Jesus worked. We learn this from the Gospels. We also learn this from studying the life and society of first Century Palestine. Remembering that Jesus worked is important, for it is one way we (who also have to work for a living) can identify with him. It is also one way he identifies with us! As we celebrate Labor Day in the U.S. let’s reflect on Jesus as laborer.
A few weeks ago I read Jesus: A Pilgrimage by the Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin. Much of what I say here is based on that book. The Gospels tell us Jesus was called “the son of a carpenter.” The actual Greek word is tekton which some translate as “woodworker.” But theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes the word tekton in the Gospels can designate not only a carpenter, but also “a stonemason, a cartwright (one who builds carts) and a joiner (one who makes the wooden components of a house).” John Meier in his book A Marginal Jew says that if Jesus was a tekton he probably made doors, door frames, locks, bolts, furniture of all kinds, and even plows and yokes. This trade demanded considerable technical skill. It also involved “no little sweat and muscle.” Those pious images of Jesus as a thin, pale weakling don’t ring true to the Gospels. (See my earlier blog: “What Did Jesus Look Like?”)
Before beginning his public life, Jesus spent about fifteen years working for a living. If Joseph died early in his life, then perhaps he took over the family business at an early age. What qualities did Jesus need to be a successful tekton? First, he needed persistence. Jesus probably had to cut down trees, carry them back to his house, and fashion lintels, doors, and furniture. He needed discernment to calculate a fair price for his labors. And because he probably worked alongside other workers, he needed the ability “to cooperate and even lead.” Martin concludes: “All these traits would serve him well later in his ministry. They were useful tools.”
There are many signs of Jesus’ tekton background in his sayings and teachings. “My yoke is easy,” he says. A good yoke for oxen causes no chafing or discomfort for the animals. Did Jesus know this from making good yokes? Jesus also tells the parable of the man building a house. He “dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock.” This is in contrast to the foolish man who builds his house on sand. Martin raises the question, “Would (Jesus’) listeners have known him as a reputable builder?”
Jesus also tells his followers, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Is he referring to something he was good at making, plows? Jesus also quotes from scripture, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” showing again his proclivity for using strong images from the building trade.
Jesus worked. This means he knew the realities of earning a living. He knew the challenges and satisfactions associated with the workplace—inept co-workers as well as skilled ones; impatient, nagging customers as well as pleasant, grateful ones; failures with a specific job as well as successes. Jesus experienced fatigue and uncertainty. He was also cognizant of the income disparities among his contemporaries, of the unjust tax system that drained his people, and of the general precariousness of human life. He would tap into all of these experiences when he began his public ministry.
Jesus worked. Little wonder people were so drawn to him. He was one of them. He is one of us too!
Jesus, you worked.
What a consolation that is to me, for I too must work.
Give me a greater appreciation for work—the work I do and the work others do for me.
Give me greater patience, persistence, and discernment in my work. Guide the skills I need to do my work well.
Help me to work well with others and to be fair in all I do.
And give me greater compassion and strength to work for greater justice in the workplace.
I ask these things of you, Jesus, because you know what it means to work. Amen.
What are some of the challenges and satisfactions of your particular work?
Can you relate to Jesus the tekton?