One of the dominate ideas of our day is the belief that some work is more honorable than others. “Honorable” may not be the word everyone uses; it’s a bit out of date. How about “important”? I don’t think there’s any question but that we accept unthinkingly a hierarchy of work. In our minds, a surgeon is an order of magnitude more important than the hospital’s janitor, even though surgeons have undoubtedly killed more patients and janitors have undoubtedly killed more germs.
It would take a large book, as opposed to a short blog post, to document all the reasons we fall into this heresy. One obvious element, however, is our tendency to only value things that can be measured in money. In such a world, higher income reflects higher value. Hence, we shamelessly ask mothers if they work—by which we mean, “Do you have a job that’s sufficiently important that someone pays you to do it outside your home?” The value of raising one’s own children or preparing the family’s meals, or maintaining the family’s home, is dismissed out of hand, since those things aren’t measured in dollars.
We take a similarly dim view of manual labor. One big reason our kids are supposed to go to college is so they won’t have to work with their hands. Among my family and friends, I’ve never heard anyone say, “That’s great you want to be a plumber. Of course you don’t have to go to college.” No matter what we believe about the value of plumbing to society, we don’t want our children to be part of the delivery system. My own family lives on the extreme end of the higher education spectrum. Our older daughter is an attorney married to an attorney, our second daughter is a doctor married to a doctor, and our son is a petroleum geologist. They have seven advanced degrees among them.
On the other hand, the man you can see in the picture with this post is Juan. He’s a maintenance man for our local shopping center. Juan is from Sonora, Mexico. If you take a closer look at the photo, you may notice that every chair at every table is perfectly in place. That’s Juan’s work. Every morning while emptying the trash cans, picking up papers and wiping off the tables, he also meticulously arranges the chairs. Our budding friendship began the morning I told him in Spanish that I admired his work.
He thanked me in Spanish and then launched into an animated conversation to the effect that no matter what work you do, you need to do it enthusiastically and to the best of your ability. Juan thinks my Spanish is really good, because I nodded periodically and said, “Si,” as I took in about half of what he told me. But I’m confident I got Juan’s main point.
I’m also confident that Juan gets God’s main point when it comes to work. There really isn’t a hierarchy of value in God’s world. Saul, after being anointed king of Israel, promptly goes back to plowing his fields with his oxen. Paul’s ministry takes off when he gets a job in Corinth and works full time as a tentmaker, teaching in the synagogue on the weekend. And even though manual labor was held in as low regard then as it is now, Paul later tells the Thessalonians to “work with your hands . . . so that even people who don’t understand your faith will respect the fact that you earn your own living.”
My goal, historically, has been to make enough money doing intellectual work that I don’t need to work with my hands. That way I can pay someone else to clean the house and mow the lawn so I can do things like go to the gym . . . for exercise. Except for the almost painful irony, there’s nothing really wrong with the way I live. But it sure is easy to lose sight of the fact that Juan, the janitor, and Clara our maid and Lupe our gardener are, on many a day, the ones pleasing God with the work they do joyfully.