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The Word of God Worked: Understanding the Dignity of All Human Work

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
January 20th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church begins its section on work with a reflection of the Biblical view of work and man's relationship to work.  The message that one may take from the Compendium's understanding of the Biblical view of work is that it is a great, but relative good, especially as redeemed in Christ. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - "Work is no disgrace; it is idleness which is a disgrace," writes the Greek poet Hesiod in his poem, Works and Days.  Even this noble pagan sentiment, however, fails to capture the Scriptural notion of the nobility of work and our duty to engage in it and sanctify it. We are also sanctified through it.  

Indeed, in the Scriptural view, work is a sort of imitation of God, the entire creation being seen as a workweek in which God brings forth the world out of nothing and gifts it to man so that he may exercise dominion over it and cultivate and care for it. (Gen. 1:28; 2:15; cf. Ps. 8:5-7) 

In Christ, work is even more ennobled, as we see God in his human nature working in the silent, hidden obscurity of Nazareth, setting for us an example of how work, even the most menial, can be the source of sanctification.  In Christ, "human work becomes a service raised to the grandeur of God." (Compendium, No. 262)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church begins its section on work with a reflection of the Biblical view of work and man's relationship to work.  The message that one may take from the Compendium's understanding of the Biblical view of work is that it is a great, but relative good, especially as redeemed in Christ. 

"Work is part of the original state of man and precedes his fall; it is therefore not a punishment or curse.  "Work becomes toilsome only after the sin of Adam and Eve, after the fall. (Gen. 3:6-8; 17-19)  The soil begrudges its gifts: it "becomes miserly, unrewarding, sordidly hostile."  Only "by the sweat of one's brow" will man "get bread to eat." (Gen. 3:19)

When Christ teaches us to pray, "Give us this day, our daily bread," he is not teaching us to ask for some sort of divine welfare, a life of leisure while bread comes down from heaven as if it were manna.  He is enjoining us also to shoulder the duty of work as a predicate for the gift of its fruit.  "Through work," John Paul II said in his encyclical on human labor, "man must earn his daily bread."  The post lapsarian (after-the-Fall or human lapse) suffering toil, frustration, and burden do not change our essential duty to exercise dominion over, to "cultivate and care for" creation.

Simply put, work was a part of paradise.  After the Fall, work is part of the world which is no longer a paradise.

Work has a place of honor because it is the key to the conditions of a decent life, and hence a necessary key to flourishing, to fulfillment, to happiness.  It is a tool against poverty and hunger.  In this world--unless one lives off of the labor of another or off one's inherited or saved capital--work is what will keep body and soul together. "If any man will not work, neither let him eat." (2 Thess. 3:10)

For all its value, however, work and the wealth and money it may bring are not to be idolized.  There is such a thing as idols of work, of the marketplace, and of wealth: idola laboris, idola fori, idola pecuniae.  The Compendium warns us that one "must not succumb to the temptation of making an idol of work, for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life is not to be found in work."  "Work is essential," it recognizes, "but it is God--and not work--who is the origin of life and the final goal of man." (Compendium, No. 257) 

Therefore, the work week culminates in the Sabbath rest.  "The memory and the experience of the Sabbath constitute a barrier against becoming slaves to work, whether voluntarily or by force, and against every kind of exploitation, hidden or evident." (Compendium, No. 258)

Indeed, the wealth that work may yield--while unquestionably a great good--may also be inordinately loved.  "Man," our Lord says, "does not live by bread alone." (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4)  There are things greater than wealth--justice, righteousness, and charity among them.  "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord," Proverbs 15:16 says, "than great treasure and trouble with it." 

The same message is repeated: "Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice." (Prov. 16:8)  We are therefore not to be anxious for earthly goods, like the Pagans. (Matt. 6:25, 31, 34)  "But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides." (Matt. 6:33)

In the Scriptural view, there are few things more dangerous than a disordered approach to wealth.  We know what God has in store for the hoarder who had only his riches in mind, even if these riches were legally and justly acquired: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you." (Luke 12:20) 

In the parable of Lazarus and Dives, the rich man Dives lands in Hades. (Luke 16:19-31)  "I tell you the truth," Christ says, "it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."  He follows it up with an image which is harrowing to a man of means: "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matt. 19:23-24; Mark 10:24-25; Luke 18:24-25)

The Christian must therefore always subject himself to an examen of conscience, and he may have no better guide than Job: "Had I put my trust in gold or called fine gold my security; or had I rejoiced that my wealth was great, or that my hand had acquired abundance.  This too would be a crime for condemnation, for I should have denied God above."  (Job 31: 24-25, 28)

In his life, and in His Sacred Humanity, Jesus gives us an example of Christian work.  One must remember that in all Christ's "hidden years," Jesus labored in obscurity.  In fact, Jesus "'devoted most of the years of his life on earth in manual work at the carpenter's bench' in the workshop of Joseph." (Compendium, No. 259) (quoting JP II, Laborem exercens, 6)  Nothing Jesus did was in vain.  Nor must we think these almost thirty years of obscure labor meant nothing to Jesus or to humankind.

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton said that there was one thing too great for God to show us when He walked upon earth, and that he "sometimes fancied that it was His mirth." In truth there was also something other than Jesus' mirth that was not shown us: the almost thirty years of obscure labor in Nazareth: God in humility, poverty, and silence--in hiding--doing "the work of human hands," the opera manuum hominum, of a poor carpenter.  It was this mysterious "non-revelation" that so inspired Blessed Charles de Foucald himself to live this "hidden life" outside of Tamanrasset, among the Berber Touareg tribe, in the hostile southern Sahara.

Jesus, Blessed Charles tells us, "came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, of work, of obscurity, of silent virtues practiced with no witness other than God, his family, and his neighbors, of this holy life, humble, kindly, obscure, that place where the greater part of humans lead their lives, and where he set the example for thirty years."

The value that Jesus ascribes to work is apparent in his parables and in his words.  Useless servants are chastised for hiding talents. (Matt. 24:46)  Hired laborers in the vineyard should accept their agreed wage. (Matt. 20:1-6)  The laborer deserves his wages. (Luke 10:7)  Servants that are faithful to their masters are held in high esteem. (Matt. 24:46)  He views his entire mission as work: "My Father is working still, and I am working." (John 5:17)

Given all this Scriptural teaching, the Compendium summarizes as follows.  "Work," reflected upon in the revelation of Jesus Christ, "represents a fundamental dimension of human existence as participation not only in the act of creation but also in that of redemption." (Compendium, No. 263) 

The difficulties of work can be part of that cross which, as disciples of our Lord, we are called to carry in imitation of our Lord.  Our work, not through any merits of its own, but as a result of the grace of Christ, becomes "an expression of man's full humanity, in his historical condition and his eschatological orientation." (Compendium, No. 118)  Work deals with things of this earth, but somehow it ought to point to the heavens.

We might express all this even more succinctly:  The Word of God worked.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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