Why Work?

My grandfather died late in the afternoon on an October day. My dad was called with the news in the middle of the second shift at the candy factory. They let him leave early. He stopped at home, changed into his daytime work clothes—jeans, white T-shirt, work boots, quilted nylon jacket—then headed to my grandfather's farm, a mile away, to take the cornpicker back to the field. It was harvest season. There was work to be done.

I can't separate questions of work and faith from a host of other things in my mind: Class and privilege. The labor movement and downsizing. The drive to create, the hunger to possess, the call to serve. Efficiency and monotony. Material needs and spiritual wants. Loving my neighbor and expressing myself. Economics, power, justice, prayer. The difference between savings and being saved. Everyday idols and everyday worship. Social status and unconditional love. Bread and roses.

"The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person," Pope John Paul II writes in the encyclical Laborem Exercens. Much work that isn't interesting or fun is vital to human life and community, and the ones who perform it—good people, bad people, just plain people—serve as the hands of God's providence. Work is good because the worker is made in God's image.

Beyond that, individuals may bring spiritual value to their work through their prayer and the way faith leads them to live in right relationship with co-workers and the job they are doing. Likewise, a person may produce a good product or perform a valuable service for intrinsically sinful motives (greed, status, domination). So we can't judge the religious value of work solely on its glamour or pleasantness or intricacy, or on the state of the soul of the worker.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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