Sanctifying Work

Everybody complains about work, just as everybody complains about the weather.

If our work is demanding, we gripe because it’s too hard. If it’s effortless, we whine that it’s boring.

I have a friend who calls this the Law of Conservation of Discontent. In certain areas of life, our dissatisfaction can be neither created nor destroyed. It’s just there — always looking for a place to land. It often lands in the place where we work. Yet there is more to our work than the paycheck.

In ancient times, Christians and Jews were almost alone in their positive attitude about work. Sure, they complained, just as we do. But they saw work as something essentially good. It’s what God did in creating the universe, and at the end of creation he rested from his labors. From the first pages of the Bible, then, work is portrayed as a godly activity.

The major figures of the Old Testament were laborers. Abel and Abraham were herdsmen. Noah was a farmer. The virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 weaves wool, tends a garden and sells what she produces.

The major figures of the New Testament were also hard workers. Peter, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul was a tentmaker. Most importantly, Jesus, like his father Joseph, was a craftsman, a carpenter.

The Jewish-Christian attitude toward work was unusual — and even unique — in the ancient world. The greatest of the pagans — Plato, Aristotle, Cicero — all had contempt for physical labor. Their ideal life consisted of unmoored leisure.

Yet, Christians worshipped Jesus, who said: “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.”

When God became man, he became a man who worked hard, first as a carpenter and then as a teacher. He came to share our lot and our life — and he came to share his lot and life with us.

Ever since our baptism, we live in him and he lives in us. When we do any honest work, he is working in us and he endows our work with a divine power. As we go about our tasks, we are creating the world anew. We are co-creators with Jesus. And we are redeeming the world with him. Insofar as our work is arduous — insofar as it makes us feel like complaining — it is redemptive. It is our share in Jesus’ cross and we can “offer it up” in atonement for sins. This is the dignity we have as children of God. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).

Fr. Ed Benioff is the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills and previous Director of the Office of New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.