More than a Carpenter

By John McKinley Apr. 14, 2016 9:00 a.m. New Testament, Theology

In response to Klaus Issler’s article, “Exploring the Pervasive References to Work in Jesus’ Parables,” I offer two conclusions that are valuable for Christology and a Christian vision of economic activity. Jesus’ demonstrates two kinds of work productivity, and Jesus knows workplace temptations that afflict us all. In advance of exploring these conclusions, I will review how Issler’s analysis includes three important ideas that overturn common misconceptions about Jesus.

First, we must set aside the prevailing idea of Jesus’ occupation as a carpenter. Many Christians imagine Jesus as an excellent and diligent craftsman in wood. Against this notion, Issler collects the agreement of scholars that tekton is a general builder who worked primarily with stone, and also with wood and metal. In our language, the idea of a contractor might be more appropriate as a broader occupation to build things of small and large scale, including the pagan temples and other public buildings of nearby Sepphoris (4 miles from Nazareth). As a building contractor with two decades of experience, we should see Jesus as having lived a wider involvement in the economic activity of the ancient world than what the more limited role of a carpenter suggests.

Second, Issler argues that Jesus talks about work frequently as a theme of teaching. So, it cannot be that a sort of sacred versus secular divide was in Jesus’ mind the way Christians sometimes have a tendency to do by elevating the so-called spiritual work of ministry above other economic activity. The frequency of 32 out of 37 Synoptic parables as work-related, with 22 different kinds of economic roles is compelling. The examples of his knowledge that show in parables tell that Jesus knew about farming, construction, investment banking, taxation, and political occupations.

Third, Jesus’ mission involved him in full-time occupation as a building contractor for more than six times the duration of his work as a teacher, exorcist, and healer. Issler calculates that from Jesus’ apprenticeship at age 12 or 13 until his start as the Messiah around 32 or 33 makes for about two decades of construction work. That’s a career. His ability to connect parables with people in their daily life work experience came from being one of them. Would that more applications from sermons in our churches had the same life setting of the workplace as Jesus’ parables show. While many pastors have been very effective despite limited experience outside of seminaries and churches, most would likely benefit from long experience in the economic life occupations that are common to the people they seek to teach.

Now, going beyond Issler’s study of Jesus’ references to work, here are two conclusions.

First, Jesus demonstrates two kinds of work that are both productive and worthy. His work as a contractor is clearly valuable labor and skill of the kind that many people naturally count as worthy. His work in a second career as teacher, exorcist, and healer is less clearly valuable. Perhaps for this reason, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and he had to insist (with Paul) that a teacher of the gospel is worthy of his wages. I think that some pastors are overworked because they sense the ephemeral dimension of teaching, and they chafe under the perception of some people in churches who assume that being a pastor is a cushy job of light labor. On the contrary, Jesus knows the hard labor of both kinds, and validates both. That he was exhausted in the middle of the day and had to escape the crowds and even his disciples to find renewal shows the strain of a teaching and disciple-making occupation. We must resist the dichotomy of sacred and secular occupations as it suits our judgments, and take instead the occupations God has called us to with gratitude. All work is valuable, even if we have difficulty counting the value equitably.

Second, Jesus knows the workplace temptations that most people face. Hebrews 4:15 assures us that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (nasb). We can imagine that Jesus was ripped off or not paid by suppliers and customers, especially in his dealings with Roman soldiers and Jewish aristocracy in positions of power. Perhaps Jesus had business partners for large projects who were unethical and sought ways to retaliate against soldiers, tax collectors, or Herod’s court. Jesus could have been tempted to do a job with mediocre effort, just to get by. The temptation to take a much-needed nap when a full day’s work was promised could have been Jesus’ experience just as much as for us. Above all, Jesus was subject to the temptation to look to his work for personal identity and worth. His escape from that performance trap shows in how he dropped a career cold when called to be a teacher, and then worked as a teacher steadily despite the waxing and waning of numbers who followed him. Jesus worked for God, come what may.

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