The Great Banquet Table and the Protestant Work Ethic

Transcribed from the sermon preached August 28, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Psalm 127:1-2, Luke 14:1, 7-14


Do all the good you can

By all the means you can

In all the ways you can

In all the places you can

To all the people you can

As long as you ever can             – John Wesley

Dave Barry, the wise sage says “a person who is nice to you, but not to the waiter, is not a nice person.

Last week I spoke of the historical influence of Christian theology on science and technology. Today I relate the discussion to work.

In my knowledge of great people in history, Mahatma Gandhi may have been the most Christ like. A great example of his Christ like presence was his resistance to the ancient Hindu caste system.  The caste system is based on birth which designates certain people for certain jobs and segregates marriage and social interaction.  The lowest caste is considered untouchable and they were given the worst work. Gandhi made a point of performing the work usually left to the untouchables and required his followers to do the same.  In 1932 he undertook a hunger strike to protest this class discrimination.  He called the untouchables, “the children of God.”

For many of the Greek philosophers and for the elite through much of history, work has been considered something to be avoided.  The highest seats of respect were reserved for the powerful and privileged, who deemed labor and laborers further down the hierarchy from God, unworthy to sit at the banquet table.

David F. Noble in The Religion of Technology traces the rise of western technology to a change in the notion of work and technology or the “useful arts” that began in the middle ages: “Whereby humble activities heretofore disdained because of their association with manual labor, servitude, women, or worldliness came to be dignified and deemed worthy of elite attention and devotion.” (p.1)  “In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia made the practical arts and manual labor in general vital elements of monastic devotion.” (p.13) Ninth century Carolingian philosopher, Erigena, laid out a theological view of what he called the “mechanical arts” as distinct, dignified, divinely inspired and of value for the redemption of creation. (p. 15)

Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin expanded the understanding of vocation or calling to include not only religious life and salvation but almost all kinds of work. This expansion of the notion of vocation extended from Calvin’s understanding of the providence of God.  God’s creative and redemptive power extends to all creation, not just traditionally religious areas or roles; therefore we can do God’s work no matter who we are or where we work.  What you do and how you do it is a sermon. “But wait”, you say, Nothing feels sacred about my job.”

Calvin talks of both an internal and an external vocation or call.  The internal transformation of our being, directed by and for God can take place even as we may be in a job that doesn’t feel like a calling specific to us.  We do our job with diligence, honesty and love first because we are transformed and called by the grace of God in Christ.  Second, we look for a job in the so called secular world that will use the gifts God has given us to further love, peace and justice in the world.

For Christians, love is our first and most important vocation or calling. We may have many callings: a husband or wife, a parent, a citizen and a church member, a friend or mentor along with the daily work with which we earn money may all be our vocations. The point is that God calls us and empowers us with the Spirit to fulfill these roles or tasks. In other words, we instill in a job an element of sacredness, by the spirit with which we do it. Work has value in and of itself, since it is in the Creator’s nature and ours, made in God’s image.  There are few things more satisfying than a job well done.  A meaningful job done to the best of our ability brings joy in and of itself, regardless of the monetary reimbursement. It is also often the case that the enjoyment upon completion is greater when it is difficult to accomplish.

Also to the degree that we provide a service to others, a job helps us to be like Christ. There is a sacrificial element to work. All good and necessary work is God’s work.  Therefore, the gifts and work of anyone and everyone, Christian or not, are a blessing from God.  By grace we are given the gifts of mind and body, and therefore no merit on our part justifies arrogance or pride. Most work is hard, or has difficult elements to it. Yet, like Christ, we are called to use the gifts that we have been given in service to others.

There is also an understanding in the Protestant work ethic that we not only do work as sacrifice in service of others but our sacrifice is a service to us and our family in the future.  Proverbs 12:14 reads “From the fruit of his words a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him.”  Or Proverbs 13:4 “The soul of the sluggard craves, and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”

As many of you may know, the great sociologist Max Weber attributed the rise of western capitalist society to this Protestant work ethic. Weber, Max (2003) [First published 1905]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Parsons, Talcott. New York: Dover.

“The economist Joseph Schumpeter (a Catholic) argues that capitalism began in Italy in the 14th century, not in the Protestant areas of Europe.[11] Other factors that further developed the European market economy included the strengthening of property rights and lowering of transaction costs with the decline and monetization of feudalism, and the increase in real wages following the epidemics of bubonic plague.”

These factors were significant to the rise of western society even if they don’t cancel out the strong impact of a positive understanding of work.

In the United States, the notion that we should be humble and strong enough to work for ourselves has often served revolt against the elite. As we are reminded often in this election year, for a long time in the US, it has been important for public candidates for office to show they have made it from humble origins to where they are through hard work.  They may be rich now, but they have had to work hard to get there…and therefore are “deserving” of our vote.  We may envy the one born in the best seat at the banquet table, but they haven’t earned our respect.

I believe that this protestant notion of work, as an honorable service to God and others, has contributed greatly to the economic success of Western Society. It is valuable and worthy of holding onto.  This doesn’t mean that it has been all positive.  It is a Western Capitalist problem that we focus so much on the efficiency of accomplishment that we often don’t allow ourselves to be in the present tense. We can learn from the East on this note. Gandhi said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”  And “We must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” Surfing was almost wiped out as missionaries taught the Hawaiians that they should not be swimming around naked enjoying themselves so much.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is first and foremost about love.  When push comes to shove, love takes precedence over pleasure.  The tendency for Christianity to elevate sacrifice and suffering above love has too often meant that melancholy and drudgery are seen as a virtue.  I’m quite certain that Thomas Jefferson was trying to correct this distortion when he added the pursuit of happiness that we are endowed with by our Creator to the Declaration of Independence.

The Protestant work ethic is essentially a middle class ethic. It is often used to argue for the moral and spiritual superiority of the middle class above both the elite and the poor. Just because we have worked hard for our money doesn’t mean we are any less inclined to bias and prejudice. Since money leads to power, and power enables privilege, people who worked for their money are only slightly less likely to use power unjustly.  Power will tempt us with corruption and abuse regardless of how we get it.

Clearly, the poor, women and people of color have been systematically discriminated against, given fewer opportunities and saddled with greater resistance of cultural customs, the law and social systems, including religion.  Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society stated over eighty years ago what is glaringly evident today:

“The educational advantages which privilege buys, and the opportunities for the exercise of authority which come with privileged social position, develop capacities which are easily attributed to innate endowment.  The presence of able men among the privileged is allowed to obscure the number of instances in which hereditary privilege is associated with knavery and incompetence.  On the other hand it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.” (P.117)

In a broad sense, Christian stewardship is how we care for the world, what job we do and how we do our job. By the grace of Christ, we carry the sacred within us into our secular work, to be salt and light to the world. Ultimately our vocation and our job is love, to love as Christ loves us, to increase love, justice and equal opportunity in the world, to invite everyone to the pleasure of the banquet table. This will often entail sacrifice, the performance of acts that are not entirely enjoyable, and sometimes it will mean suffering and sacrifice.  But finally, there is nothing that brings more joy and pleasure than love.  And the joy of love is eternal.  Thanks be to God.