Our current economic situation is one of ceaseless disorientation. Workers are separated not only from the means of production but also from the immediate fruits of production. Whereas past generations received tactile wages, such as a farmer and his crop, we are now at the point where even the once-tangible paycheck has been absorbed into the ether of digital technology via direct deposit. Such a situation contributes to the loss of a telos in our vocations, but it does not remove the search thereof. Naturally, the accumulation of possessions follows. We hunger for the meaning of our labor to be concretized, and since our physical labor has been translated into the realm of invisibility, one can be forgiven for wanting to see an object so as to prove that their efforts produced something. Materialism, then, is materialization, or at least the quest for it. It is the exportation of the otherwise-useless green paper, or worse yet, imperceptible paycheck into the realm of reality.
Christian efforts to redirect the objects of spending are surely laudable. Don’t pour your money into selfish pleasure-pursuits, we are told, and rightly so; rather, give the fruits of your labor to the poor, or to efforts of Christian mission. Much that is positive can be said about this. It acknowledges the longing for the materialization of labor and, recognizing the inherent selfishness in the human heart, redirects it toward Jesus Christ. If followed, it will surely provide the Christian with a deeper sense of purpose in his or her vocation, as the fruit of one’s labor now resides, via translation, in the kingdom of God. This much is good and must be carried on. But, as a means of providing orientation within vocation directly, it falls short. For it does not do anything to fix the telos of labor above the transitory payment, a digitized set of numbers in an online bank. It does not attend to the concrete dimensions of the very tasks and services we perform but locates the telos a few steps away from our action. The result: After we have completed our labor, which in and of itself remains basically meaningless, we can draw meaning from the tangible effects of the money we obtain. While surely better than unreflective materialism, this will not suffice in our quest for the guiding purpose of our labor, one that transcends the mere economic output and resides in the action of work itself.
A notion of work as Christian service accomplishes just this. Rather than positing the wages as the ultimate goal of all labor, whether spent on selfish pleasures or selfless donations, defining vocational meaning as Christian service fixes our eyes upon a higher, steadier telos. In short, one’s vocation is the domain in which he or she obeys the two greatest commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 23:37-39). Vocation itself is a calling (from the Latin vōcare, “to call, summon”). A job or career is not a mere economic appendage to a pre-existing Christian identity, as if Christians interacted with God somewhere other than the real world which they inhabit. On the contrary, one’s vocation is the stage upon which he or she enacts God’s direction. If these two great commandments from Christ are the compass for Christian pilgrims, our career vocations are the terrain we must travel in order to get there. The practical, daily demands of our vocational tasks are the thicket of woods we must traverse in order to move Northward.
Firstly, therefore, our work is service to our neighbors. If, as we have suggested, the purpose of our labor is not determined by our salary, then it follows that value-measurements must be derived from elsewhere. Contrary to the mindset we instinctually absorb, the dollar amount does not determine the worth of our work. Dollar amounts are transient, and in an economy as large as ours, surely do not represent the palpable concerns of the people who immediately surround us. This means that we must first examine the nature of our action itself, that is, what it is we do. The simple answer to this is that we are serving our neighbors.
Each job provides a service for someone who otherwise would not obtain it. A plumber performs a task that someone else is unable or unwilling to do. A lawyer provides a service that would be impossible if no lawyer existed. A computer programmer does something that non-computer programmers cannot do, for whatever reason. So what? What does this have to do with neighbors? Put simply, neighbors need help, and help comes from other neighbors. If someone is unable to cut down the trees in his backyard, someone who can comes over and does it. If someone is sick and cannot diagnose herself, she goes to someone who can. Neighbors need their neighbors to serve them. Each one’s vocational task offers something to the wider community that is valuable precisely because it is needed by neighbors.
Moreover, the effect is reciprocal. Just as no wiring would be fixed without an electrician, there would be no need for an electrician if there were no neighbors with wires to fix. In other words, vocational service is not only self-emptying but also an acknowledgment of one’s own dependence upon his neighbors. This is why money, though not the measurement of the value of labor, is a demonstration of its worth. If there was no neighbor willing to pay for what you can provide, it would be literally worthless and unsustainable as a career. Just as your neighbor says “I need you” when he requests your service and reciprocates it with reimbursement, so also you say “I need you, too” when you receive the payment. Thus, economics is reciprocal and can in fact be oriented toward love. A proper Christian imagination sees through the gift of payment, eschews any idolatrous prioritizing of the payment itself, and is more concerned with the welfare of the neighbor. A wonderful corollary of this is that this shift of focus frees you up to be generous to your neighbor. If the main focus of your vocation is not the payment but the service itself, there will be times when services can be offered at a lower cost or for free. A family blessed with an unexpected bonus can be generous towards the man painting their house who is struggling with work. Similarly, a painter who has been blessed with steady business can offer to paint the widow’s kitchen without charge. Our vocations are one of the means by which we love our neighbors.
Additionally, work must be viewed as Christian service to God. It will be noted that we have reordered the two great commandments given by our Lord. The foregoing argument, while, I think, right and true, nevertheless is in danger of suffocating immanence. Though we anchored our exposition in the command of Christ, the perspective could potentially become completely horizontal, that is, secularized. Therefore, we now turn to the explicitly and unabashedly theological dimension of Christian service, the framework in which the preceding finds its place, namely, work as priestly service to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let us first begin with what work as Christian service to God does not look like. This can be shown by an examination of Romans 1, in which St. Paul lays out the disastrous narrative of human sin. Humanity, who can perceive and know God through the creation He has made, has instead chosen to worship (sebazomai) and serve (latreuo) “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). They have turned from the proper thanksgiving toward God and have engaged in idolatry. The result is judgment. God has given them up “to vile passions” and “to do those things which are not fitting” (1:26, 28). The consequent corruption is total: God has handed over humanity both to the dishonoring of their bodies (soma) and to a debased mind (nous) (1:24, 28). Neither body nor mind is excepted from this ontological corrosion. Such is the world we now inhabit. In this sorry state, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (3:10).
This is the exact reversal of man’s original vocation. Adam was made a priest from the beginning. Eden was a temple and Adam was the high priest of God’s liturgical sanctuary, the heavens and the earth. He was made to “work and keep” the created order, language that is explicitly priestly (Gen 2:15), and he was given clear instructions about two sacramental trees. It was precisely because of his violation of these priestly instructions that the rotting world of St. Paul’s description came to be. Adam’s sin was a liturgical sin, but it was also a vocational sin. Indeed, the two go hand-in-hand. The outcome of this priestly rebellion is not the vacating of priestliness in humanity’s life on earth. Rather, it is the switching of deities to which service is rendered. Paul does not say that humanity ceased worshipping and serving altogether when they fell into sin. On the contrary, they worship (sebazomai) and serve (latreuo) the creature. Man has not ceased being a priest; he has instead become the high priest of a demonic liturgy.
The Gospel, then, is the restoration of humanity’s priestly vocation through the high priesthood of Christ our Lord. St. Paul connects these dots at the beginning of Romans 12, where he exhorts us, “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (12:1). He admonishes us not to “be conformed to this world,” but instead to “be transformed, by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). This is priestly language. However, the sacrifices which we render are not external to us, but our very lives. And paradoxically, the sacrifices are living. This is Christological. Christ himself is a living sacrifice, for He died and rose again. Through baptism, we are united to Him and can share in this mysterious reality (cf. Rom 6:1-5). It is through Christ, then, that we reverse our liturgical rebellion and, indeed, find its proper fulfillment, something which Adam himself never saw in fullness. And just as the Fall of man produced corruption in his mind and body, the Gospel invites us to sacrifice our bodies (soma) and have our minds (nous) renewed.
This priestly, vertical dimension is absolutely necessary if we wish to attain properly Christian service. Everything we noted above in regard to neighborly service is at risk of idolatry if we neglect the liturgical dimension. For example, if one sees his vocation as totally and completely devoted to the service of his neighbor, he will be sorely disappointed when his neighbor does not respond with proper thanksgiving. Indeed, by this act, he has made his neighbor a god, an object of adoration in and of himself. This can only produce hatred for his neighbor, who will never satisfy him as only God can. Without love for God, love for neighbor dissipates.
It seems to me that of these two crucial dimensions of Christian vocation—work as service to our neighbors and service to our God—the latter is much harder to sustain in a secular age. That is not to say that the former is easy or automatic. As stated above, it is impossible without the latter, which is why it too has disappeared as public acknowledgment of Christ as Lord has been abandoned. However, our secular culture purportedly values neighborliness, even as it kills it. Therefore, a vertical understanding of Christian vocation—one which sees it as a priestly task, the daily self-offering in and through Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to the Father—exists only among those who constantly fight upstream. Which is to say, it is incredibly difficult. It can be sustained only through a life of prayer.
Our example here must be the prophet Daniel, who dedicated himself truly to service in Babylon, but never for Babylon. We, like Daniel, have seen the temple destroyed and its vessels stolen by a godless society and even used for gluttonous and lecherous drinking parties (Dan 1:1-2; 5:1-4). Daniel maintained his vertical, priestly devotion to the one true God because of his habitual, liturgical practice. “His custom since the early days” of his exile was to pray on his knees three times a day, facing Jerusalem (6:10). We must do the same. The specifics of our liturgical practice may vary to some degree, but the principle remains. It is only through habitual and intentional acknowledgment of our Christ and Lord that we can remain faithful in our vocations. This is the true telos of our daily tasks. And it is only by means of that priestly devotion that we may truly serve our neighbors and love our fellow man. Indeed, in loving Christ we love both God and Man. That is how our work can be Christian service.
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