Year A – Epiphany 3

EPIPHANY 3

Isaiah 9: 1-4

1. Discussion

Today’s reading returns us to the early chapters of Isaiah, and the part of the text that some scholars refer to as “First Isaiah”. This was a prophet who was active in the final years of the southern kingdom of Judah, based on Jerusalem. These were years of turmoil and strife: of initial submission to the Egyptian empire; of having to fend off an attack from the Assyrians after they had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel; and, finally, of the looming threat of Babylon, whose war machine will ultimately crush Judah and send the inhabitants of Jerusalem into exile. At the same time, the kingship had become corrupt and oppressive, aided and abetted by the religious leaders and society of court prophets who, instead of speaking truth to power, flattered the king in order to secure their own positions.

The section of Isaiah that articulates the prophetic ministry of “First Isaiah” is full of judgements against the people for their abandonment of covenant, and for their complicity in injustice and oppression. God declares a firm “No!” to the failure of the people to live in a covenantal relationship with one another that both reflects their relationship with God, and which acts as a “light to the nations”. The conduct of the people will have consequences: their reliance on their own acts of power, as distinct from their desire to live relationally with God and with one another, will rebound upon them. What they have set in train cannot now be reversed.

But even in the midst of these dire warnings, God’s “No!” is neither absolute nor ultimately destructive. Yes, adverse consequence will befall the people; but even as that calamity strikes, it contains within itself the seeds of redemption – the first stirring of God’s “Yes!” that is the affirmation of God’s love and faithfulness. This “Yes!” is not an abrogation of accountability, nor letting the people “off the hook”. Rather, it is God’s declaration that human brokenness will not have the final word in human affairs; that word belongs to God, and it is the “Yes!” of love and reconciliation. But it is also a “Yes!” that presages new things, new ways of being, new living out of covenant. It is a “Yes!” that says reconciliation will not mean going back to the way things were, or a resumption of the status quo. Reconciliation, as much as judgement, will be part of the sweeping away of the old and the introduction of the new.

This change is articulated in verse 1. The restoration out of contempt will not only involve the tribes of the Chosen People, it will extend beyond the boundaries of the Land to the sea – the “sea” being a metaphor for distant places, the lands of all the earth. Galilee shall no longer just be part of the patrimony of the Hebrew people – it shall be “Galilee of the nations”. The shalom of God’s covenant shall now extend to all the earth, reaching out beyond familiar times and places to envelope the whole of humanity.

Thus it is that the liberation articulated in verses 2-4 is a liberation, not just for the Hebrew peoples, but for the whole world. The darkness in which the world walks is not just the darkness of the failure of the Chosen People to live in covenant; it is the darkness of the world’s alienation from God. The yoke, the bar, the rod of oppression is not just the burden of occupation and exile which the Babylonians will law upon the Hebrew people; it is the burden of injustice and dehumanisation that all the oppressive structures of power and corruption lay upon humanity. Thus it is that the joy, the harvest, the multiplication of the people will not only involve Israel’s restoration and flourishing, but the release and fruitfulness of the whole of creation.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is a promise, even in the midst of judgement, that the rejection by God of the people’s sinfulness does not amount to a rejection of the people by God.  God is faithful to covenant, and will not abandon God’s commitment to relationship. However, God will reconfigure things so that the covenant is expressed in new terms, and is extended beyond the realms of previous relationships.  Part of that reconfiguring involves God’s “No!” to sin; but part of the reconfiguring also involves God’s “Yes!” to continued relationship. But now God will take the initiative to change the nature and scope of that relationship, to draw in all the peoples of the world and the whole of creation. God will realign the relationship so that it becomes, not an expression of law, but of grace. God will make all things new out of their continuity from the past.

2. Reflection

It often seems that the times in which we live replicate the troubled times of “First Isaiah”. Political tensions between rival power blocs, and the crumbling of traditional political allegiances, threaten both national and international instability. Economic disparity and the waste of resources by affluent individuals and societies condemns millions to lives of indignity and suffering. The ravaging of the ecology in the name of endless economic growth is threatening the biosphere and the very existence of humanity. Everywhere we look we seem to find only danger and looming threats. Instability and uncertainty appear to be the order of the day.

Things are no different in the world of work and economy. Modernity has constructed a façade in which waged labour has become the primary determinant of human worth and legitimacy, invading every sphere of human existence and bending human life to the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism. Yet at the same time that labour has become increasingly insecure and tenuous, characterised by a fragmentation into part time and casual labour that don’t provide continuity of income or stability of home life. Likewise, the movements of “economic markets” beyond the control or understanding of most people create conditions that impact directly on corporate stability and the availability of employment – as, for example, when the Global Financial Crisis caused millions of people worldwide to lose their jobs when their employers’ business was adversely affected or even destroyed. Increasing automation across a wider spread of industries as companies seek to lower their “labour costs” exacerbates the trend started by “offshoring” as companies sought “markets” with less regulated labour supply – it results in existing jobs disappearing and being replaced either by technology or exploited labour.

The insecurity, stress, and harm that people experience through modernity’s construction of work and economy is a direct result of the idolatry of work, production, and consumption that lies at the heart of that construction. Work – specifically, waged labour – has been elevated to the status of an end in itself, rather than being a means – one of many – to the end of human flourishing. Waged labour in particular has been enslaved to the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism, all the while being imbued with a moral sanctity that facilitates judgement upon those who cannot find work or who are unable to work. This judgement in turn justifies the enactment of punitive social policies against those who are deemed not to be “contributing”. Work, instead of upholding people, has become one of the instruments of injustice.

This idolatry of work will have inevitable consequences for human society. Indeed, the suffering and harm that many experience already are indicators of the much wider calamity that is to follow as a result of our deforming of work’s role and meaning in human life. Perhaps we have reached a point where those consequences are inevitable; perhaps there is still time for those consequences to be avoided. Certainly, there are a number of prophet voices from across all social classes calling for change. But it may be that we will not listen to those voices because, despite our own longing for liberation from the oppression we experience, we have convinced ourselves that no alternative ways of being are possible. Perhaps too many of us are too intent on hanging onto our privileges under the status quo for change to be possible.

Whatever the case, Scripture’s prophetic tradition informs us of God’s clear “No!” to all those realities within human life that degrade our dignity, and which cut us off from relationship with God and one another. Work has been instituted in human life to enable human flourishing through a mutual relationality that embodies our shared dignity and our calling into relationship with God. But work is only one such means; it is not an end in itself, nor is it meant to be a tool deployed in the interests of unjust power. In all the ways that we deform work and make it dehumanising, God says “No!” and calls us to repentance and a new way of being.  

But within God’s “No!” there is also a “Yes!” – a “Yes!” that affirms God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness to covenant. Even if we reap the terrible consequences of our present behaviour, God is determined that our folly will not be the final word in human affairs. Rather, God will continue to invite us to “turn around” – to repent – and to return to an understanding of work that makes new ways of being and living possible. We will need to radically alter our understanding of the meaning of work and economy in ways that realign it toward relationality rather than “our” or “my” advantage. We will need to understand work as a system within the wider ecology that must not and cannot become bigger than, or destructive of, that ecology. We will need to understand work as being more than mere profit generation or the increasing of market share. Only once we do so will we be able to enjoy the liberation for which we so long, and once more experience the flourishing which today’s reading from Isaiah declares is God’s will for us all.    

Psalm 27: 1, 4-9

1. Discussion

Psalm 27 is another Psalm which is attributed to King David. It is a psalm of confidence in God, in which the Psalmist expresses their trust in God and commits themselves to faithful living in covenantal relationship with God.

Verse 1 locates the Psalmist life and being in God. “Light”, “salvation”, and “stronghold” are all metaphors for security and safety in a society in which the absence of artificial light made the night-time a location for terrors, in which the arbitrary nature of illness and accident and death made life hugely precarious, in which the prevalence of raiders on settled areas made the absence of security forces all the more keenly felt. In the face of all the threatening ambivalence of existence, trust and hope in God enabled one to approach life with a sense of meaning beyond the realities of the human condition.

Verse 4 illustrates a response beyond the kind of cultic approach to God, in which a sacrifice is offered in return for an expected outcome. The Psalmist’s request isn’t for God to strike their enemies or to promote their interests; rather, they seek to “live in the house of the LORD”. This isn’t a literal supplication to live in God’s temple; rather, it is the desire to live as a member of God’s “family”, in covenant relationship with God. This is a life that is oriented toward God, in which to “inquire of the LORD” is to live seeking the kind of existence God wills for human beings.

Verse 5 argues that to live this way is to enjoy genuine security. This might have been understood at the time in literal terms – but there is no reason to suppose this was necessarily the case. The security articulated in this verse can be understood to be the shalom, the peace of God that arises from understanding that God’s ultimate sovereignty means that the realities and vicissitudes of being human do not have the final say about us. The images of tent and high rock convey the idea of God’s sovereign grace enclosing us and holding us above the battering winds of fate: not in an anesthetising or excluding way, but in the sense of being the final arbiter of human destiny. We may indeed suffer and experience death: but even in these, God is with us.

Verses 6-9 conclude today’s reading from Psalm 27 by repeating the image of security that is located in God; a security from within which we cry out to God, both to give praise to God and give expression to our human needs. Part of that need is the recognition of continued relationship with God: the plea that God’s doesn’t hide God’s face from the Psalmist is a plea to God that God never forgets God’s faithfulness to covenant. Without that covenant, humankind is cut off and lost; within covenant, while we may be vulnerable, we are never alone.

Today’s reading from Psalm 27 is an acknowledgement, not just of God’s sovereignty, but of humanity’s need for grace within the compass of relationship with God. From that relationship, all else follows. The realities of human existence are relativised by the overarching reality of God’s sovereignty; and whatever their impact in human life, they do not have the final say in human existence. That word belongs to God, and it is the word that affirms God’s faithfulness and love for the whole of creation.

2. Reflection

Modernity’s construction of work and economy embodies within it the myth of the autonomous, self-realising individual; and within that myth lies the ethos of competition, of pitting ourselves against others in order to achieve what we want. Indeed, it deems as a virtue, as a signifier of the worth of the individual, their capacity to successfully realise their desires in the face of all the competing desires and objectives possessed by others. The “successful” person is the person who obtains their desires regardless, and often at the expense of, the desires of others; the ”unsuccessful” or “weak” person is the one who allows others to “triumph” over their own needs and wants.

But this relentless round of competition, embodying as it does a moral judgmentalism that assesses individuals’ legitimacy and authenticity, also produces deep wells of fear and anxiety. If I am not “good enough” to “compete” with others and “keep up” with their “achievements”; if I am not sufficiently “contributing” by being “gainfully employed” or by submitting my life to the prerogatives of corporatism; if I don’t accumulate sufficient wealth or material possessions or attain sufficient social advancement – then isn’t that an indicator that I am a “failure”, that I “deserve” to be treated as a “parasite on society” and dealt with accordingly?

The idolatry of work in modernity is the elevation of work – especially waged labour – to the status of a determinant of human worth and value. Instead of being understood as one of a suite of means to the end of human flourishing, work is now the tyrannical dominator of human life, subverting all its spheres of expression and subjugating them to the imperatives of profit maximisation, shareholder return, and the ideology of endless production and consumption.  As with all idolatries it involves the imposition of fear – all idols demand complete and unfettered obedience, in the absence of which they respond with harsh punishment. The fear of judgement which non-compliance with modernity’s construction of work and economy embodies is the dominance which an angry idol imposes upon oppressed subjects.

But today’s reading from Psalm 27 reminds us that the sovereignty which God exercises is not the rule of fear but the invitation into freedom. Because when even the reality of human brokenness and death itself fall within the orbit of God’s redeeming grace, nothing we experience as human beings has ultimate power over us. The ultimate reality in our lives is love – the love which God holds for us, and which we are called to hold for one another.

The reality of work within human life is also encompassed by this love. That’s because work was instituted in human life in order to aid us in becoming fully human: to help in our physical survival; to give expression to our creativity; and to sustain the network of human relationships between individuals and communities that undergirds all human existence. Work ought not be oppressive and fear inducing; it ought not distort human life through exploitation and harm. But modernity’s construction of work and economy has resulted in precisely this happening, because in our adherence to the myth of our autonomy, we have sought to lift work out of the realm of God’s grace and make it an expression of human sovereignty.

Psalm 27 reminds us that if we are to retrieve a human understanding of work, and reprieve work from the oppressive chains in which it is presently encumbered, we need to remember to whom sovereignty properly belongs, and what follows on from that sovereignty as a consequence. We need to cease making work – especially waged labour – an end in itself, and once more return it to being one of the many gifts from God, by and through which we express what it means to be human, and in which is located God’s redeeming grace for us all.

1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

1. Discussion

Today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians follows on from last week’s passage in which Paul, having reminded the church in Corinth that they were called together to be a community of faith by the will of God and not their own initiative, continues his theme and emphasis on community by addressing the issue of unity. This unity is not, for Paul, the bland kind of “unity” that one might suppose arises from adherence to a common set of rules or agreed conditions; rather, it is the unity that springs from remembering into whose Baptism we are each of us Baptised, and whose disciples it is we claim to be.

This issue was especially urgent for Paul because different factions had emerged within the Corinthian church, each faction claiming allegiance to a charismatic individual seeking leadership of the community. Paul was especially distressed to learn that his own name was being used in this context: in part because of his own deeply ingrained sense of servanthood to Christ; but also because he regarded people declaring allegiance to him as a distortion of the actual leadership he felt called to exercise.

Paul uses a series of questions to illustrate how the Corinthians have fallen into idolatry through their squabbles over leadership. When he asks “Has Christ been divided?”, he is asking the Corinthians if Christ’s headship of the church has been apportioned out to an exclusive group for their own purposes. Likewise, when he asks “Has Paul been crucified”, he is alerting his own “followers” that they have effectively attempted to raise him into the place of Jesus – they have made Paul the focus of their faith rather than Christ. Again, when Paul demands to know if the Corinthians have been Baptised in the name of Paul, he is reminding them that they have been Baptised, not merely as followers of Jesus, but into the death and Resurrection of Christ. It is not Paul or Apollos or any other charismatic claimant to leadership who reconciles humanity to God and redeems us from our enslavement to sin: it is Jesus alone who achieves this, who is the initiative of God’s salvific purpose. To say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or anyone else is to commit idolatry: it is to ascribe to Paul or Apollos or others the characteristics that properly belong to Jesus.

The point for Paul is that Christ’s headship of the church was not merely theoretical or nominal. It was actual, precisely because anything other than orientation to God through faith in Christ was not the redemptive life into which we are called. It is not the life that enables true human freedom and flourishing. It is not the life that enables us to live relationally with one another and with the wider creation. It is instead a life filled with fear, with the petty jealousies and rivalries that constitute a life without a foundation, without a firm basis upon which to stand. It is a life that has no ground for its own being.

This in turn leads into Paul’s own sense of call to leadership, which is being distorted by the use of his name in contests of power between squabbling factions. Paul’s leadership is not the headship of conventional power and authority: it is not the “rule” of one who issues commands and expects to be obeyed. It is not a leadership that models or copies the power hierarchies evident in the rule of emperors or the presidency of chief priests. Rather, Paul’s leadership is grounded in servanthood to Christ, first and foremost. It is not Paul’s own purposes, but God’s which he seeks to serve. Secondly, Paul’s ministry is to proclaim the Gospel, not gather followers for the purposes of building up a power base or establishing a cult of personality. Rather, it is to declare God’s sovereign love for the world, not his own credentials for “ruling the roost”.

Thus, when Paul declares his thanks that he has not been responsible for many Baptisms, he is drawing the Corinthians’ attention to the ways in which they abuse the symbols and institutions of the community of faith for the purposes of attaining for themselves controlling and unjust power. If Baptism is nothing more than, or just primarily, a means of adding to your support base, then it is empty; indeed, it is polluted by human idolatry. Which isn’t to say that the sacrament and gift of the Baptism itself is null and void; rather, that the one performing the Baptism is doing so for reasons that having nothing to do with the call into the life of faith which Baptism itself represents. Our captivity to the corrupting demands of power and control are facilitating the appropriation of the church by the structures of injustice and oppression.

Today’s reading from First Corinthians is a salient reminder that leadership within the life of faith is not a matter of controlling others or of being in a position to issue orders or instructions and have them obeyed. Rather, it is an expression of a life oriented toward God that, in servanthood to Christ, seeks to emulate for others what covenantal life with God and with the world “looks like”. It is the leadership of being rather than the leadership of power. Which is not to reduce it to trite sayings around “being not doing” – rather, it is a wholeness of life from which everything about life flows from the “first principle” of orientation to God through faith in Christ. It is leadership that stems from this orientation, rather than from an imperial appropriation of power and control.

2. Reflection

One of the outgrowths of the “self-help” industry has been an obsession with “leadership” – and, in particular, with how to achieve a position of leadership by influencing others, by “achieving outcomes”, and by coming to the positive attention of those already in power so that they adopt you as one of their own. In other words, how to acquire power by “winning friends and influencing people”.

In part, this obsession with “leadership” is the product of modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual, the self-realiser who embodies “success” and makes their way to “the top”. In part, however, it is also a product of the fear which the cult of work and the ideology of competition induce in people: if I don’t “succeed”, if I don’t come to be in a position of exercising power, then I will be the kind of “failure” who is controlled and dominated by others.  Given the power to legitimise and authenticate which modernity’s construction of work and economy embodies, “leadership” becomes a metaphor for moral virtue: those who lead are axiomatically those who “deserve” to wield power through the character traits evidenced by their “success”; conversely, those who follow are self-evidently moral failures who deserve to be ordered around.

Hence, the “leadership” facilitated by the gurus of the self-help industry, as well as the “leadership” whose moral virtues are elucidated by modernity’s construction of work and economy, is not the embodied servant leadership articulated by Paul – the kind of leadership which, oriented to God through faith in Christ, models covenantal life for others. Rather, it is “leadership” that models the conventions of power, its attainment and retention. It is “leadership” that is actually narcissistic assertion. This kind of “leadership” might offer a pretence of being concerned with the dignity and attributes of others; but it is, in truth, really geared toward the appropriation of others through such pretences for the sole and exclusive purpose of self-advancement. The “teamwork” and “appreciation” which it articulates is the predatory calculation of what others can do or achieve for you. In other words, it is the leadership of the psychopath, the wholly self-contained individual who reduces people and relationships to nothing more than a means to their own ends.

This is “leadership” that is characteristic of a void that stands at the heart of its claims to legitimacy and authority. This void is the void of self-obsession, of the lack of any kind of other-orientation.  This void is the void generated by the mythology of the autonomous individual: the myth that we are, by ourselves, sufficient ground upon which to have our life and being. This is the void of utter isolation, of the tragic conviction that unless I “assert” myself and am “successful”, then I have no meaning other than what I can be utilised for by others. This is the void that substitutes competition for relationship, self-assertion for other-orientation.

In 2013, the business magazine Forbes reported on the disturbing link between psychopathy and corporate leadership. It highlighted the fact that many of the characteristics that mark out the “successful” executive – charisma, charm, plausibility, grandiosity (often mistaken as “vision”), the capacity to manipulate others, and the ability to be “seen” to be performing – are also the hallmarks of psychopathic behaviour.  The same article quoted one 2010 study which indicated that 3% of the upper management subjects it studied rated on the clinical psychopathy scale – much higher than the 1% prevalence rate for the general population.[1]

The point is that even if most people in leadership positions within the corporate sector are not psychopaths, the culture of corporate capitalism and the “virtues” which it ascribes to “leadership” facilitates psychopathic behaviour to a degree exponentially higher than that of society at large. The outcome is that, in order to succeed, the culture of “leadership” within modernity encourages destructive and selfish behaviour, even in people who are not constitutionally psychopaths. Moreover, for those people within the world of waged labour who try and resist this culture, for whom work involves a desire to contribute to the well-being of wider society, the psychopathic nature of modernity’s construction of “leadership” inflicts enormous harm, which then often results in adverse health and employment outcomes.

But it is not just within the realm of corporatist capitalism that this conflation of destructive narcissism and leadership occurs. When churches or faith communities allow themselves to be appropriated by the “success” oriented culture of modernity, and by the imperative of moral judgement which it embodies, those communities, too, can cease being other-oriented and instead become cultic or oppressive in their character. Specifically, they can cease being oriented toward a Christ-centred leadership and instead become the location for oppressive power exercised by charismatic individuals, or by those who are deemed to have the necessary qualities to enable the church to “succeed” on those terms which are deemed by modernity to be legitimate. In those circumstances, the church can also become an unjust and abusive employer, deploying modernity’s construction of work for dehumanising purposes.

Today’s reading from First Corinthians, however, reminds us that the purpose of “leadership” is not to be in control, or to give vent to all of our selfish desires and demands, but to model for others a way of life that is other-oriented, that is grounded in relationship with God and with the world. Such a life is not one which gives itself over to exploitation by others; rather, it models an invitational approach to life, in which relationship connects individuals and communities in a network of mutually affirming dignity. This is not a naïve expectation that everyone at all times will be able to “get along” or agree; it is not an approach that anticipates a world without disagreement or even conflict. However, it is an understanding of human flourishing that moves beyond the self-oriented and the material toward the interconnected and the covenantal – it keeps open the lines of communication, ever inviting self and others toward reorientation toward God and God’s invitation into relational grace. In the corporate world, in the church, and in the world, it challenges our assumptions about what leadership is and its role in human life; and it urges us toward an understanding of work and economy that understands both in terms of the human community, and the need of all people for something other than their own selves upon which to stand and have their being.   

Matthew 4: 12-23

1. Discussion

Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew presents an alternate version of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples to that which was heard in last week’s passage from John. And whereas last week’s passage occurred in the context of the witnessing by John the Baptist to Jesus’ identity, this week’s reading occurs in the context of John’s imprisonment. Both texts, however, mark a liminal period, the conclusion of John’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’.

Today’s passage begins with Jesus hearing news of John’s imprisonment, and on the basis of this report, choosing to withdraw Galilee, settling in Capernaum by way of Nazareth. Now Capernaum was a busy town by the shores of the Sea of Galilee that was undergoing considerable rebuilding and expansion during this period; Jesus may very well have been familiar with the place as a consequence of plying his own trade as a carpenter prior to the beginning of his ministry. Nonetheless, the author of Matthew has connected this movement with the passage from today’s reading from Isaiah – Jesus is the “great light” that shines upon those who dwell in darkness. It is also interesting to note that the “Galilee of the nations” as recorded in Isaiah is rendered in Matthew as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. Now it could be that “nations” and “Gentiles” are, in this context, synonyms; but it is interesting to speculate if Matthew, the most “Jewish” of the Gospels, is also identifying Jesus as the One who, in the terms articulated by the passage in Isaiah, becomes the conveyor of God’s covenant to the whole world.

Then follows the well-known passage in which Simon Peter and his brother Andrew are fishing by the shore: Jesus declares he will make them “fishers of men” and they follow his bidding. Likewise, Jesus encounters James and John, mending nets in their boat with the father: he calls to them and they follow. The passage then concludes with a summary account of this phase of Jesus’ ministry: he preaches the Gospel in the synagogues and heals the sick who are brought to him.

This account of the disciples varies from the one heard in last week’s reading from The Gospel According to John. In that reading, the action takes place (presumably) by the River Jordan where John is Baptising, and not in Galilee. Likewise, Andrew is one of John’s disciples who, being told by John to follow Jesus, then brings along his brother Simon with the declaration “we have found the Messiah”. And it is Jesus who gives to Simon the alternate name Peter (Cephas – “rock”).

These differences can, in part, be explained by the different purposes being served by each narrative. In the account in John, the focus is less on Jesus and more on John the Baptist: he is the one who first witnesses to Jesus, who sees the Spirit descend upon him and who accordingly declares Jesus to be the One about whom he has been prophesying. John is the signpost who points to Jesus. In Matthew’s account, however, the focus is squarely on Jesus: he is the One who calls the world into a new way of being, into a new life of discipleship. In keeping with the passage from Isaiah, in which God declares that old ways will be changed for new ways, the calling of the disciples signifies Jesus as the One who calls us into a new covenant with God, into a new understanding of relationship with God and with the world.

But it is also telling to note the fact that this calling comes in the midst of daily life, in the midst of the labour of fishing and mending nets. This signifies a Word that is in and for the world, and which comes to us in and through our daily encounters. The “high” Christology of John, which locates Jesus’ messiahship in his identity as the Word that was with God and was God from “the beginning”, gives way in Matthew to a “Christology of the daily grind”, to a Jesus who is himself a worker who associates with other working people. The Christ who, in John, dwells “among us” is, in Matthew, “one of us”.

Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew is not merely an account of how Jesus came across his first disciples. Rather, it locates the salvific action of God in the world of daily human experience, when we are going about our daily tasks and chores. The mundanity of these activities does not signify the absence of God; on the contrary, God is present in every facet of human existence. Today’s reading from Matthew reminds us of our need to alert to that presence in the everyday, precisely because it is in the everyday that the call of God is to be found and heard.

2. Reflection

The economist Adam Smith, who is often called the “father of capitalism”, warned against the over-specialisation of labour, which he envisaged would become increasingly common as work became more and more industrialised. Smith’s point was that the more labour was reduced to a specific set of basic tasks endlessly repeated, the person performing that labour would become increasingly dehumanised, reduced to nothing more than a tool in the process of production. For Smith, who was a moral philosopher and not an “economist” in the modern technocratic sense of the term, dehumanising both work and the worker would damage the fabric of human relationships that contributed to the flourishing of all.

Anyone who has been required to perform work of this nature can relate to the point Smith was making. Work that is mundane and repetitive quickly becomes oppressive: we are assailed by a sense of boredom and purposelessness that can become all-consuming. This ennui can to some extent be offset if we have interests and recreational activities beyond our work that are stimulating and engaging; however, the more and more waged labour encroaches into our lives, the more our sense of frustration and despair increase. Whether it’s being stuck on an assembly line or in a call centre, whether we’re stacking shelves or shuffling data, the same actions endlessly repeated quickly become soul destroying.

In part the problem lies in modernity’s myth of the autonomous, self-actualising individual. One of the outcomes of this myth is that the “happy” person, the “successfully” autonomous person is always stimulated and engaged – they’re always “doing something” in order to stave off boredom.  In other words, the culture of modernity is the culture of activity, of constantly being “entertained” in order to demonstrate to ourselves that are lives are exciting and meaningful. Our desperate desire to provide a record of our lives through selfies and other aspects of social media reflects our terror of “wasting” time; unless we are able to show how “active” we are, we are condemned to a life without meaning or purpose.

This terror of boredom – and of being “boring” – is exacerbated by waged labour’s ever-increasing encroachment into the whole of human life. The more our lives are bound to the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism, the more desperate we become to “escape” through holidays and other activities. But these are rarely periods of rest; rather, they are often occupied by a hectic round of “adventures” that serve as distractions from the mundane realities to which we know we will return. Indeed, the whole of life comes to take on the character of a distraction – from the thrall into which we have been placed by modernity’s construction of work and economy.

However, the problem is also in part a product of our loss of a sense of “vocation” in life, a key or central “calling” that provides purpose and meaning to being. This purpose and meaning goes beyond mere physical survival or economic participation; it concerns our understanding of what it means to be both human and the particular human being that we are. For many, “vocation” has simply become a simile for “religious ministry”; but the origin of the word in the Latin phrase meaning “to call” reminds us that a “vocation” is what “gives voice” to our humanity. We are human, not because we work, but because of the role work plays in articulating our human identity.

Thus it is that work, properly understood, involves more than just the claims which waged labour and the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism make upon us. The work of our humanity is not confined to what we do in the “workplace”; yet the more our “workplace” comes to appropriate the whole of our lives, the less human we become. Just as the over-specialisation of labour reduces the human worker to the status of a cog in the process of production, so the irruption of waged labour into the whole of human life takes us further and further away from our human purpose – from what it means to be human. Most of us have a sense of dis-ease that comes from intuitively understanding that “earning a living” is not really what we are meant to be doing as human beings; but our entrapment in an understanding of work and economy as a “necessary evil” through which we “pay our way” prevents an alternative understanding from taking root.

Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, however, is a reminder that life is a vocation, a calling – not into the prerogatives of waged labour and the capitalist ethic of endless production and consumption, but into a mode of being that “gives voice” to what it means to be human. This meaning is located in relationship, in an other-oriented focus that is concerned with the connections that uphold human flourishing, rather than in the opportunities for exploitation that exist within power imbalances or the disparity of resources. Jesus’ calling to the disciples in the midst of their daily labour is a calling to be fully human, even amid the mundanity and ordinariness of the everyday. Our vocation as human beings is to exist relationally with God and with one another, through all the modes of expression in which life occurs. Work is but one of those modes; there are others, which we must allow to exist on their own terms, if we are to understand the freedom and flourishing which covenantal co-existence brings..     


[1] Lipman, Victor “The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Leadership:, located at https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/25/the-disturbing-link-between-psychopathy-and-leadership/#7e6da2044104

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