Monday, March 4, 2013

The Apostle Paul and Finding the Motivation for Work (When Finding Motivation Doesn't Come Easily)


It is not an easy time to be a middle class worker, let alone a working stiff, in America. Despite astronomical increases in productivity since 1980, real wages have remained flat for the vast majority of workers even as the cost of a "middle class" lifestyle has shot through the roof. Last week's story about the contract proposal from the School District of Philadelphia to its unionized teachers was shocking even in these turbulent times: an immediate 13% pay cut with no raise until 2017, longer hours, larger class sizes, having to pay more for benefits, availability for more parent-teacher meetings outside of work hours for no extra pay, elimination of seniority and extra compensation for advanced degrees—and this from a District that in 2011 gave the controversial, late Superintendant Arlene Ackerman a $900K golden parachute and raised the salaries of 25 non-union employees. [an aside: the ignorant and resentful attitudes of so many people regarding the teachers in the "comments" section to the articles on philly.com simply demonstrates both the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity and what a nation of Philistines America has become; but that's a story for another time.]

One could and should be outraged at such developments. But the fact of the matter is that the situation of Philadelphia's longsuffering public school teachers is hardly unique. At the (non-union) company where I work, every change that has been enacted over the past 8 years has been to the detriment of its work force: annual salary "adjustments" that don't keep up with inflation, the freezing of older workers' pensions, elimination of company contributions to workers' 401K accounts, outrageous (and increasing) out-of-pocket expenses for a sub-par health plan, the use of "upgrades" instead of promotions to fill vacancies so as to save  the $3 or so hourly compensation difference, the use of cheaper and cheaper supplies (one thinks of the experience of the Israelites in Egypt in Exodus 5). And, whereas the Philly teachers at least could perhaps be motivated by the essential importance of their profession—after all, people don't go into teaching for the money—workers at my plant know that, at the end of the day, all they are producing is more junk mail to find its way into landfills across the nation. I would be the first to admit that motivation is often difficult to summon, and not only when forced to work overtime and up to 26 consecutive days. I would also be the first to admit that, at times, I have used this as an excuse not to give 100% to the task for which I am paid. After all, that would be understandable. But it is not the proper Christian stance.

No one is clearer in this regard than the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians. In this short letter the Apostle writes to the Gentile Christian converts of the Lycus Valley who are, it seems, tempted—probably by Judaism, whether of a mystical variety or not, and certainly not by any sort of "proto-Gnosticism" like I was taught in my student days (cf. N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon [TNTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986] 24-27; James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996] 33-35)—to look elsewhere than to Christ for wisdom and guidance in the hurly-burly of daily existence in the world. The heart of Paul's response is found in Colossians 2:6-4:5. As he does elsewhere (one thinks of Romans 1:16-17 and Galatians 1:11-12), the Apostle provides a summarizing thematic statement at the outset (Col 2:6-7):
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
American Evangelicals may be tempted to read verse 6 in light of the common pietistic parlance, according to which "reception" of Jesus refers to one's initial act of faith or "inviting Jesus into one's heart." The word used by Paul, however, is paralambanō, which was something of a technical term for the reception of authoritative tradition. The apostle's point was well-expressed years ago by Charlie Moule in his little commentary on the letter: "As, therefore, you received as tradition [the account of] Jesus as Christ and Lord,conduct your lives as incorporated in him" (The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon [CTTC; Cambridge: CUP, 1957] 89). The clear implication is that Christian conduct may be called "Christian" only insofar as it is commensurate with the profession of the Lordship of the Christ, into whose death and resurrection one is incorporated by faith (cf. Col 3:1-4).

As he had done in Galatians a number of years earlier, Paul points to the cross of Christ as the decisive, indeed apocalyptic, event that renders superfluous if not dangerous any human tradition—even the Torah!—one might proffer as the pinnacle of wise living (2:8-23). Indeed, he exhorts all those who have been incorporated into Christ (3:1-4) to put to death their sinful practices of old (3:5-9a) and to "put on" practices and habits that find their commonality in love (3:12-14). They must do because, as Paul asserts, they have already "put off" the "old man"—i.e., the persons they were in their old life—and have already "put on" the "new man"—i.e., who they are in solidarity with Christ and his people, in whom the former distinctions that held sway over them (Greek and Jew, etc.) have been made redundant (3:9b-11).

This new-found life of love finds its necessary expression in the life of the new community's worship (3:15-16), but can't be limited to that. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:17 (in what amounts to an inclusio with his thematic statement in 2:6):
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
As is well-known, a person's "name" represents his or her character. Just as Christians are baptized in the name of Christ (Acts 2:38), so they must "act" in the name of the Lord Jesus in every circumstance. Doing so  entails conducting one's life in the consciousness of Christ's Lordship and dependence on his enabling power. As Christians we are his people and his agents. And this means that it is his reputation, and not ours alone, that is at stake when we act in his name. Of course, as people who have been "reconciled in his body of flesh by his death (Col 1:22), doing everything in Christ's "name" is not an uncongenial responsibility. Paul indicates this when he adds that, as we live under Christ's Lordship, we must "give thanks" (eucharistountes) to the Father through Christ. Indeed, such gratitude motivates the worship that finds its daily expression in a life lived "in the name of the Lord Jesus."

The Apostle continues by applying his general instructions to the sphere of household relations. And here is where what he says becomes directly applicable to the matter of one's motivation and conduct at work. Verses 22-24 relate to the responsibilities of Christian slaves:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Needless to say, this text should not be used to defend the institution of slavery (for the hermeneutical issues, see my old friend Bill Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals). Nor, of course, can the text be applied straightforwardly and without nuance to the realm of employer-employee relations. Nevertheless, the text is instructive because contextualizing it demands that we utilize a bit if a maiore ad minus reasoning. In other words, if what Paul says applies to slaves who had no legal rights, how much more should it be applicable to us today who are free and are actually paid for our labor? Slaves, says Paul, should render their masters obedience at all times, even when their masters are not looking and their own shiftlessness would not be noticed. Moreover, they should work in such a way that they do it, as the old King James Version said, "heartily." The expression Paul uses is ek psychēs which, rendered with wooden literalness, would be "from the soul." Translating it that way, however, would unnecessarily bring Platonic assumptions to bear on the text. Bauer's standard lexicon (BDAG) rather weakly renders the phrase "from the heart, gladly." Better is the recognition that the term psychē speaks of the "soul" as the focus of human vitality. Hence, to work ek psychēs would mean, as Dunn argues, "action done from the vital heart of the person, with all the individual's life force behind it" (Dunn, p. 255).

What is most important, however, is the explicit rationale provided by Paul for putting one's whole heart into one's labor: Ultimately, all our activity must be understood as service directed to and for the Lord. If so, our entire life is intended to be an act of worship. Accordingly, our labor must be undertaken as a tangible expression of a life suffused with worship. And this is to be the case, no matter the mind-numbing drudgery or lack of adequate compensation. As a working stiff, I know full well how difficult this is, and how contrary to the world's wisdom it is. I have failed more times than I would like to admit. But excuses are ineffectual in the light of the testimony of St. Paul. Repentance is in order. Difficulty, after all, is no excuse for disobedience

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