The dignity of work is a fundamental part of the American story. From fields to factories to cubicles, hard work is the backbone of our national narrative and it fuels what’s left of the American dream.
Benjamin Franklin said, “It’s the working man who is the happy man. It’s the idle man who is miserable.”
That’s sage advice for anyone. But it’s especially relevant for people of faith. Why? Because the dignity of work isn’t an American invention. It’s a centuries-old spiritual concept — a belief that sometimes gets lost in the chaos of better titles, bigger paychecks and fatter profits.
Jesus and the dignity of work
Your job matters. I know that’s hard to believe sometimes. When your boss is giving you the stink eye or when a coworker gets the promotion you deserve, work feels futile.
But your work is a calling and in Jesus’ vision of the world, your job is a sacred thing because it allows you to achieve fulfillment as a human being. The dignity of work is a fancy way of saying that your work provides self-esteem, self-respect and self-worth.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard
In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the short version:
A vineyard owner (who represents God) needs help in his vineyard. So, he hires some workers in the morning, some at noon and others in the late afternoon. At the end of the day, he gives all of the workers — regardless of how many hours they worked — the same wage.
Understandably, the workers who were hired in the morning and at noon weren’t happy. Although they received the wage they were promised, the morning workers felt more deserving than the Johnny-come-latelys who started working near the end of the day.
I imagine that the workers hired at the end of the day must have been desperate. When the vineyard owner saw them standing around in late afternoon, he asked them why they’s sat idle all day. Their response: “Because no one has hired us.”
By hiring them at the last minute, the vineyard owner recognized their personhood.
READ: Does Your Work Matter?
By paying them a full day’s wage (the same wage as the other workers), the vineyard owner (i.e., God) communicated that their worth and value was no less than anyone else’s — regardless of the fact that they were having a hard time finding or maybe even holding down a job.
That’s good news for all of us because it says that you and I are just as valuable as everyone else on the planet. Maybe we’re not curing cancer or solving global crises, but our jobs are important because they are symbols of our personhood and worth.
The dignity of work means that our jobs are important to our spiritual well-being, even if no one else acknowledges the contributions we make in the workplace.
Jesus ends the parable with the phrase:
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In the Christian tradition, the dignity of work goes hand in hand with the right to work. In the kingdom of God, every human being has the right to work and earn a fair wage in the process. Unemployment and underemployment are offenses against God because they deny people the dignity of work.
So, the next time you shuffle into the office to endure another day of boring, monotonous or seemingly meaningless work, do it with a smile on your face. Your job matters because you matter — and in God’s eyes, you’re no less valuable than the guy with the big office down the hall.