For many, May is the season of graduation. Whether one is receiving a one-year certificate or doctoral hood, graduation comes with a host of complex emotions. As I prepare to graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary at the end of this month with my Master of Divinity, I have looked to the words of scripture for both guidance and comfort during this season of transition.
2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”
This verse reminds us to present ourselves and the work we have accomplished through diligent study to God. In doing so, we recognize how the subjects we have mastered help us explain the word of truth and advocate for social justice. No matter what our area of study, our task is to see how God is actively at work among us and bear witness to God’s presence in the world.
Matthew 22:21: “Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Ideally, after concluding your studies and graduating, you will pursue employment so that you can receive the much-deserved compensation for your hard work: a paycheck. The days of cheap ramen and smuggling cafeteria dishes into your dorm room are behind you! Whether it is an entry-level position, a paid internship, or a season of self-employment (or even unemployment), the transition from full-time study to pursuing a full-time career brings challenges of its own.
Jesus reminds us to leave behind the greed that easily comes from the accumulation of wealth. His command to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s is placed within the larger scope that all things given to us are a gift from God. But there is also a way to read Jesus’s command to give to Caesar as a critique of Caesar’s desire to accumulate wealth, even if it’s at the cost of losing his soul (Mark 8:36). If you have student loans to pay, it may be helpful to remember two things in times when you are feeling the weight of your debt: 1) Debt is a tool of Caesar and will not have the final word. 2) Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Whether you have spent one year or a decade working on a degree, it is easy to anchor identity and worth in academic credentials and success. Your fellow congregants, co-workers, and neighbors, however, likely will not care about your GPA. Moving from a space where Ph.D.s and tenure-track positions are the highest achievements, to a society where memes are more influential than academic press texts is incredibly disorienting. The author of Lamentations reminds us that even in this disorientation, God’s love is unbroken and continuous as God’s mercy is new every morning.
On the other hand, some prevously faith-filled graduates may now feel completely burned out or disenchanted by Christianity. Perhaps circumstances won’t allow you to pursue doctoral work or accept your dream job. Maybe your faith turned sour over the past decade as you watched the actions of Christians in the United States. For these folks, too, the author of Lamentations affirms that God’s love is steadfast and unceasing.
Philippians 2:12-13: “ … work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Graduation is usually accompanied by a feeling of relief and accomplishment. However, we must also remember that God’s work is not complete in us just because we receive a diploma. God calls us to continue to work out (κατεργάζεσθε) our salvation. Indeed, the God who was at work in us while we were pursuing our degree will continue this work after graduation.
This is true no matter what we do after our degree. God’s work in us might look like holding a day job at Starbucks or Panera Bread; maybe it is simply volunteering at church or bringing a degree in biblical languages to an entry-level corporate job. Maybe a season of unemployment is where God has placed you. The call remains the same: Continue to ponder the deep things of God as you work on your own salvation.
Luke 12:48: “ ... From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
Jesus’ words in the gospel of Luke offer us a word of warning and encouragement for our modern context: In a society where education is not promised, those who have the opportunity to graduate have been given much. Jesus reminds us here that we cannot throw away such a gift. Rather, we should embrace the requirements and demands that follow our graduation because we have been entrusted with this great opportunity.
In this cultural moment, I am convinced that the education we are entrusted with demands that we advocate for justice in our world. Because the forces of injustice are so great and manipulative, we need brilliant lawyers advocating for immigrants and incarcerated folks, theologians writing books on the biblical mandate to seek justice, doctors who can tend to those on the frontlines of protests, and politicians and activists who can support the abolition of debt.
Acts 17:19-20: “So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’”
Paul’s engagement with the Athenians models for us how we might bring our education and faith into the public sector. Paul was trained as a religious scholar and yet he engaged in both the synagogue and the marketplace because he believed God was present in all corners of society. For those graduating, we never know when what we have learned might provide an opportunity to bear witness to Christ.
Like Paul, we will find opportunities to use our degrees wherever we are. Today, the “public” is no longer confined to a “square.” The “public” is everywhere — it is the Twitter app on our phone, the essays and journal articles we write, the graphics we design, the art we create, the music we produce. Following in Paul’s example, we will find endless opportunities to bring our education into the public square in order to advocate for justice and bear witness to God.