Work is good. My deeply German grandmother often said, “Arbeit macht das Leben süß”-“Work makes life sweet.” Until recent years, that was a concept largely taken for granted in America. Many would call it foundational to the American way of life. But as our country again celebrates Labor Day on September 4, some are questioning the value of work.
For the first two centuries of our nation’s history, the so-called “Protestant work ethic”-the idea that work is good and that all have a duty to work-was taken for granted. No longer. In recent years capitalism, and by association work itself, have been vilified by many as contributing to the oppression of the disadvantaged by the wealthy. Recently some legislators have even proposed a so-called “Universal Basic Income,” the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly paycheck from the government for doing nothing.
Christians have a different view of labor. We certainly don’t disparage work, but neither do we value work simply for its own sake. Jesus said that what we do for our neighbor we really do for Him (Matthew 25:31-46). The Apostle Paul had harsh words for those who were able to work but instead remained idle, living off others (2 Thessalonians 3:1-12).
Martin Luther emphasized that work is a gift from God. By it, God gives us a way to support ourselves and our families, but also gives us a way to serve our neighbor and, through him, Christ.
In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, the concepts of work and vocation became increasingly corrupted under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The church lost sight of the Scriptural concept of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), and with the rise of monasticism, people came to believe that the most worthy and God-pleasing vocations were those of a priest, monk or nun. It was thought that those who shut themselves away in monasteries and convents were truly doing good and God-pleasing work, in contrast to the secular labor of common folk. Luther disagreed. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church he wrote, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks . . . all works are measured before God by faith alone.”
Luther stressed the sanctity of honest labor in any work or profession. Those who labor faithfully at their jobs serve the Lord as well as their employers, as Paul reminded the Colossians, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” (3:23-24)
Most important to Luther was the way in which a Christian’s honest labor should benefit his neighbor. This too is God’s gift, to you and your neighbor. In his Large Catechism Luther stresses how the Fourth Commandment enjoins faithful and obedient service not only of children toward their parents, but also of employees toward their employers-and promises rich blessings to those who so labor. “If this truth, then, could be impressed upon the poor people, a servant girl would leap and praise and thank God! With her tidy work, for which she receives support and wages, she would gain such a treasure of good works. It would be unlike all those gained by people regarded as saints. . . . How can you lead a more blessed or holier life as far as your works are concerned? In God’s sight faith is what really makes a person holy and serves Him alone (Romans 4:3-5), but the works are for the service of people.”
This Labor Day, say a prayer of thanks to God for giving you your job. It’s not just a paycheck-it’s a way to serve Christ and your neighbor!