Working Outside the Camp (Hebrews 13:11-25)
Fish Guts and the Kingdom of God
Nancy Matheson Burns, CEO of food distributor Dole & Bailey, describes reconsidering her career choices when she became a Christian. At the time, she was a fish buyer for her company. She spent her days up to her ankles in fish guts, as she describes it, contending with guys blasting her with foul language, surrounded by calendars with pictures of naked women.
“I’ve got to get a job doing something holier,” she thought. “This is no place for a Christian.” So she applied for a job selling advertising for Christian radio stations. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that God put her in the fish guts for a reason. When she read passages such as this one in Hebrews, she noticed God usually kept Christians in difficult places, rather than whisking them away from them. So she decided to try an experiment. She bought a bunch of calendars with decent pictures. She took them on her rounds, tore down the girlie calendars, and put up the decent ones right in front of the guys’ faces. “Now you have something better to look at,” she said, “I hope it helps you have a better day.”
The fish guys began to like her and respect her. Some days she was the only person who treated them with respect. She found she liked them too. She appreciated their work, and she enjoyed supplying her customers with fresh, safe, quality fish. Over time she rose to become CEO, and she turned the company into a workplace where all people are treated with dignity and respect, and leaders are selected and trained for the ability to serve employees, customers, and suppliers.
The third work-related exhortation in chapter 13 is to “go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb. 13:13). According to Hebrews 13:11–13, “The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp,” outside the realm of the holy, in the place of the unclean. “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate,” outside the camp, in the realm of the unholy, “to sanctify the people by his own blood.” Hebrews thus draws the lesson that we should also journey outside the camp and join Jesus there.
Many Christians work in places “outside the camp” of holiness, that is, in workplaces where hostility, ethical challenges, and suffering are regular occurrences. Sometimes we feel that to follow Christ well, we need to find holier workplaces. But this passage from Hebrews shows us that the opposite is true. To follow Christ fully is to follow him to the places where his saving help is desperately needed, but not necessarily welcomed. Doing the work of Jesus’ kingdom entails suffering along with Jesus. The phrase “bearing his disgrace” echoes the faith of Moses, who chose the “disgrace of Christ” over the honor and treasures of Egypt (Heb. 11:24–26). This “disgrace” was the loss of honor and possessions mentioned earlier in the book. Sometimes, sacrificing our possessions, privileges, and status may be the only way we can help others. Yet helping others is precisely why God sends us to work “outside the camp” in the first place. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16).
Nancy Matheson Burns (guest lecture in the Doctor of Ministry program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Hamilton, MA, March 22, 2000).