By Rev. William M. Cwirla
The workplace is an extension of God’s order of the household in the temporal kingdom. The Scripture passages quoted in the Table of Duties pertain to household servants or slaves but can be applied to employees and employers. Work is part of our vocation, our calling and priesthood in which we employ the gifts of God in service of others. Like the home, the workplace is ordered. There are supervisors and those who are supervised, employers and employees. The Table of Duties directs both to the Holy Scriptures.
To servants, workers, and employees, it says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:5-8)
Workers don’t just serve their boss and company, they serve the Lord. Like Hebrew National Hot Dogs, they “answer to a Higher Authority.” For that reason, Christians ought to be the best workers around. They are servants of the One who came as the Servant of all. They are not simply serving men or grubbing for a paycheck, but they recognize that they are priests to God in Christ’s royal priesthood and what they do is priestly work. Whether it is building a house, repairing a faucet, putting out a fire, tending a patient, flipping a burger or waiting on tables, whatever it is you do for work is priestly work, offered as a “living sacrifice” that is holy and acceptable through the High Priestly Sacrifice of Jesus’ blood (Romans 12).
I like the word “eye-service.” Most of us know how that goes. You work only when you know someone is watching and, of course, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” “Eye-service” is doing just enough to get by; working only when it shows. But the servant of Christ strives for excellence in all things, even when no one is watching.
A good test is this: Do you do the same quality work when no one notices?
In my hobby of woodworking, there is a joint called the blind mitered dovetail. It’s an extremely strong joint that combines the clean but weak miter with a very strong, but hidden dovetail. A dovetail joint takes a bit of skill, patience and practice to master. Ordinarily, it’s visible to show off the skill of the woodworker. But in a blind mitered dovetail, the dovetail is completely hidden from view. The world will never see it nor admire the labor and skill that went into it. It’s known only to the craftsman and God.
It’s like cleaning house for a blind person who can’t see whether or not you did a good job, or visiting an Alzheimer’s patient who won’t remember your visit. Attention to detail, pursuit of quality and excellence, and care for workmanship are the characteristics of priestly work. And you, as a baptized believing worker, are a priest to God in the service of your neighbor.
To masters, bosses, and employers, the Scripture says, “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.” (Ephesians 6:9)
Ultimately, we all work for the same Boss. The Christian recognizes this and so treats his or her subordinates with honor and dignity, without prejudice or partiality. He is concerned that they are fairly compensated for their work and well cared for.
In my science career, I had the privilege of working for a man who also happened to be a devout Christian. He was an excellent supervisor—always looking out for the wellbeing of the people under his authority. He advocated for us, defended us, mentored us, made sure we had the best tools to do our job, and pushed for our promotion and advancement, even if it meant losing us in his work group. Even the unbelievers and skeptics in our group admired him for his honesty, fairness, and integrity. When I told him of my plans to go to the seminary, he was prayerfully supportive right down to my last day on the job.
We are all servants of each other and of Christ. Whether as employers or employees, and regardless of the work we do, we all serve Christ hidden in the neighbor as we serve each another. “For as often as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me,” Jesus said.
Jesus knew the world of work. He apparently labored as a carpenter or contractor, carrying on the business after Joseph. We have no record of how He was as a worker or a boss, but we can imagine that He did good work and treated others with respect. “He did all things well.”
Most importantly, Jesus redeemed and sanctified the world of work, lifting up on the cross all the ways that we take advantage of each other and rob each other, taking up our sinful selfishness and prideful egos. Jesus, the second Adam, restored the dignity and holiness to Adam’s work and made our labor once again a priestly sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise.
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith.
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe:
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.
Lutheran Service Book #738
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and serves on the board of directors for Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.