Our evaluation of work is equivocal. A person without work is in a precarious situation, financially and emotionally, and being jobless can erode a sense of worth. But those lucky enough to have jobs seem always to be plotting when to retire. Although work is sometimes a burden, it is also necessary. The tension between the need to work and the desire to leave it behind is inherent in the human condition.
The late John Hughes wrote that “human work has been viewed as having a profoundly ambiguous nature throughout the Christian tradition. In the Scriptures apparently differing views lie side by side, and cannot be easily separated.... Work in some sense seems to be inseparable from the nature of humanity in its aboriginal goodness, yet this seems not to be necessarily the same as the work that is characterized by toil and struggle” (The End of Work).
Job reflects the relentless toil of human work in his answer to God: “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a laborer?” Job gives voice to the negative sense of work as burden, but though work has a more positive dimension, the Sabbath shows us that work is ultimately relative to what Hughes calls the “higher reality of rest.” The true human goal is life in God’s rest, yet it seems this too requires some work.
A distinction can be made between the drudgery of daily work and the work for God’s kingdom in the New Testament, but it is not the case that we can simply pronounce the work of this world unimportant. There is a goodness that inheres in the work of this world, and we must guard against two distortions of human work: that our work becomes an idol, or that we reject all work to become idle.
Perhaps we can see the goodness of work most fully in evangelization. The apostle Paul had to work in a trade to support himself as a tent-maker, according to Acts 18:3, but it was the work of the Gospel that was most significant for him.
Paul, however, refused to take payment for this work of preaching the Gospel, stating: “If I proclaim the Gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the Gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the Gospel.” Paul’s work was in the service of the kingdom that all might enter in and participate in God’s eternal rest.
Jesus himself knew the goodness and necessity of work and rest, not just our true goal, to rest in contemplation of God, but in the need to rest from human toil. Jesus’ goal on earth was to work for the establishment of the kingdom, and this is why we see his mission in the context of a balance between work and rest. After Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law in the Gospel of Mark, who resumes her own work of service immediately after she is healed, and after “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons,” he went to seek his own rest in “a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus too needed this time of re-creation.
Yet when Peter and the others tracked Jesus down—“hunted for him,” says Mark—Jesus did not complain. Jesus responded, “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” The New American Bible translation of Mark captures the Greek of this last phrase more closely, “for this purpose have I come.” Jesus had work to do and it was essential that it get done.
We ourselves must seek a balance in our own lives, for our work here is necessary and good, but it is not our final purpose. Our final purpose is to enter into the kingdom, so that we might enjoy eternal rest in God’s presence.