXV.3)
In the time of the Apostles, the pagan Graeco-Roman society--fed in large part by the institution of slavery--tended to view servile work as demeaning, inferior. Pitting themselves against the social mores of the day, the Apostles--following the example of Christ the ...
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