ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Work Ethic

JOB 7:1-4, 6-7
1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-19, 22-23
MARK 1:29-39

What do you do for a living? What are you going to do when you grow up? Questions like these have launched many a conversation. But, far from simply being “ice-breakers” or “small-talk”, queries like these probe an elemental aspect of the human experience. As William J. Bennett (The Book of Virtues) has noted, these are not fundamentally questions about jobs and pay but questions about life. . . my life, your life. Work is whatever we put ourselves into, whatever we expend energy on for the sake of accomplishing or achieving something. Ideally, work is not what we do for a living but what we do with our living.

Fortunate are those whose work is a fulfilling and worthwhile expression of their talents, and character. Personally, I have always felt most privileged in that, for all of my adult life, I have been either teaching scripture or writing about it. For me, this has been a labor that I thoroughly enjoy and in which I find ever-growing fulfillment. I have often compared myself to a tennis player who spends their day at a game they love and makes a living at it! However, I am well aware that mine is not a universal experience.

For many people, work is a drudgery, a burdensome task which is unhappily carried out because life’s necessities demand that it be so. There are many who must spend hours each day, year in and year out, at a job which is unfulfilling in order to put food on the table and gasoline in the car. How can such work bring meaning or joy to life? How can it be an adequate expression of a person’s unique gifts, and personality. Obviously it cannot, but there is an antidote to this seemingly irreparable situation.

While a person may not be able to leave their job or the work they are required to do, it is possible to change the attitude with which work is approached and accomplished. Because of their faith and the fact that they share a covenantal relationship with God, believers can acknowledge and accept all of life, even an otherwise distasteful job as a vocation. When viewed in this way, the trip to work becomes a journey which draws us closer to God and the work itself a response to the God who calls us to small as well as great deeds. Even the most banal workplace can be transformed if believers understand their work as part of the process of redemption . . . of bringing a sacredness to even the most secular of environments. Work can also be approached as an opportunity to evangelize or make the good news known, not by word of mouth but by the more compelling witness of an authentically Christian life-style.

In each of the three readings for today’s liturgy, the gathered assembly of working believers is invited to explore the importance of work in their lives and to learn a lesson in work ethics from Job, Paul and Jesus.

As he explained in his letter to the Corinthians (second reading), Paul’s work of preaching the gospel had become a compulsion. He was not a “workaholic” but, rather, Paul’s conviction about the good news and his commitment to Christ were so intense that he could not contain himself; he had to be fully given to the work in order that as many as possible could share in the blessings of salvation.

Job’s miserable harangue (first reading) is clear evidence that there are times when life’s disappointments and sufferings must be truthfully and frankly acknowledged. Suffice it to say, this was not the end of the story. Eventually Job, in trust and in faith, arrived at a place in his life where he surrendered himself, his suffering, his work and everything he had to the greater wisdom of God (Job 42:1-6).

Jesus, in the gospel, spent himself and most of his time ministering to the needs of others. His work brought healing, forgiveness and new beginning to many. Yet, he was well aware that even the most important work has to be continually refueled and evaluated; therefore he was in the habit of waking early to go off to a lonely place to pray.

As we gather together today, each of us brings with us to the celebration our work experiences, as well as our prayerful times in lonely places in order to unite these with the work and prayers of others in the great action we call LITURGY. Liturgy is derived from two Greek words; ergon, or work, and laos or people. As the work of the people, this cooperative action is the ultimate expression of who we are before God and one another. In this important moment, we celebrate and consecrate all our work in one great work of praise, peace, and thanksgiving.

JOB 7:1-4, 6-7

One of the most masterful pieces of literature in all of scripture, the book of Job is rarely included in the lectionary. Perhaps Job has been omitted because of the frank and even brash verbal assaults which the book’s protagonist levels at God. Perhaps it is Job’s steady stream of lamentation which seems unappealing and inappropriate in a eucharistic setting. In any event, it is unfortunate that Job is not a regular guest at the liturgy because this excellent work provides a much needed vehicle for the gathered community to come to grips with the sometimes lamentable realities of life.

As Walter Brueggemann (The Psalms of the Life of Faith, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1995) has noted, the lament has enormous theological significance in the faith and liturgy of Israel and should continue to do so for the church. The absence of the lament results in the loss of genuine covenant interaction. If only praise and thanksgiving are expressed in prayer, if only celebration and well-being are given voice, then those who pray become yes-men and women from whom never is heard a discouraging word. Such a celebrative consenting silence does not square with reality; covenant minus lament is a practice of denial, self-control and pretense.

Today, Job gives the gathered assembly permission to face reality with a complaint that insists: (1) things are not always right and lovely; (2) they need not be this way and can be changed; (3) the situation in which I sometimes find myself is intolerable; (4) God can make things better; this I know. . . this I believe. . . this I trust; (5) I have hope now, that I have put everything in your hands, my God.

In the excerpt which comprises the first reading, Job compared the human experience in general to conscripted service in the army (scholars believe the term translated as drudgery in verse one to refer to military duty), to the work of a day laborer (hireling, v. 1), and to slavery (v. 2). Roland E. Murphy suggests that these were three “proverbially wretched states of life” (“Job”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990).

Recall the fact that, initially, Job had been abundantly blessed by God with family, friends, wealth, property, etc. and that God had permitted the Adversary (the Satan) to afflict Job with the loss of everything except his life. Bereft of all that had formerly been regarded as a sign of God’s favor, Job was also stricken with an unnamed but dreadful disease (see the omitted verse 5) which tortured him by day and robbed him of sleep at night (vv. 3-4).

When his wife and friends urged him to curse God, Job did not. When they prodded Job to admit that his sufferings were caused by sin, either his own or that of a family member, Job would not. In the back and forth repartee between Job and his friends, and Job and God, the ancient author probed the fact of human suffering. Through the lengthy dialogues, the author contradicted the popularly held notion that suffering was caused by or was a punishment for sin.

Nevertheless, suffering remains an intrinsic part of the human condition. The experience of suffering and struggle can either lead the stricken one nearer to God or send him/her fleeing from God in disappointment and despair. In the case of the fictional Job, believers learn that God listens to every human cry, even to the anger and dismay of the lament and that there is no struggle so great, no suffering so intense that it cannot be surrendered with confidence into God’s capable, powerful hands.

1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-19, 22-23

Sounding very similar to Jeremiah, his ancestor in the ministry of the Word, Paul claimed that he was under compulsion and had no choice but to preach the gospel (v. 16). Jeremiah, who would rather have kept silent, in order to avoid the wrath of his contemporaries, had exclaimed, “I say to myself I will not mention God, I will speak in God’s name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” (Jeremiah 20:9) Like Jeremiah, Paul’s preaching was not merely a job but a divine commission, a vocation which had redirected the course of his life, and which, he hoped would redirect and inspire the lives of all who heard him.

Claiming that preaching was itself his recompense, Paul would accept no financial remuneration for his services. As Paul Wrightman (Paul’s Early Letters, Alba House, New York: 1983) has observed, Paul’s refusal to accept payment was controversial on three counts. “Such payment was not only recognized by the church but it was also part of the social etiquette of the time. Furthermore, his insistence on pulling his own purse strings was a slap in the face to those who would have liked to exert their influence on him through financial pressures.”

The latter half (vv. 22-23) of today’s second reading is better understood within its literary context. At this point in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul had been debating the issue of so called idol-meat (chapters 8-10). Some in the community, to whom Paul referred as the Strong, had no reservations or scruples about eating meat that had once been used in pagan worship. Others were horrified at the thought of such a practice and were scandalized by those who condoned it; these Paul called the Weak.

Appealing to both groups to arrive at a reconciliation with one another, Paul offered himself as a model of accommodation. Although he was a free person, and capable of exercising the authority given him by the gospel (v. 19), Paul chose to work as a slave to all (v. 22). Indeed, Paul’s preaching often brought him, a free man, into contact with slaves; accommodating himself to their political situation, he made it possible for slaves to hear the good news and to know the deeper freedom from sin and death that Jesus had come to bring.

Likewise, Paul, who aligned himself with the Strong in their views about idol meat, accommodated himself to the tender consciences of the Weak. Because he took care not to offend their sensibilities, the Weak were probably more receptive to his preaching. Fiercely independent, Paul, nevertheless, chose to forego his natural inclinations, making himself all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.

In commenting on Paul’s ability to accommodate himself for the sake of his ministry, William Barclay (“Corinthians,” The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) explained that the apostle was respectful to others but never patronizing . . . “So long as we patronize people and make no effort to understand them, we can never get anywhere with them. One of our greatest necessities is to learn the art of getting alongside people; and the trouble so often is that we do not even try.”

MARK 1:29-39

After reading this gospel, Mark Link was reminded of an incident in the life of the French artist, Henri Matisse. One day a friend came to visit the painter. Noticing that his visitor was visibly upset and preoccupied with worries about his job. Matisse advised, “André, you must find the artichokes in your life.” At that, he led his friend into his garden where a patch of artichokes was growing. “Each morning”, said Matisse, “after I have worked awhile, I come here to be still and meditate. This simple ritual inspires me and gives me a new perspective toward my work.” In today’s gospel, another Mark portrays Jesus, observing a similar ritual.

Today’s gospel is Mark’s description of a typical day in the ministry of Jesus (1:21-34); the time set aside for prayer (v. 35) was a necessary respite in what was an otherwise hectic schedule of preaching, teaching and healing. Readers come away from Mark’s narrative with a sense that Jesus worked at an almost dizzying pace to bring the good news and its blessings to as many as possible. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the disciples “managed to track him down” (v. 36), Jesus did not relinquish these moments of communion with God which, no doubt, renewed his courage, strengthened his resolve, cleared his head and enabled him to go on with his work. In this, Jesus’ disciples, then and now, are taught a lesson regarding the appropriate work ethic of the committed believer.

Included also in this pericope are other valuable lessons. In examining the wonders worked by Jesus, Wilfrid Harrington (Mark, Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington: 1984) has explained that “the early Christian community was not interested in the miracles of Jesus as brute facts. Rather, the first believers regarded them in a two-fold light: as a manifestation of the power of God active in Jesus, a proclamation of the fullness of time (cf. 1:15), and as signs of the redemption Jesus had wrought, as prophetic signs.”

Jesus’ cure of Peter’s mother-in-law proclaimed the reign of God as a present reality and prophesied about the future. In verse 31, the verb “helped her up” or egeiro in Greek also means “to raise from the dead.” By his action in Peter’s home, Jesus pointed ahead to the moment wherein those who had been prostrate beneath the power of sin would be healed and raised up by his saving death and resurrection.

Jesus’ silencing of the demons who knew him, and who could have identified him for the crowds (v. 34), is the first hint of the Marcan “messianic secret.” This “secret” was a literary device which explained: (1) why Jesus was not universally acclaimed as messiah during his ministry, and (2) which directed attention away from the miracles until people understood that it would be through suffering and the cross that Jesus’ messiahship would be realized and his true identity revealed (see Mark 15:39).

Finally, this gospel underscores the universal concerns of God’s saving work; Jesus traveled to neighboring villages and throughout the whole of Galilee (and beyond) remaining continually on the move so that everyone could benefit from his saving words and works.

Today, we who hear and heed this gospel remain the beneficiaries of a work ethic which has made all the difference between salvation and condemnation, between life and death. Let us remember that prayer must punctuate our participation in this wondrous event.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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