Christians in the Crafts and Trades Discuss Their Work (Video)
In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough explores what it means to modern workers that Jesus was a craftsman. Starting at minute 9:50 Christians working in the crafts and trades share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.
God is a Craftsman
Today we’re going to be looking at the very curious note in Mark 6:3. “Jesus is…” well, what is he? That’s the question we’ll start off with momentarily. It’s translated “carpenter” but we’ll have quite a bit to say about that translation. And then we will move on to think through the implications of Jesus being whatever it is he turns out to have been.
Lastly, we will have our panel of craftspeople of different sorts talk about their faith and their work.
We pick up the action in Mark Chapter 6.
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Imagine: Jesus comes to his hometown, back to where he went to high school, where he hung out at Nazareth House of Pizza, and all of a sudden he’s doing these astounding things. He’s acting as if he’s somebody. If you’ve ever been back to your hometown as an adult, there’s this kind of proverbial Russian mentality that the highest blade of grass is the one that gets chopped down. They want to bring you down to size so you remember where you came from. That seems to be driving the dynamic in this story. They’re not denying that Jesus has done miracles. They can’t really deny that he’s speaking wisely and insightfully. But they just can’t make the jump from the kid they went to high school with to this - whatever he thinks he is. So in the midst of this interaction we have what’s almost a throw-away line in verse 3: “Isn’t this the carpenter?”
Tekton is the word in Greek. Tekton can be translated a variety of ways, and carpenter is not even necessarily the most likely. Now most scholars lean towards something more like a stone mason. The reason is that tekton is sort of an all-purpose word for an artisan or crafts person. In the Old Testament you usually have to put a word after it to figure out exactly what sort of craftsman you’re talking about. A carpenter would be “a tekton of wood.” So we don’t really know exactly what sort of a craftsman Jesus was. But we do know that he was a craftsman.
This is really all we get by way of information in the gospels. Matthew says he’s the son of a tekton, which doesn’t really advance the discussion because a) it’s the same word, and b) in those days you typically did what your father did professionally. There wasn’t a lot of career advancement - the guidance counselor at Nazareth High would have only asked one question: “What does your dad do?” For Jesus’ profession, we have just these two references and that’s all.
This information can shoot us off into two different directions, and I’m not thrilled with either option. The first is to say: This is just one throw-away line, Jesus’ job as a craftsman was clearly not central to who he is. His real job is to be king of Israel, king of the world, king of the cosmos. In that case we diminish the value of his having been a carpenter as something he just sluffs aside. If that’s your onramp to the theology of work, then you believe spiritual work is important but physical manual labor is unimportant. One is godly, one is secular. One is holy, one is defiled. This creates a negative view working in the world, where you don’t embrace your work whole-heartedly, because all that matters is the spiritual realm, and Jesus is going to lead us away from our everyday pursuits into some higher eternity. I don’t think that’s the way the Bible, as a whole sets out life, and I don’t think that’s the significance of Jesus quickly being called a tekton.
The other worrying interpretation is this: Jesus is a carpenter - that’s all we have, but that’s all we need. Because now we turn on our pious imaginations and everything Jesus does as a carpenter is suffused with a literal and figurative halo of awesomeness. When Jesus is learning how to be a carpenter, Joseph is holding his hand steadily, as the holy family gathers around the stone wall to be made, and Jesus does everything perfectly as he looks up at mom and dad glowing right back at him. We imagine that every day Jesus goes off to work with a fine attitude, every stone he touches is perfect, everything fits, and his work is holy, just like our work is holy. Thinking about Jesus through this gauze lens can be equally devastating for your work, because that doesn’t really feel like my work on a day to day basis. It’s not all halos and sunshine and angelic choirs attending the least little bit of work that I do. Things go wrong half the time. We go wrong on the job. So when we think of Jesus being perfect in his work such that stonemasonry or carpentry becomes this magical spiritual experience, that could be almost as crushing as believing his work wasn’t important at all.
I want to steer clear between those two options and see the extraordinary nature of the fact that Jesus did very ordinary labor. Jesus did not live in Bible-land, this mythical world composed out of flannel-graph where everyone’s really really good or really really bad. He lived in our world. And he worked a job like many of you work. Jesus knows what it is to work an ordinary job, day by day, with irritating people around him, with stuff that doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do. And the fact that the eternal God, the Messiah of Israel, would participate in everyday ordinary work is the most extraordinary encouragement to us in our work.
I am a landscape designer and contractor. I first started out working for a lady in Beverly Farms doing landscape maintenance, and it was cathartic for me. I really enjoyed being outdoors. I loved working with my hands. It wasn’t like this big lightbulb going on - I didn’t realize that this was a point in my path that was going to guide my career. But through a circuitous path that God took me on, I ended up doing landscape design even before I was really trained to do it.
I run a custom drapery workroom. I got into this because I wasn’t getting the teaching job I wanted to get. Then the drapery business took off! I’d sewn since home-economics class, but years later when that teacher saw that I had a custom drapery business she laughed. I was not good when I started. But I really feel like this is a calling. It’s not a simple thing where God spoke out of heaven and said, “do drapery.” It’s only in retrospect that I see God’s hand in this.
A lot of my work is interpersonal contact with people in their homes. I’m in their homes discussing what they’re lifestyle is all about. It’s almost like a lifestyle evangelism kind of thing. People think that since I own my own business I won’t declare it if they pay cash. But I say, “I’m sorry, no, I’m still going to declare it.” People think you’re going to be hiding the money under the table - this is the general expectation in these kind of services. But this is not the way I operate. I can remember one of my earliest clients started calling my sister and me “the Sunday School teachers,” even though we hadn’t given them any context discussing our faith. This was just the way people perceived us. We were living our lives in a little different way than the rest of them. I’m hoping that came from our integrity, that there was integrity in the way that we presented ourselves to people.
For 20 years I worked as a city planner in Lynne Massachusetts. There was a big stock market crash in October of 1987 and a lot of jobs left Massachusetts. Blue collar cities like Lynne suffered tremendously in loss of population and jobs. So there were a lot of vacant buildings that became blighted eyesores, and they became a place where things happened that you don’t want happening in your neighborhood. It was my job to perform triage. I took over seven rooming houses with almost 300 SRO or Single Room Occupancy units. I wrote the relocation plan, I implemented the rehabilitation, and I learned that those are God’s people too. They’re just low-wage, or low-skill. Many of them have emotional or psychological issues that limited their potential. And they needed a clean, safe, and affordable place to live. I feel that was a real wonderful opportunity. I learned a lot, the Lord taught me a lot, and it turned out very well.
- What do you make of the fact that Jesus was a craftsman? Knowing that Jesus worked in the same world you work in, with similar trials and tribulations, do you value your everyday work more or less?
- According to Sean, “Jesus did not live in Bible-land, this mythical world composed out of flannel-graph where everyone’s really good or really bad.” Do you think of Bible characters in black-or-white / all-or-nothing terms? What about the people you work with today?
- Jim, Linda, and Alden experience God’s career guidance in different ways. Jim says God orchestrated life circumstances to lead him to a job he loves. Linda feels God asks her to be extra honest in a dishonest industry. Alden sees his job itself as service. How do you think God has guided your career path? How is God guiding your work today?