Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
September 2, 2018
Text: James 1:19e-20, O.T.: Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9, N.T.: James 1:17-27
On this Labor Day weekend, these thought by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in 175 A.D., offer us a global vision of work. Motivation to work lies in a greater vision than satisfying our personal wants or needs. He wrote:
“At day’s first light have in readiness the thought, against the disinclination to leave your bed, ‘I am rising for the work of humanity.’”
Work’s great purpose is to serve humanity.
Civilization, culture, and a just society are built by human labor. When workers cooperate to complete a project, the sum of their work exceeds that of satisfying each individual worker. Work for humanity motivates us to rise from rest and join others for the world’s good.
Modern labor needs to be measured by the advancement of humanity. Yet work is often evaluated only by productivity figures, earnings ledgers, and employment statistics. Work becomes a utilitarian, pragmatic number that lacks a greater vision benefitting society.
Working for humanity gives value and worth to labor. All laborers are necessary for the world’s good. From those sweating beneath the ground in dark caverns to those suspended high above the earth on steel skeletons, from those serving day care and senior care facilities to those imparting knowledge in schools and universities, from research and development labs to women bearing children in hospitals and homes, from public service workers to private entrepreneurs – laborers’ join others to bring prosperity and peace to the world. Without each person’s skills, the world would be impoverished. Each is needed for humanity.
The unconscious awareness that work is for humanity leads us to identify who we are by the work we do. Our self-worth is derived from the value of the role we play in this greater plan. When the responsibility of labor is denied us, we unconsciously yearn to find a way to do our part for humanity.
In August, 4 percent of our fellow neighbors were seeking employment throughout Pittsburgh’s metropolitan region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a decline of 3.8 percent from six years ago. That’s good news. But for those who are still seeking the opportunity to contribute to humanity’s growth – and there are too many – this is a very frustrating time.
When people are unemployed, there’s great stress and an identity crisis can emerge. Unemployed people can get angry from losing work. Their words can become colored by a deepened sense of isolation and uselessness. When people find employment, recovery from such an emotional condition can take time.
Equally, the threat of unemployment can emerge in offices and plants. Politics and jealousies among workers fearing unemployment can affect a company’s productivity. As one manager of a large work force once said to me, work problems are essentially people problems. Conflicts at work can cause us to lose track of the greater purpose for which we ought to labor together, have faith in each other, and ultimately serve humanity’s good together.
The Letter of James examines work through the lens of religious devotion. In particular, James sees human work as an extension of God’s activity in the world. God’s work is reflected when we align our work with God’s righteousness.
Work isn’t simply employing vocational skills that we’ve learned. Work shows our beliefs about who is God. Our work efforts coincide with what we believe about God’s nature. The work we do reveals those words we associate with God’s nature. They reveal what we believe to be true about God.
The author of James describes God as righteous. The Greek word for righteousness is dikaiosunè. It’s derived from the Greek word dikaios. The word is generally used by Greek authors of the period to describe the fulfillment of obligations people have to one another. Righteous life is living among people in a way that fulfills our obligations to each other.
While each of us possesses personal skills, how we use those gifts shows our sense of obligation that benefits others. In order for us to fulfill our obligations to each other, we practice virtues – traits that come from our concern for the benefit of others. Our concern for others is our response to God’s concern for us.
God’s activity in the world is virtuous. God shows His willingness to offer the virtues of goodness and mercy to humanity. Followers of Christ labor in the world to show virtue in equal measure to what God’s work shows us.
We know God’s virtuous behavior – God’s goodness and mercy – through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s primary labor in this world. In Christ we see God’s work of goodness and mercy. God’s heart for us is revealed through Christ’s love for us.
But we see even more. We see God’s work in honesty and truthfulness. Christ’s innocence of wrong doing reflects God’s honesty. His honesty with us is the motivation for our honesty in labor. Christ’s truthfulness about God – who God is and what God wants for us – an abundant life – motivates us to build a world that shows God’s truth for all humankind.
God’s virtuous activity in Jesus Christ models righteousness. It reveals God’s righteousness benefits the world. In God’s righteousness an ethic of human labor is built upon God’s goodness and mercy, God’s honesty and truthfulness.
Working for humanity’s benefit takes Christian laborers who show goodness and mercy, honesty and truthfulness. We manufacture goods that attain the highest levels of quality. We design products and infrastructures that apply the best knowledge that will preserve safety and uplift life. A Christian’s work imitates God’s work when we’re motivated by God’s righteousness.
We don’t use our skills in anger, or to destroy what God is creating through us. We apply our skills, our vocations, our time and talents with the freedom God has given us to bless the world.
But when we face those times when social, physical, or economic conditions deny us the opportunity to use these skills, those moments of rest from labor are the greatest times to reflect God’s righteousness. Rest from labor is just as much a form of work as is the activity of labor. And, in fact, it can be God’s purpose for a righteous worker.
If we are willing to compromise our God-given righteousness in order to remain employed, if we succumb to dishonest practices of labor in order to satisfy a manager or a company culture that robs its customers or lies to its stock-holders in order to remain employed, we are not following God. God’s righteousness demands that we stay the course in the righteous labor that He demands of us.
We must be willing to accept unemployment, not as the result of being useless, or failing in our labor, but as God’s reward of rest for righteousness.
How we respond to periods of unemployment’s loss is the greatest measure of how we reflect God’s virtue. Periods of loss are times for growth and discernment of God’s purposes for us. There is work involved in times of rest from active labor. This is the time for the interior work of the Spirit.
Through patiently reflecting on God’s greater goal of working for humanity we discover new skills that can be used to His great purpose. Prayer and contemplation, self-examination and perception are spiritual skills that reflect our dependency upon God.
God’s righteousness is displayed when we trust that periods of rest from active labor are moments to strengthen spiritual skills of self-control. God’s righteousness cultivates a new heart within us of gratitude and appreciation for the contribution we can make for humanity’s growth.
In God’s plan, times of rest show He doesn’t regard us as cogs in the machinery that sustains humanity. He doesn’t want us to labor ceaselessly – without rest. He cares about our needs and gives us rest from His compassion for us. He withdraws us from active work to help us see the greater vision He has in store for us.
That greater vision can’t be earned in the workforce of life. It’s a gift from above for which we show our gratitude. God’s gift of life in Him is the ultimate motivation that pushes us out of bed in the morning to offer our contribution to the welfare of humanity.
So, whether we are active in our work, or quietly working in spiritual discernment, God is working in us to fulfill His great plan of salvation. It is our obligation to Him and to the world. Give thanks and rejoice as you use the skills He has cultivated in you to do His work in this world! Amen.