Faith works — how faith values work & keeps it from becoming slavery

I find it ironic when someone claims others are #badbible readers while doing bad Bible reading themselves. The Facebook post below is a case in point.

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The writer is obviously quoting Jesus from Matt. 11:28 — Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

The ironic thing is that the writer completely ignores the next two verses — Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:29-30).

Jesus has a yoke (“my yoke”) and a burden (“my burden”), but he says they are easy and light. A yoke is a tool for work and a burden in the work itself. In other words, Jesus has work for us to do, but it’s not work that is too much for us. When compared with the yokes imposed by others which cause us to labor and strain under them, his is easy. When compared with burdens that cause people to be heavy laden, his is light. Contrary to the Facebook post, Matt. 11:28 can’t be understood apart from Matt. 11:29-30. Verses 28 and 30 stand in contrast to one another. And in Hebrew rhetoric when your beginning and ending are parallel (even as contrasts), it’s the central part that’s being emphasized. In other words, the key to the passage isn’t the first or the last verse, but the central verse.

This is Jesus’ point: Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.

We’re to learn our work from Jesus. We’re to take our yoke from him and no other. He is a gentle master, “meek and lowly in heart.”

This is nothing the Old Testament hasn’t been saying all along. The Scriptures offer us a robust and nuanced theology of work, showing us both its good and its dangers. But since the Facebook post took a negative jab at work and since Jesus in the passage above wants to protect us from it, let’s start with the negative.

When the Hebrews were in Egypt, they went from favored foreigners to stepped-on slaves. Not only were their work conditions unjust and the threat to their baby boys inhuman, they were under the thumb of Egyptian gods. We forget that last part, but it’s what kept them in their slavery. Even though they were a formidable fighting force because of their numbers (Ex. 1:10), causing the Egyptian king to fear them (hence the killing of the boys), the worldview of the dominant culture was daunting to them. And so it was the Egyptian gods even more than the Egyptians themselves who commanded them and bent them to their slavery.

This is why the first thing Yahweh does is defeat the Egyptian gods though individual combat, taking down the top ten in the Egyptian pantheon through the ten plagues. Our Lord had no desire to be over the top in punishing the Egyptian people. What he aimed at was undoing the Hebrew slavery by pulling to pieces the gods who enforced it. And only after he’d unmasked and unmade the Egyptian gods by mocking them through plaguing Egypt with the things supposedly under their divine control did he lead the Hebrews out of their physical bondage.

And once the Hebrews were out of the land of their servitude, Yahweh gave them ten protections to keep them from falling into slavery again, one for each of the gods plagued into oblivion. We call these protections the Ten Commandments, even though the word commandment doesn’t appear in Exodus 20. Not that commandments are bad when they come from the God who has just set you free from slavery, but the intent of the Decalogue isn’t to impose a new slavery on the newly freed slaves. Its intent is to protect them from any further slaveries.

And central to the Ten is the Sabbath. This 4th of the Ten Words is the longest, both in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. Even though the rational is different between the two renditions of the Sabbath command, they both retain this basic statement:

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … (Ex. 20:9-10).

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … (Deut. 5:13-14).

In other words, work is good, do it for six days, but don’t ever let it become a god, don’t let it ever unseat the Lord, don’t let it ever undo the freedom our God has won for us us, don’t let it ever return us to slavery. In fact, both versions of the Sabbath command extend the freedom it protects to our families, our animals, our servants/employees, and even to foreigners who might be living among us.

Our Lord is saying, I don’t want you to be slaves ever again. And I don’t want you to ever make anyone else a slave. We’re done with slaveries of any type. You’re not to go back there.

This is the context in which Jesus makes his quoted statement. The religious leaders of his time had turned this faith of freedom into a form of oppression and spiritual slavery. And there are times when religious leaders do the same today.

I have a friend who pastors a large congregation in an over-worked city of people held by golden handcuffs to high paying jobs. Partly because of his context, he finds himself over-worked as well, doing tasks he hates and which he’s only mediocre at while not giving enough time and attention to the church work he loves and is called to. So, I’ve been encouraging him to talk with his leadership team, telling them, “I’m not being as good of a pastor as I could be for you. I’m not modeling a healthy work life and it reinforces your unhealthy work lives. I’m doing things volunteers could do, and it’s keeping me from praying for you as much as I’d like to. And if I had just two more hours each week to work on my sermons, they’d be so much better than they are right now.”

I pastored my first church for 11 years and when I started there was a woman who’d been the church organist for almost 50 years. We had a glorious pipe organ which gave majesty to old hymns and she played it magnificently. She also led the vocal and bell choirs with an excellence far beyond what would be expected in a church our size and in a town our size.

But two things happened when she retired about five years later. First, the music program she had been holding together with ridiculous amounts of effort did what she’d been afraid it’d do: It fell apart. Second, her husband who had stayed away from church since it had been like an adulterous lover, stealing her heart and time from him, started attending worship now that he was no longer in competition with the church.

These church-based slaveries offered rewards of meaning and significance to these two while robbing them of the freedom and time needed elsewhere in their lives.

Those are two forms of church work that Jesus would speak to when he says, “Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart.” But in our day of massive defection from the church, these are exceptions and not the rule. If anything, we’re more in danger of spiritual sloth and inattention than we are in danger of spiritual activism and workaholism.

It was so refreshing this past week to hear someone say he’s wanting to increase his poor biblical literacy. And yes, those are the words he used. He didn’t beat himself up with the typical “I need to read my Bible more,” with the implied “because I’m not a good Christian if I don’t read it a lot more.” No, he recognized that there is so much more that he could be entering into in this life of following Jesus if the Scriptures were more available to him by being more literate in them.

The work he wants us to put in isn’t slavery, it’s a response to an invitation, to an offer to go further up and further in.

Without work, without effort we get nowhere in this life of following Jesus. It ceases to be a following and becomes a sleeping.

This is a partnership we’re involved in. It’s not all me. It’s not all God. It’s God doing the heavy lifting and me coming and doing my small part. It’s what Paul describes in Phil. 2:12-13 — “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

We work because God is working in us.

We see this at play in Genesis 2. In the story, God has just finished all of the heavy lifting of fashioning this marvelous creation and then he steps back and gives the man a job to do.

Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name (Gen. 2:19).

The Lord God reminds me of a parent in this passage. He reminds me of the times I’ve worked on projects around the house and had my kids join me in them. I can just see God in this story step back out of the spotlight and say to himself, “I wonder what he’s going to call this stripy one?” Pause. “Zebra. Nicely done!”

God makes space in his creation for us to work, allowing us to be active agents who leave our mark on his creation. And what’s amazing is he actually seems to take pleasure in this. Sure, history is filled with innumerable bad decisions made by humans. We have cemeteries filled with our tragic choices. But as many as they are, they are vastly outnumbered by the good decisions we’ve made. So much of what we do we never think about again because it simply works.

We work because God wants us to work, because God made us to work, because God has invited us to join us in his own work.

Eugene Peterson has said there is nothing we humans do which is more God-like than working. God is a worker. As Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). (The context of the passage is Jesus healing on the Sabbath and defending his action by pointing to the Jewish belief that the world functions because God never stops working, including on Sabbaths.)

The divine nature of work is both its blessing — God invites us to participate in his work — and its temptation — we are drawn to the lure of taking control of our little portion of the world, shaping it by our work and being God-like in the process. It’s a mixed bag. We have been created in the image and likeness of God, so we work. We want to be gods ourselves, so we work.

Good work can free us from many slaveries — poverty, debt, illiteracy, poor health, disease, pollution, hunger, injustice, and so on. If we don’t work, we stay mired in these enslaving, killing circumstances. But through concentrated effort, we can replace these with freeing, life-giving new circumstances.

But working badly or doing bad work can make us into slaves and even make slaves of others. There are countless ways this happens.

My four kids are in the process of exploring what kind of work they’d like to devote themselves to for years to come. And they’re also exploring what kind of faith in God they want to devote themselves to for the rest of their lives. I want to make sure that they know these two explorations are compatible, that they needn’t war against each other.

A harmonized, integrated life of work and faith is possible.

To do it well requires us to work at it and faithfully pray about it. But we don’t do it alone. This is a partnership. We work and God is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.