Acton Commentary

A Parable for the Unemployed

The theme of work recurs and reverberates throughout the Christian scriptures. We see it from the very beginning in Genesis 1, where human beings are created in God’s image and blessed with the call: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” The call to work appears again in a more specific form with the creation account of Adam and Eve, in which Adam is “placed in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” and Eve is created to be Adam’s co-laborer (Ge. 2:15, 18). The import of these early accounts for our understanding of work is of foundational import: work is not a result of the Fall into sin, but an aspect of God’s created purposes for human beings.

Gleichnis von den Arbeitern im Weinberg [Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard]

After the Fall, however, work takes on new aspects. It is toilsome and difficult in ways that it would have not been otherwise. And yet the biblical witness continues in the main to depict work in its basic identity as praiseworthy and good. This attitude towards work carries through to the New Testament. We find Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, waiting longingly for the Messiah to come. While he is waiting, though, he is working faithfully in his priestly service in the Temple. The angel Gabriel visits Zechariah “when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God” (Luke 1:8).

The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper notes a similar dynamic in the account of the angelic visitation of the shepherds proclaiming the birth of the Messiah. As Kuyper observes, “If the shepherds in Ephrata’s fields had not been faithfully involved in keeping watch over their flock, they would have seen nothing of that night’s brilliance, witnessed nothing of the Lord’s glory shining around them, heard no angel song, and would never have paid homage to God’s Holy Child.” Like Zechariah, the shepherds were faithfully at work, and that faithful service was the occasion for the miraculous visitation.

In Jesus’ parables we likewise find positive accounts of faithful service. For example, in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25—a chapter which contains a number of parables with important lessons on work and stewardship—the virgins have a job to do. The difference between the “wise” and the “foolish” virgins amounts to the difference between those who do a job faithfully and well and those who are careless and lazy. The wise virgins are the ones who had prepared by bringing oil with them, and thus they are the ones “who were ready” (Matt. 25:10).

In each case, when the time comes for a divine visitation, the difference between those who are wise and those who are foolish is between those who work faithfully and are ready and those who do not and are not. As Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster write, the connection of work with bearing the image of God, which we see in the creation accounts, is tied to God’s own identity as a worker: “God himself works: ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working’ (John 5:17), the Lord says.” In this way God is “ever-busy making provision for our existence.”

The Bible’s positive messages about work have significance not only for those of us who have paying jobs, however. What about those of us who are not employed in remunerated labor? What broader message about work does the Scripture have?

We might in the first place observe that the Bible’s picture of work is not limited to what people do for a paycheck. When we think of work nowadays, we often think immediately of what we are paid to do. This is an important part of what work is, to be sure, and a paycheck is an essential part of social life. Getting paid to do things is a significant way of serving others and providing for ourselves and our loved ones.

But remunerated labor is not the only way to work. If we conceive of work most foundationally as creative, productive, useful, or fruitful service, then we have a better framework for understanding how work takes other forms. The service of a parent to prepare a meal, or the labor of a volunteer at a homeless shelter, or the aid of a friend to help someone move, are all ways in which human beings serve one another through work, even when it is not waged work. This more expansive understanding of work can help us see that every person has a job to do, even if it is not always or primarily something we are paid to do.

Many people, however, feel a longing to work for a living, so to speak, to get paid to do some valuable service. What of those of us who are unemployed or under-employed? What of those, like so many in America, who have been driven to despair of finding paid work?

The Bible’s understanding of work addresses this economic and spiritual malaise as well. Consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). In this story, a landowner goes to the marketplace “to hire workers for his vineyard.” Here he finds, again and again, people “standing in the marketplace doing nothing.” Nothing, that is, except waiting to find work. Why are they standing around, “doing nothing”? Because, they say, “no one has hired us.” Before the workers in this parable become workers, they are waiting to work. They are workers in waiting. Some of them wait far longer than others to find their work. But they are all ready, in the right place and with the right mindset, when the moment and the call to work comes.

Perhaps you or someone you know is facing the uncertainty of being jobless. This parable has something to teach us in this regard. It might just as well be called the parable of the jobless. It teaches us to wait patiently and expectantly for ways that we can be of service to God through serving others. It teaches that all of us have some work to do, even if that work is, at a particular time, to wait faithfully.

The great English poet John Milton wrote words of comfort, drawing on this and other biblical parables, in his famous Sonnet 19. Written after he was struck with blindness and struggling with doubts about his faithfulness and usefulness to God, Milton concludes the poem with the line: “They also serve who only stand and waite.” This is a lesson drawn out of the larger biblical understanding of work, and a word of hope as we wait upon the Lord.