John | The sacrificial cult of work

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What sacrificial system do we operate in? What system of meaning takes most of our time and energy, gives most of us a profound sense of identity, and for most of us is also an expression of faithfulness? And what same system of meaning can be hostile to women and children, and largely excludes people who are poor, sick, or disabled? For that is what the temple was for Israel: a social, financial, and spiritual hub, which gave people a powerful sense of identity. It was an expression of Israel’s faithfulness; but it was an expression which largely excluded women, children, and people who were disabled, sick, or poor. 

When Jesus drove the animals out of the temple, and turned the tables of the money-changers, it wasn’t a stand-alone event. It was the culmination of a long history of protest. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Amos had thundered: “I hate all your offerings and loud songs when the life that you live is a lie. Let justice flow …” (Amos 5:24). Jeremiah and Isaiah both railed against those who put their faith in the temple and burnt offerings but failed to care for the poor. In Psalm 50 and elsewhere, God asks, “Do you really think I eat the meat of bulls and drink the blood of goats?” And in the words of the prophet Hosea, later quoted by Jesus, we hear that God wants “steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Throughout the Hebrew Bible, tucked among all the confident sacrificial acts, are hints and twists and reversals which suggest that God is turning away from sacrifice: both of animals, and of people. Jesus drives the animals out of the temple because God has had enough, more than enough of blood and burnt meat and death, while the poor are being sold, as Amos put it, “for the price of a pair of sandals.”

Now, the earlier prophets largely seemed to accept sacrifice as long as it was paired with care for the poor. But Jesus takes it further. For, as long as the sacrificial system is in place, then the poor will always be sacrificed. They cannot afford to purchase the offerings they need to satisfy God and receive blessing; thus they are blamed for their suffering. More, the entire system assumes that God is angry and must be appeased; it implies that grace and blessings are earned. But as Jonah grumbled, God is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, whose nature is always to have mercy. This God seeks the lost sheep; this God turns nobody away. This God models self-giving self-sacrificial love, and in return seeks only justice and mercy. For God’s grace cannot be bought or earned; it can be only gratefully accepted. And so Jesus says that the whole temple system will be destroyed, and he offers himself as the alternative.

But what does this mean now? I think it’s helpful to go back to the questions I asked before: What sacrificial system do we operate in? What system of meaning takes most of our time and energy, gives most of us a profound sense of identity, and for many of us is also an expression of faithfulness? And what same system is generally hostile to women and children, and largely excludes people who are sick, disabled, or poor?

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and, while it is to some extent true of several systems, including, sadly, the church, I think it could also be said of our culture of work. Now, there is no question that work can be good. Time and again, God is portrayed as a worker: a gardener, a potter, a silversmith, a builder, a warrior, a teacher, and in many other ways. We are all called to work towards God’s culture, and for many of us here, we do this largely through our place of employment. This is not an issue in itself. The problem is that work has become our society’s primary system of meaning and identity, even for those of us for whom our work is an act of faith.

And so work becomes all-consuming. We wake up, planning for the day ahead. We exercise and eat well and pray, not for each activity’s own good sake, but in order to do good work. We work hard, for long hours, and our work consumes most of our thoughts, time, energy, and passion—and there are big risks with this. You might remember Saul, who was called as king. God delighted in him, and he was a skilled military commander. Yet Saul’s focus shifted from God to his work. He made decisions based on sound military tactics, but they were not God’s tactics. It had terrible consequences for Saul, and it’s a significant risk for us. Many of us are too good at what we do. We are skilled operators, and it is easy for us to second-guess God, to rely entirely on our own talents, and to think that we are indispensable. We put our faith in our abilities, rather than in God: and this is idolatry. God gives us gifts, yes, but God uses all sorts of means to achieve God’s ends: even weakness, even foolishness, even lack of skill, even sin. God doesn’t need us: for the Spirit will distribute gifts wherever they are required. Instead, we need God, and if our work is to be God’s work, we must remember this and rely on God, not ourselves.

Many of us skilled operators also feel perpetually driven to do more. To work harder, to help more, to save more people. Some of us feel like we never do enough, and it’s true: we don’t. For we are not God. Only God can do enough; we can only ever play a small part in this work. If we understand this, then we understand we are to hand the burden over to God and rest from time to time—but the truth is that many of us rarely do. Then we have little capacity to care for people who are not clients, for, when the day is done, we have nothing left. Because of this, our families, friends, neighbours, and even enemies who need our time, our care, and our love can suffer.

So forming an identity through work can be costly for us, and for those around us. It is also a mark of privilege, for the culture of work excludes many people. In our economy, many people simply cannot find meaningful work, let alone meaningful work for which they are properly paid. Because lead parents are mostly women, many women have lower access to the status and identity granted through work. Because repetitive and manual tasks are being moved offshore or automated, people who are unskilled or disabled also have increasingly less access to this status and identity. And, of course, people who are children, or retired, or chronically ill, or nearing the end of life, are also denied status, dignity, and identity in a culture which venerates work.

So our culture of work creates meaning and identity in ways which can be bound up in faithfulness, but which can also risk idolatry and perpetuate the exclusion and suffering of those who cannot fully access the meaning and status it gives. This is why it has strong echoes of the sacrificial cult of the Jerusalem Temple. How, then, might Jesus preach into the sacrificial cult of work and professional achievement today?

I think he would still affirm work, for all are called to work towards God’s culture. But I think he would also challenge us on what that work is, how much we do, what it costs, and how we form our identity. He might ask, Whom do you really serve when you are working: God, Mammon, or your ego? He’d probably point to the victims of our culture of and commitment to work, and ask us to consider who is excluded from the culture, and who is not being served if, at the end of the day, we have nothing left to give. Jesus might also remind us that our first work is to love: and so, even if our work is began in faithfulness and service, if it is so all-consuming that we cannot be good parents, good partners, good neighbours, or good friends, then those of us with choices might need to change our priorities.

Ultimately, of course, our relationship with God is not about what we do. It’s not about the animals we can afford to have sacrificed, nor is it about our professional achievements. We cannot earn it; it can’t be bought. For God loved each one of us before we were born; and this confidence should form the core of our identity. Not work. Nor should our work be performed at the cost of those around us, or be a crippling burden. If it is God’s work, and if we work in harness with God, then Jesus promises that the yoke is easy: it’s comfortable, it fits. And he also promises that, when we work with him, the burden is not heavy, but light.

Even better, Jesus offers an identity and a way of making meaning in our lives through loving God, loving neighbour, loving enemy, and loving self. This way is not about employability or participation in the workforce, nor does it rely on educational access, social networks, class status, professional achievements, or good health. And unlike our modern culture of work, which grants meaning and identity to a select few, the way of Jesus Christ is deeply, deeply hospitable: for this way is open to everyone. Ω

 A reflection on John 2:13-22 by Alison Sampson. 4 March 2018 (B20). It was inspired by a series of conversations, which were made particularly interesting in the light of this article:

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