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The Dignity of Work

We're all made for it, including the poor.

Caring for the Poor (5)

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.’” Leviticus 23.22

The glory of work
God created human beings to work (Gen 1.26-28; 2.15). Put another way, work is not a curse resulting from the fall; it is a human being’s highest calling, but only when that work is done unto the Lord.

Through their work men and women invest the strength, skills, and intelligence God has given them in bringing out the goodness and rich potential of God’s creation. We reflect the creative and fruitful character of God by emulating His works in our own. Thus God is glorified by our work and we are enabled to meet our own needs and to share with our neighbors (cf. Eph. 4.28).

Work is inherent to being human and a source of dignity and fulfillment inasmuch as it allows us to participate with God in His project of upholding the creation, glorifying Himself, and blessing humankind. All legitimate occupations and vocations share in this ability to glorify God and bless our fellow human beings. All work has the potential to further the Kingdom and economy of God and to contribute to the creation of a good society; and thus no human being who is able should expect or be encouraged not to work. Instead, all must seek the work for which God has fitted them and take up that work for His glory (1 Cor. 10.31).

And this includes those who are poor in our communities.

Work and the poor
The poor must not be deprived of the dignity of work simply because they are poor. In the Law of God, the poor in Israel were expected to work to overcome their impoverished condition, whether that condition was for a short or long term. And it was the duty of the rest of the community to provide meaningful work for the poor to do.

Gleaning fields was the most common form of labor for the poor. It could also be highly productive for them, as we see in the case of Ruth (Ruth 2). Israelite society was based in agriculture. Every community would have had plenty of fields, gardens and orchards, and each landowner was responsible to make sure that, when the harvest came in, food was left on the stalk or vine for the poor to glean. The produce was not gathered for them nor delivered to them. The poor, like all their neighbors, were expected to work in line with God’s design for all people.

By extension, we might suppose that some measures were taken to make it possible for the poor to find work in those fields before the harvest was realized. And that other opportunities for the poor to work were also held in store, community by community, for those who might have needs. There were always buildings to repair, errands to run, animals to tend, and doubtless many other everyday chores. It is likely that poor people were called upon to meet these needs and thus to provide for themselves and realize a valuable aspect of their reason for being.

Resources were not distributed to the poor by local governments at centralized collections centers. Nor were the poor sought out and “counseled” by government agents to enroll for local assistance, or given vouchers to use in purchasing necessities, as is often the case today. The poor were expected to go and retrieve their sustenance, at their own initiative, through the dignity of honest labor.

In our day, when communities are no longer so directly based on agriculture, policies could be adopted and programs created which provide other means whereby the poor can work to provide for their needs. The practice of giving “hand-outs” to those who meet some government-decreed standard for being poor does not fulfill the principal of gleaning; instead, it may serve to foster a mindset of dependency, if not entitlement. And it lacks the dignity that comes from work.

One who had become poor in ancient Israel might choose to contract himself into the service of another, especially, it seems, a close relative (Lev. 25.39-43). This was not slavery but more a form of indentured servitude in which, for a specified period, one who had fallen on hard times would contract with another to serve in whatever ways might have been needed. During the tenure of such contracts the one serving was to be treated with love and respect, as unto the Lord (Lev. 25.43). He was not to be treated scornfully or in a manner that assaulted his dignity as an image-bearer of God.

Justice and work
A just society requires all members to contribute love for their neighbors, whether they are poor or wealthy. Those who will not work when they can do so should be left to the consequences of their sluggardliness (2 Thess. 3.10). It is incumbent on local community leaders to discover ways, analogous to the work of gleaning, of helping to meet the needs of local poor. These might include keeping part-time work available, identifying “community work” opportunities and helping to fund them, offering job counseling and training, and so forth. Churches certainly could pioneer the way in this, creating opportunities for work on their campuses, on behalf of needy members, and for the community at large.

The poor in any community are both the legitimate concern of the community and a source of blessing, and not a burden, to it. Because even the poor are expected to contribute to the wellbeing of their community, making sure that work opportunities are available for those who have fallen on hard times is a way of helping them to fulfill their God-given purpose and of allowing communities to practice neighbor-love in truly edifying and contributing ways.

But work is not the only option a local community can employ in helping to meet the needs of its poor.

For reflection
1. Can you think of some work opportunities that might be analogous to gleaning?

2. Churches could provide educational services to help those who are out of work or preparing to enter the workforce. Such as?

3. If you were poor, what kinds of work would you be willing to do to support yourself and your loved ones?

Next steps—Preparation: What are some things your church could do to help people who need work?

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.

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ReVision comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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