Work in God’s Plan
This sermon by Bishop John Jukes is part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more sermons, prayers, songs, and readings about work, click on the table of contents to the right.
Our starting point is the word or term "work". It is extremely difficult to define "work". In fact the present Pope, with all his expertise, draws back from seeking to establish a definition in his great Encyclical Laborem exercens on work. He contents himself with describing work as any human activity which is called work by humans. This is part of the logic of the Pope's approach since it is the human being who is the measure of work, not the other way round.
To many people work is seen only in terms of paid employment. But in fact "work" has a much wider significance than this. It encompasses a very great variety of human actions and activity. There is about work an element of shaping the universe which is God's gift to us. So to understand work it is necessary to consider the place of the human being and the human race in this creation.
We have to turn to the book of Genesis for our vision of the universe in which man is the worker set there by God. It is a vision and understanding of our world which Jesus himself, born into the Jewish race, inherited. In this vision God is shown as making the universe out of nothing. He eleborates it with all his mighty power and perfects it. At the very end of that process he creates and places in it the human being. That human being is unique in this creation. No other being in creation is like the human being. Man and woman, he created them as equal but complementary to each other.
In the Genesis narrative the man is placed in the garden to cultivate it and both Adam and Eve are to use it and enjoy it. They are free to use its fruits, although in this God places a requirement of obedience to his will. Even after the Fall, the dominion of the human over all nature, especially over living things, is not withdrawn; although that dominion is uneasy and is exercised only with suffering.
In this primitive narrative there is to be found a number of principles which are central to our theme of the Christian understanding of work in God's plan. I have not time even to outline the history of the development of these principles through the centuries. I will therefore simply present to you some of the principles used by the present Pope and some of his predecessors to set out the Church's teaching in these matters.
The human race as a whole is the inheritor of this creation. The race is given the gift of dominion over it. This gift is to be understood as laying the basis for the human being to be a kind of co-creator with God in the operation of perfecting this creation. No part of this creation is withdrawn from human dominion in order that God's purpose can be fulfilled. However after the Fall, that which was intended to be the scene or expression of God's glory and power, became in certain circumstances the occasion for the entry of sin into this world. That sin showed itself in the forms of aggression and selfishness on the part of individuals. The Church reminds us of the need to be aware of this risk by insisting that all material things have a certain universal purpose and destination.
The Church documents express this universal ownership in the phrase "the universal destination of material goods". By it we intend to emphasise the shared nature of the human being's relationship to the goods of the earth. At the same time the Church does not exclude the legitimacy of private ownership and the acquisition and retention of goods that one has made or acquired by work or other means. The phrase does exclude the taking to oneself exclusive ownership of the goods of this creation in such a way as to deny to another human being or group of human beings any effective participation in such goods of this creation which are necessary for life or due human dignity.
Another principle underlying the Church's teaching on work flows from the social nature of the human race. The human being alone finds it difficult to find the necessities for food, clothing, shelter etc. Without social contact between human beings, no intellectual or spiritual development of the individual is possible. Even the exercise of dominion over nature, which is God's gift to each human being, simply cannot take place except through the social realities of human existence. These social realities lie at the root of the many different styles of social organisation which the human race has evolved in the course of its long history. The Church has never canonised or adopted any particular form of political-social organisation as the ideal one.
However there are two important notions which the modern Popes have underlined as especially significant for bringing the values of the Gospel to bear upon modern social living. These are "solidarity" and "subsidiarity". "Solidarity" speaks of the common origin and future of every member of the human race. "Subsidiarity" requires that in taking decisions affecting the community, the place for such decisions should be as close as possible to those who are involved in these decisions.
Bishop John Jukes, OFM Conv., is Chairman of the World of Work Committee of the Catholic Bishops