The Parable of the Hostile Administrator
"Good morning," I said innocently to the office administrator as I came in to work on the first day of my summer job on a factory loading dock.
I was so stunned by her reply that I nearly fell over.
In a bitter retort laced with profanity, she demanded to know what was so good about it. She gave me a lingering hostile glance before turning away.
One of the older workers took me aside. "Don't let her bother you," he said sympathetically. "She's always in a bad mood. It's been like that for as long as I've worked here. She's that way with everybody."
My experience in the days ahead confirmed that this administrator truly was in a bad mood every single day. Even though I made a sincere and consistent effort to be kind and friendly, this seemed to have no effect.
After I'd worked for a few weeks on the loading dock, I was shifted to the maintenance crew. I was assigned to clean her part of the building! I cringed as I anticipated the kind of comments she might make as our paths crossed. Even though she wasn't my supervisor, I was sure she'd have plenty to say about my work.
Honorable Work in the Christian Tradition
Then I remembered a line from a poem I'd studied in one of my literature classes in college that spring. George Herbert wrote in "The Elixir":
"A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine: Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws, makes that and the action fine."
In other words, when Christians are doing even so humble a task as sweeping, they can make a room, and their act of service, "fine" or beautiful by doing it in obedience to God. It doesn't matter what anyone else says about it. The real audience for our work is in heaven.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said something very similar: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper . . . he should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven will pause to say, 'There lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.' "
A Biblical Call to Honorable Work
The advice these godly men were giving is solidly biblical. Peter wrote in his first epistle, for example, that we should give excellent service "in reverent fear of God . . . not only to those masters who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh" (1 Pet. 2:18). We can do this because our service really is being offered to God, not to those masters.
I didn't know this at the time, but the word translated "harsh" here can be translated more literally as "crooked," in the sense of a path that keeps turning off course. (Luke uses the same Greek word when he quotes Isaiah's prophesy that every "crooked" path will be made straight, Luke 3:5.) The term could apply to a master or boss who kept leaving the path of respectable authority. But it could also apply to someone who took a friendly greeting and turned it aside, making it the occasion for a caustic confrontation. In that case, Peter's words applied directly to my situation with the hostile administrator!
Even though I didn't know all this then, I knew enough to recognize that I couldn't use the woman's belligerence as an excuse for not doing my best. And so I told God that, no matter what she might say, I'd do my sweeping for Him. (And was it my imagination, or did her attitude begin to soften after that?)
One day I was working my way down a long hallway. I was concentrating on getting the dust and grime out from under the base heaters, so I didn't notice that someone was coming until I heard them stop right next to me. I looked up and saw that it was this administrator! I flinched as she looked at me, then at the floor, and then back at me. But for the second time that summer, I nearly fell over when she spoke.
"You do good work," she said.
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- Read and reflect on 1 Peter 2:18-21:
. . . submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.
. . . To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
- Do you know someone like the hostile manager? How do you respond to people like this?
- How can you make your daily work an act of obedience to God?