Friday, December 31, 2010

Jesus and the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:1-6; Luke 6:1-11; Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-6

As the holiday season ends, perhaps it's a good time to talk about rest. One of the consistent themes in the Bible, beginning with
Genesis 2, is the importance of Sabbath, of a time to stop working and honor God. One of the 10 Commandments set aside one day a week for the Israelites to rest from their work and focus on God. As God talked about the holidays and festivals the Israelites were to observe, He emphasized that those holidays were to be days where the people stopped their work and honored Him.

In Matthew 12, Jesus indicates that the Sabbath is more complicated than just not working. Jesus says that He is "Lord of the Sabbath" as He heals and provides for others.

I think this indicates that, yes rest is important. But it's not just about rest from work for the sake of resting. It's rest from work for the purpose of honoring God in contemplative worship as well as honoring God by helping others. You might think about the greatest commandments as applied to a day off--love God and love others with this day. Part of the Sabbath for the Israelites was to trust that God would provide on the day before the Sabbath what was needed on the Sabbath (so work on the Sabbath was lack of trust). Looking at Jesus' actions, part of the Sabbath is taking time to spend helping others, again, trusting that God will provide. Those seem like good things to do, even today.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Comparing Paychecks, Expectations, and Contentment

Matthew 20:1-16

I think this is a really interesting story. A landowner hires day laborers to work his vineyard. At the end of the day, he pays everyone the same, regardless of how long they actually worked. I've heard commentators talk about how this refers to those who become Christians at the end of their lives receiving salvation just as much as those who are Christians from childhood. Jesus makes a statement about humility at the end (the first shall be last). But for the purposes of this blog, I'm interested in what the story says about work. Yes, that isn't the focus, the work is just a metaphor. But I don't think Jesus would have used that metaphor if it included false comparisons.

First, see how the landowner paid the workers what was due when it was due. I think that's an important lesson about paying your workers what you owe them.

Second, perhaps more importantly, look at the attitude of the "early workers." These were the people that were hired first, perhaps because they were dilligent in being ready to be hired, perhaps because they looked like the best workers. They worked very hard all day. So naturally, when they saw workers who had not worked as long getting paid for a full day, the early workers thought they'd be getting more. They were very disgruntled to receive the same pay. But wasn't that what they'd agreed to? I think there are times when we agree to something, only to discover that we could have gotten more. Then, we try to pressure the other party to up the ante. This is a problem of comparing ourselves to others and a problem of contentment. We aren't content with what we are given under the original agreement, so we try to get more. Paul says that "godliness with contentment is great gain." Be careful of trying to get everything you can, just because you think you deserve more. Sometimes, it's better just to be content with what you have.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Greatest Commandments at Work

Matthew 22: 37-39; Mark 12: 26-31

How would you respond if someone asked you what was the most important law in the United States? You might respond with don't murder, which is a pretty serious crime. You might mention our ability to vote or freedom of speech or something from the Bill of Rights. If the person asked you in April, some people might joke that the most important law was to pay your taxes on time. What about your workplace? What the most important policy where you work? Perhaps it's something about being on time. Or maybe it's your company's sexual harassment policy, since a harassment lawsuit is a major cost to an organization (not to mention that harassment demeans and devalues others).

It's hard to drill down to just one or two things that are THE most important things because, usually, laws and policies are written in such a way that they're all important. They guide our behavior, tell us what's acceptable and what's unacceptable.

Jesus faced a situation very similar to the hypothetical one that I gave you. An "expert in the law" was impressed with the way Jesus answered the traps of the Pharisees, so this expert asked Him, "which is the greatest commandment?" The Bible doesn't record any hesitation on Jesus' part--Love God with all that you are. Then Jesus gives the expert more than he asked by explaining the second greatest commandment--Love others just as much as you love yourself. The expert in the law wasn't just asking which of the 10 commandments was the most important. The Jewish leaders had laid out over 600 laws and regulations based on everything God had said to Moses and a few that they thought consistent with those teachings. But look at what Jesus says about why these two are the greatest of those 600--"All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Everything is summed up in this--Love God, Love Others.

I mentioned a few posts ago that the Golden Rule was useful because it was something easy to remember. This may even be easier: Love God, Love Others.

So how do you apply those things at work? First, you have to make sure that everything you do honors God. Are you living for Him at work? Or do you check your faith at the door on Sunday and live for yourself Monday through Friday? If you picture God sitting next to you at work all day, would He be proud of your actions or disappointed? Are you living distinctly for Him? Second, (and related to honoring God), are you showing mercy and love to those around you? Do you give people the benefit of the doubt if something doesn't go the way you'd like it to? Do people know you as the type to give second chances? Do you forgive others? Do you turn the other cheek when someone offends you?

If these are the greatest commandments, then it stands to reason that we need to think very carefully about how to apply them in our workplaces. Everything else depends on these.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Addendum on Mercy

James 2:13

A few weeks ago, I posted about the value of mercy in the workplace and the danger of judgmentalism. I read this passage this morning, and I felt like it needed to be added to those ideas. As James talks about churches showing partiality to the rich, he also talks about the tendency to see some sins as more serious as others. In verse 11, he says that if you condemn adultery but then murder someone, you are just as guilty as the adulterer. He concludes this section by emphasizing mercy and saying that "mercy triumphs over judgment." Think about that in your workplace. I think that there is an important line between mercy and high standards, but knowing exactly where that line is not an exact science. Based on this passage in James, as you're looking at others' work, be sure to err on the side of mercy rather than on the side of judging them for poor work. As a Christian, it's better to be accused of being too merciful than it is to be accused of being a tyranical perfectionist. Remember, you've been forgiven. He showed mercy to you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Den of Robbers

Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-22

How would you describe your workplace? Some people have used metaphors like "when you work here, you're like family." Maybe your workplace isn't quite that warm. But look at how Jesus describes the temple in these passages. After ransacking the place, Jesus accuses the merchants of "making My Father's House a Den of Robbers." These businesses fulfilled an important need. People would come from far away places to worship at Jerusalem. They needed to buy an animal to sacrifice, so merchants were there selling such animals. And if you needed to exchange your currency to buy in this market, there were kiosks of the day ready to help you with that as well. The problem was that these people were not really interested in helping people worship God. Rather than any altruistic motives, they let laws of supply and, in particular, demand determine costs. These people didn't know the city that well, they didn't have the means to seek out other places to buy these things. So merchants were charging top dollar and getting rich off of the people's desire to worship God.

So think about where you work. Could Jesus make the same accusation against you? Does your workplace profit from the desperation of others? I think one plausible interpretation of these passages is a critique of supply and demand economics that privilege profit motives over the needs of people. You may not be able to control the economics of your industry, but what about how your department or specific responsibilities function? Are you putting profit and performance above people?

It's tough because I think the temple merchants would probably have done very well in 21st century America. Certainly, they would have been in step with the Enrons of 2001 or the Countrywides of 2007. I think "Den of Robbers" is a completely accurate title for some of the upper eschelons of those companies (although the majority of people working for both companies were not involved in either scandal). But the actions that made those companies personify greed were not decisions that were made overnight. The actions of a large number of individuals over a long period of time created the conditions for infamy. Your actions, no matter what your position or status, your actions matter. How can you privilege people over profit in your job? And then, how can you lead others to do the same?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Give to Caesar...

Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26
cf Matthew 17:24-27

It's one of the two things in life that people say will always be a certainty. Taxes. Nobody likes them, and that has probably been true since the beginning of organized government. But for just that long, the people governed have had to foot the cost for the coordination, protection, and services of their government. Like any people, the Jews of Jesus' time hated paying taxes. But they had more reason to hate it than you or I because they weren't supporting their own government--they were supporting an occupying, conquering government. You may resent supporting a government dominated by a political party with which you disagree. The Jews were in that position to the ultimate extreme. So naturally, with the exception of a couple of groups such as Herodians and tax collectors, almost every Jew had a uniform opinion about taxes--they're terrible. However, you couldn't openly disparage Roman taxes. Remember, this wasn't a democracy. They had no Bill of Rights or Freedom of Speech. So the Jews hated Roman taxes, but they kept quiet about it in public out of fear.

Which of course makes this the perfect trap for Jesus. Ask him about taxes. If He says, "no, don't pay taxes," the people will still love him, but He'll be Public Enemy Number 1 with the Romans. End of problem for the Pharisees. If He says, "yes, you should pay taxes," the Romans won't pay Him any mind, but the people might run Him out of town for seeming to support Rome. Yes, it must have seemed like the Pharisees finally had Him. So, the question was asked, and the people leaned in to hear Jesus' answer.

But wait a minute. Jesus asks, "who's picture is on this coin?" "Well, it's Caesar." "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." The Jewish leaders walked away, stumped, because he had evaded their trap.

Part of the genius in Jesus' response was recognizing that it wasn't an either/or question. But for us today, it demonstrates that we have a type of dual citizenship with responsibilities in both areas. In a spiritual sense, we're foreigners here, and citizens in God's kingdom. Thus, we owe God (everything). But in a different sense, we have obligations materially on Earth as well. We are obligated to pay taxes, for instance, and to be fair in that and in all other business transactions. Jesus' point about taxes keeps us for thinking that we are too removed from the materiality of this world (though that is different from materialism, which Jesus cautions against). We cannot escape being part of the material transactions here, and we need to think about how Jesus would approach those. In this case, that means knowing what our obligations are and not evading them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tax Collectors and Roman Soldiers

Luke 3:11-14

The context of this passage starts at the beginning of chapter 3. John is teaching and people are coming out to hear what he has to say. His message is one of repentance, that people need to change their ways. When they ask him to be more specific, he says, share what you have with those in need. Then two groups of people ask what they can do in terms of repentance. This is where I wanted to focus this blog post. Both groups were notorious for cheating people. Tax collectors collected money for the Romans, which alone would have made them hated. But there weren't any IRS manuals or Turbo Tax programs in that day. Instead, people had to "trust" the tax collectors that they were being charged the correct tax. And of course, being entrepreneurs, the tax collectors found that they could say whatever they wanted to in terms of how much tax was required. So they would collect the Roman tax as well as more than a little extra on the side, which they were allowed to keep for themselves. Soldiers were also hated because they represented Rome, an occupying force. But in addition to that, soldiers could require someone to "help out" with various tasks and the person was required to comply. So if they didn't want to carry their equipment, they would "recruit" someone else to do it for them. Now they were limited in that the person was only required to carry something one mile. But still, would you want to walk a mile doing someone else's work only to then have to walk a mile back to your house? Soldiers were also known to extort money from people in exchange for protection or sometimes just for not harassing them. So tax collectors and Roman soldiers were among the most despised people in all of Judea.

These are the people that Luke reports came to John, wanting to repent. You can imagine the shock and possibly a little sarcasm from the others that came to hear John. "Yeah, right, like the Messiah will ever have a place for those people. He's coming to overthrow your kind." But John basically said, "just treat people fairly." Don't charge more than people owe. Be satisfied with what you have. Don't extort money. In other words, be fair.

We generally have laws that are supposed to protect us from some of these things. But people constantly find loopholes, trying to get ahead at the expense of someone else. Luke, using John's words, is calling us to be fair in our business transactions. Just because you can make a buck at someone else's expense doesn't mean that you should do it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Deny Yourself and Follow Me

Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-24

This is another one of those passages that really makes a good "theme" verse for what this blog is all about. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." What does that really mean in the 21st century? What does it mean at work? It's not language we're really used to in every day conversations. Obviously, this verse applies to every part of our lives. But since this blog is about Christianity in the workplace, let me share some of what I think this verse means regarding work.

I think, first and foremost, it means that we need to resist our human nature toward ambition at any cost. I don't think that's a univeral trait because I've seen people who are not overly driven by ambition, but I think it is a common trait. We want to succeed. We want to be the best. And being the best means that others around us are not the best. Sometimes, our winning means they have to lose. But that's ok, because we have to be the best. There is a sense that any sacrifice is ok if it means that we advance, that we are recognized as "the best" or "among the best" at whatever it is that we do. And so relationships, family, integrity, it all may fall prey to the drive to achieve.

As I've posted before, God wants us to be good at what we do, to use our talents to His glory. We need to do quality work. But we're not supposed to be working to achieve our own glory. We're to do quality work because we're working for God's glory, not our own. So that's really the first part of today's passage--deny yourself, which might mean "deny your drive to accomplish your own glory" at work.

Then second, pick up your cross and follow Christ. Being Chrisitan at work makes you different, makes you stand out from the crowd. Your talk is different. You don't lie or gossip. You respect authority, even when the boss is not looking. Those things may make you the subject of ridicule from your coworkers, who laugh at you for being soft and not cut-throat enough. You may miss out on promotions because you turn the other cheek instead of going for the kill. That's why following Christ means picking up a cross.

It's not the easy road. And contrary to some popular wisdom, it won't win you fortunes and fame. So why do it? First, because look at how much you've been loved. That's enough right there. But if you need more motivation, Jesus gives it two verses later: "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?" Does your success in your job, at the expense of so many other things, get you anything in the long run? I'm talking about the really long run here. At the end of everything, you won't be taking anything that you've earned with you. It won't matter how many deals you've closed, how much overtime you've logged, or how many people you had to climb over to claw your way to the top. It won't matter whether you had the corner office on the top floor or whether you worked as a clerk in the mail room. The only thing that will matter is Jesus.

He calls to you: "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me." What do you say to Him?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Golden Rule

Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31

Here it is, the end all, be all rule for many of us. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Perhaps the second most memorized verse behind John 3:16. It's not Jesus' greatest commandment, which He lists later, but it's certainly in step with the second of those commandments.

As you read through this blog, there's a lot to keep up with. Perhaps this is one way to sum it all up. When you are working, treat others the way that you would want them to treat you. Regardless of status or position, how would you want that other person to treat you? Then do that.

There are almost countless variations on this timeless principle. There are the worldly alternatives such as "he who has the gold rules." There are versions from other religions such as "don't treat anyone worse than you would want to be treated." But Jesus' teaching is one of considering the other person, even if he/she doesn't consider you and even if he/she doesn't deserve to be considered. It's not focused on a minimum threshold as a standard. It says treat people as good as you would like to experience yourself.

Ask yourself: "would my actions at work change if I fully put this principle into practice?" What would that look like? Would it change the way you talk to your supervisor? Your coworkers? Your clients/customers? Would you treat your subordinates differently? Would you act differently toward the custodians you pass on your way in the building? What about how you interact with a secretary or administrative support person? Use this weekend to plan what you can do differently on Monday. How will the Golden Rule affect your workplace through you?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Matthew 7:1-5

It's easy to think about being judgemental as someone else's problem (of course then, you run the danger of judging them for it!). But stop and think about it for a moment. Do you look at your coworkers with disdain for messing up a project? Do you think some of your supervisor's ideas are just ridiculous--if only they'd hired someone competent to do his/her job? Those questions get to the heart of at least one side of judgementalism in the workplace. It's easy to smirk at the inferiority of others. If only they'd come up to your level. That's passing judgement on them. There's at least three problems with that. First, it's unloving, and we're commanded to love others. Second, it may make you less likeable in the workplace. You might say, "they don't have to like me as long as they respect me." But that's not entirely true. Workplace relationships are one of the key parts of job satisfaction, and being friendly in the workplace can go a long way in helping you succeed.

But Jesus mentions a third reason when he warns against being judgmental. "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." To the degree that you look down at others' mistakes, you will be judged on your own mistakes. There's a couple of ways that happens. First, theologically, God judges us all. This is very similar to Jesus' teaching on forgiving others because you are forgiven, which I blogged about in terms of God's grace and the unmerciful servant. That's really the thing with the unmerciful servant, wasn't it? That he was judgmental toward a fellow servant when he'd been forgiven by the Master. Now for you. You've been forgiven a debt that you could never repay. How then can you judge someone else? It doesn't matter what context, whether a church or a business. We're called to accept people for who they are without judging them. That doesn't mean that you have to accept substandard work from others. But it does mean that you need to see them as worthy individuals just the way that they are.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Worry

Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-34

There's a lot to worry about. The economy is terrible, despite rumors from experts that it's improving. Business is tight, and personal expenses are ever-increasing. It's a lot. Not to mention health and family concerns. Have you felt weighed down? Has not getting a promotion or raise been worrying you? What about dealing with that new boss or that irritating customer? Matthew 6 has some encouraging words, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" If God takes care of birds and flowers, will He not take care of you? That doesn't mean everything is going to be just like you want it, but it does mean that He is there, loving you.

Verse 27 has a more practical thought: "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" Does worrying really make life better? Does it make the problems go away? Or, instead, does it make your life more miserable?

But this idea of trusting God and not worrying comes with an important caveat. Look at the context before and after the passage (in both Matthew and Luke). Before Jesus says don't worry, He explains that we cannot serve both God and greed--we have to choose. After encouraging us not to worry, Jesus says instead of worrying to seek first God's kingdom. Before and after telling us not to worry, Jesus tells us that we have to be seeking God first. That's the key to not worrying. If we are seeking God, whether at work or home or anywhere else, then we can not worry about everything else.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Can People Trust Your Word?

Matthew 5:33-37

Can people trust what you say? Are you generally trustworthy? I've blogged several times about honesty. Jesus makes a point in these verses that James also discusses. Perhaps you know people that, when they really want you to believe them, they throw lots of extra things in just to emphasize their honesty. "I swear on my mother's grave..." "By God..." Or the childhood favorite, "cross my heart." Jesus says that these things should be unnecessary. You should be speaking in such a way that when you say "yes," you don't have to say anything else. Of course, that only works if you are honest. If you're constantly telling half-truths and deceptions (even if they are completely lies), then you'll have to work harder to get people to believe you. But if you are known as someone who isn't afraid to tell the truth every time, people will realize that your "yes" really means yes and your "no" really means no. If that's not the case right now, it may take time to get there, but it will happen. But you have to work at honesty.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You Have Heard It Said...

Matthew 5:21-26

As part of the Beautitudes, Jesus discusses a number of ideas about general living. In verse 21 and following, Jesus addresses the idea that murder is unacceptable. True, He says, but hating someone is just as bad. Jesus comes down pretty hard on people just for being angry and for calling someone a fool. He says that resolving a conflict is more important than even worship.

"If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift."

Then Jesus has more instructions for conflicts: settle before things get serious. Paul says something very similar about taking care of anger. It doesn't always matter who's "right." You may find yourself on the wrong side, even if you think you're right.

Now think about your workplace. Have you had any conflicts recently? Remember, it doesn't matter whether you were right or not. Settle it quickly, even if it means you don't get what you think you deserve. Are you angry with someone at work? Don't dwell on it, and be careful about what you call the other person. It's not that it's necessarily wrong to be miffed at someone else. But what do you do next? Do you dwell on it, imagine getting back at the person, sabotage his or her work, and be generally disagreeable? Or do you talk to him or her, forgive (even if the other person doesn't apologize), and give the situation to God?