“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” Colossians 3:23, 24 (NIV)
I want to start a series of articles on the nature of work. Most people in the western world take work for granted. We assume it to be a moral good or at least an inevitable necessity. For example, it is a terrible economic indicator when the unemployment rate is high. That means lots of people are not working. That we think unemployment bad however comes from the belief that work is good and that people ought to be working. But is it a good? Where does this idea come from? If we were independently wealthy, would we work nevertheless?
To the question of whether work has always been considered a moral good or not, we do not have to look hard to realize that it has not. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote about his mentor Socrates. Plato’s style was to write about some conversation Socrates had with the young nobles in Greece in his day. Socrates would get into one of these conversations about virtue or the moral life when he was in someone’s house, or having drinks, or at a festival, or taking a walk, or at the gymnasium. One of the places you don’t see these conversations taking place however is at their workplaces. This is because most of them did not work. They were among the wealthy and leisured class. Their servants took care of their house and property. The servants’ work provided their income and sustenance. And one of the things you see in the writings of Plato is that this was never understood to be a moral ill. It was assumed that servants worked but, if you could help it, you did not work.
Not working gave you the chance to be a philosopher, in Plato’s view, which was good. In ancient Greek culture, there was really no reason to work, if you did not have to. There was no moral benefit in it. In fact it was a distasteful thing that belonged to servants, not to philosophers. This same attitude was prevalent in many early non-Christian societies. To be fair, Plato thought his work to be the work of philosophy, which certainly is a kind of work. Aristotle certainly “worked” at his exploration of things, if you consider all the writings he produced. Socrates was not born into the leisured class and did have a profession. He was a stone mason by trade. He spent most of time in philosophy however, a fact about which his wife complained often. She wanted him to do something that would actually support the family. He was simply not that interested in doing so but found philosophy much more interesting. Though Socrates must have received some money for his teaching, he often noted that he was poor, which was a sign for him of his integrity. He did not teach philosophy for the money, but in quest for the truth.
If many in the ancient world had a disdainful or at least confused view of work, from where does our Western view of work come? It comes from Christianity. Christianity believes that work is a good gift from God. It is not something to be avoided or disdained. It is not part of God’s curse on humankind. In fact, we see that God gave Adam work to do in the garden. He was to tend the garden and name the animals. That God gave Adam this work to do before the Fall, is the indication that work is God’s good gift, not part of the curse.
In the next weeks, we will explore the biblical view of work. Today we make the point that work is God’s gift to us. It enables us to do good, make the world a better place, and use our gifts. Paul instructs that we should do our work with all our hearts, as to God and for his glory. Whether we are in school, working at a profession, or retired, let’s see if we can follow this instruction this week.
With Warm Regards,