The nobility of work
Last Sunday, I introduced the subject of work and economic organization. Work, rather than consumption should be central to economic organization; work is not just a matter of income and making a living; work, especially for men, is meaningful activity
Many people are familiar with the prophecy of Isaiah: They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. (Is 2:4) It is part of a larger passage, the whole of which needs to be understood. The prophet Micah has the very same prophecy, but with an additional line that bears upon work: Every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree, undisturbed. (Mi 4:4)
The whole prophecy, one of the great revelations of true social justice and the peace that flows from it, follows the same order as my entire exposition of the subject. First is the priority of the Lord’s house, the right worship of God (Is 2:1-3, Mi 4:1-2). God then instructs the peoples in the right way of living. (Is 2:3-4; Mi 4:2-3) The family is passed over, but in Micah, at least it is included in the final line because behind “every man” sitting under his vine or fig is the wife and family he supports; the whole family is represented by the father of the family. Before we get there, though, the law of God directs men away from conflict and war (the work of warfare) to the cultivation of the land, the work of peace. The result is that each man comes to enjoy the fruit of his labors represented by the vine and the fig. The man’s domain is not plundered either by raiders (as often happened in ancient Israel) or by fraud and extortion (another frequent occurrence). Of course, the final reward of ‘work’ comes from God himself who will repay each man according to his works. (Rm 2:6, cf. Mt 16:27)
Let us focus for a moment on the vine and fig, that represent the works of peace. Let us expand the image slightly with another passage from Isaiah: They shall live in the houses they build, and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant. (Is 65:21)
By these two works, building and planting, a man fulfills his most basic needs, food and shelter. Food, however, is more than just nourishment it is the great symbol of shared life, friendship, and joy. A house is not just protection from the elements, but is the home, the place of security, comfort, rest, not just for the man himself, but for his family.
By his work, then, a man has the satisfaction for providing for his needs, the needs of his family, and men are brought together into the life of a community.
The planting and cultivating the earth is the most primitive and characteristic biblical occupation of man. It is contained both in the ancient command, Fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28) and in Adam’s placement in Eden to till the garden and keep it. (Gen 2:25)
I would suggest that one of the great disorders of the modern world is the displacement of the population from the land to massive cities, followed by the conversion of excellent farmland into housing developments and shopping malls. I think it was only in about 1950 that the majority of the population of the United States was living in urban areas. It has only been since 2000, if I am not mistaken, that the majority of the world population tipped in the same direction. That may actually be the most staggering demographic fact of the world in which we live today.
The pandemic has forcefully set before our eyes that agricultural work, which though so despised, is truly essential. There is also a special fulfillment in agricultural work – despite its uncertainly and frustration – that is revealed in the unique joy of the harvest. Fr. McAndrews recounted to me a cherry picker once proudly telling him about how many tons of cherries his team had picked that day and that by the following day they would be on tables throughout the world. The worker then said, “We are feeding people.” I also once read of a migrant worker who picked various crops and who liked going into the produce sections of supermarkets. Why? To admire his handiwork!
We see now a reward for the worker that goes far beyond just putting food on his own table. He perfects himself and contributes to the good of others. There is something inherently ennobling about honest work well done.
The greatest example of this is none less than St. Joseph, who by his labors provided for the Immaculate Mother of God and for the very Son of God made man, our Savior Jesus Christ. Further, Jesus himself not only was willing to be known as the son of the carpenter but took up the labor himself. When God created the world by the command of his word there was no sweat or toil involved, but when a man, even the Son of God made man, works in the created world, he collaborates with God the Creator and reflects in a small way his glory.