The Gift of Work

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus instructs the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is a gift from God for man: a day for people to set aside their usual work, to focus on worshipping God, and to enter into the Lord’s rest.

Echoing Jesus’ language, Pope St. John Paul II points out that “however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’” (Laborem Exercens, 6). God, the giver of all good gifts, has given man work, like the Sabbath, as a gift.

Adam, the first man, was instructed by God to “cultivate and care for” the created world (Genesis 2:15). Through his work man, whom God created “in his image” (Genesis 1:27), makes and creates in imitation of God’s creation and government of the universe. Work gives us the opportunity to exercise our intelligence and creativity. Artists, architects, writers, engineers, and people in other professions find great fulfillment through their creative work. It is human to work and to create, to share in the activity of the Creator.

However, “there is yet another aspect of human work… All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked with toil. The Book of Genesis expresses it in a truly penetrating manner: the original blessing of work contained in the very mystery of creation and connected with man’s elevation as the image of God is contrasted with the curse that sin brought with it: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (LE, 27).We experience a paradox in that we both desire work, as poignantly experienced by those seeking employment and the appeal in various contexts to a “right to work,” yet we also complain about work and the exhaustion it can bring. We look forward to retirement and celebrate the end of each work or school week exclaiming, “Thank God it’s Friday!”

After the Fall, work can act as medicine, which can have a bitter taste: “God’s fundamental and original intention with regard to man, whom he created in his image and after his likeness, was not withdrawn or cancelled out even when man, having broken the original covenant with God, heard the words: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’” (LE, 9). The curse due to original sin, by which work is toilsome for man, is a punishment but also, in a sense, a gift. Firstly, due to original sin people have a tendency toward selfishness, a sort of inward-looking gravitational pull that interferes with their ability to love God and others. We sadly see that people whose wants and needs are always easily granted without work on their part can become “spoiled,” that is, they are sucked further into the interior black hole of selfishness. To guard against this tendency, the effort of work forces man outside of himself. For a person whose selfishness, due to concupiscence, may result in a lifetime consumed in constant self-indulgence, the need to work is a gift which pulls him outward. Through work a person has the opportunity to grow in virtue, to encounter others, and to contribute to the common good. Secondly, just as we speak in the Easter Vigil liturgy of the “happy fault” of Adam, “which won for us so great a redeemer,” we can also view the suffering we endure in work as an opportunity to share in the cross of Jesus Christ: “By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform” (LE, 27).

As we continue our work in this new year may we thank God for the gift of work, pray for those who lack the opportunity to work, and look to Jesus Christ, who was himself a man of work, as our model and our way to find meaning even in the suffering that accompanies our efforts.

Image: Lewis Hine, Worker on the Empire State Building (1930)

You May Also Enjoy:

Joseph/Jesus the Worker Hanging on the wall in my childhood home was a simple image of Joseph the carpenter, working with a plane on a piece of wood. My dad for most of his life was also a carpenter, building homes for his small business, “The Village Carpenter,” and thus, especially liked this image. Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. In the year 1955, amidst the tumultuous era of Communism and their May Day celebrations, which emphasized wha...
A Sign of Hope After an exhausting year, which made me grateful that my hope is based solidly upon God alone and not upon any human person or institution, I was nonetheless ready for some sign of hope to start this new year. The recent and widely publicized presidential inauguration and large protests here in Washington, DC, did not provide one. However, last week I was blessed to witness a beautiful and uplifting sign of hope: the March for Life. While by f...
Lenten Conference Audio: Blinding Darkness Dominicana is happy to offer this audio recording of “Blinding Darkness.” It was given by Br. John Paul Kern, O.P. as the second installment of the 2017 Lenten Conferences at the Dominican House of Studies. Listen to the whole series on our Audio Page. Series flyer with more info found here.     ✠ Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Crucified for our Salvation (used with permission)
5 Ways St. Joseph Can Help Your Lent Editor’s note: This post was originally published on March 19, 2015. How can St. Joseph help you this Lent?  I propose five ways.  Simplicity In John 6, when Jesus boldly declares, “I am the bread of life,” his hearers murmur among themselves and ask, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?”  (Jn 6:41).  Apparently, they considered Joseph to be just a regular, law-abiding Jew—an average Joe, if you will. By implication, Joseph didn’t go...
Br. John Paul Kern, O.P.

Written by:

Br. John Paul Kern grew up in Annapolis, MD where his father taught at the United States Naval Academy. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering from Penn State University, where he entered the Catholic Church through the campus ministry's RCIA program in 2006. Before entering the Order of Preachers, Br. John Paul worked as a reactor inspector for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and attended Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, PA. On