“What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?”
– Ecclesiastes 1:3
Solomon, the philosopher and teacher attributed to the book of wisdom known as Ecclesiastes, asks us a fine question: why do we work? After running through a lot of unsatisfactory reasons, the author states, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25)
This Labor Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about work – not just because I needed to write an article, but because it’s clear that the nature of work is changing. Labor-intensive jobs are increasingly being automated, making it challenging for people to earn a decent living. The service industries used to enjoy a degree of immunity, but even in those sectors people are facing the possibility of being replaced by technology. It’s enough to make one wonder what work will not be relegated to machines in the future and how folks will continue to earn a living in a world like that.
Jesus consistently challenged the idea that a person’s worth is defined by their economic output. He healed people who were written off as a loss by productive society. When his disciples tried to shoo away children who were not only unproductive, but in fact a liability; he rebuked them and lifted up the child as a model. When he met with people who had wealth and power, they were often challenged by Jesus to consider changing their identities (including selling everything and giving the money to the poor).
The primary value of a human being to Jesus is not their occupation or net (economic) worth, but ‘child of God.’ When I begin to question my value as a productive member of society, I’d do well to remember that the One who made me gauges my success and productivity not in terms of my economic output, but rather as a loving parent would do with a child: Did he have a good and loving attitude? Did he try to do the best he could? Did he share well with others? Did he learn from his mistakes?
God wants us to understand that we are so much more than the sum of our consumption and production; we are beloved children whose work is measured by the love we share.