July 23, 2014

Fr. Gregory Jenson: Stewardship and the Human Vocation to Work

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Acton Institute | Fr. Gregory Jenson

Paying the bills and contributing to the collection basket are laudable. But Christian stewardship is significantly more than these; like prayer, fasting, and the sacraments, it is an essential part of our Christian life. More than what we say, the way we use our time, talent and treasure, reveals what we value, how we understand ourselves as men and women of faith, and what we believe it means to be human.

It is this last point that I want to focus on here. What does it mean to be human? Maybe this is a strange place to begin, but before we are Christians, we are human. Before any of us are baptized or make a commitment to Jesus Christ, we are human. We can only be Christian because we are human and the importance of our shared humanity should not be minimized; we are saved and made one in Christ precisely because God took on our humanity. He becomes as we are, in the frequently repeated phrase of the fathers, so that we might become as He is.

Salvation, justification, sanctification, deification—whatever terms we use for the mystery of our New Life in Christ—all presuppose not only divine grace poured out by the Holy Spirit but also a common humanity that we share not only with each other, but most importantly with Jesus Christ the God-Man. Too often in the early years of my own spiritual life and like many young Christians I saw the Gospel as an escape from the shared human nature and struggle. I was wrong.

As I’ve grown older, if not wiser, I’ve come to appreciate the argument made by St. Irenaeus. He said that the whole of human life is recapitulated in Jesus Christ who is Himself the first born of the new creation (see Colossians 1:15). Irenaeus also says that whatever in our humanity is not assumed by Christ is not healed by Him. Extending this argument we see that is our shared humanity that keeps us from living as strangers to each other and to God.

Scripture tells us that the human vocation is written not simply in its sacred pages but in creation as well.   When the Church fathers read Genesis they saw our First Parents as both an icon of the Most Holy Trinity and as the goal of creation. It is for us, for the whole human family, that God creates; even as later it will be for us that He becomes Man in Jesus Christ.

Viewing humanity in light of the Incarnation, the fathers see humanity as the point at which the Uncreated and created meet. To be human is to be the place of communion between God and the cosmos. We are both a microcosm and a macrocosm; we are the creation in miniature even as we also contain the whole creation in ourselves. Is it any wonder then that after turning his mind and heart to God, King David says of us all: “What is man that you care for Him?” (Ps 8:4)

We also hear in Genesis the divine command to our First Parents to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). This refers not simply to procreation, to the begetting and raising of children in marriage, it also has a more general application. To be human is to be productive and profitable and to make of the creation a fit home for the human family. In a word, the primordial vocation of the human person is to work.

Work in Genesis means much more than what we tend to think, living as we do on the other side of Adam’s transgression. In first verses of Genesis, we see God as an artisan. As the potter forms clay into vessels both beautiful and useful, so too God takes the unformed matter of the universe and shapes it into creatures beautiful and good, animate and inanimate (see Isaiah 29:16 and Rom 9:20-23). The goodness and beauty are not an abstraction, but the characteristics of a cosmos that is a fitting home for man. God creates something beautiful and good for us. He then charges us to continue that work of shaping creation as a beautiful, good and fitting home for the whole human family.

So the anthropological foundation upon which stewardship rests is this: After God and in God, we are to be as God for the creation and one another. We are called by God to exercise our gifts and abilities to shape the material world as well as the social and cultural world according to the Gospel and for the needs of the human family. Yes this requires technical skill but it is not simply a functional task. Rather it is one which, from beginning to end, is to be characterized by beauty and goodness.

Before all else, to be a steward is to commit oneself personally and generously to using the gifts of time, talents and treasure God has given each of us the capacity to help to create a good and beautiful home fit for the human family. But how we use our gifts is not only an expression of our original vocation. Because of Adam’s transgression our work is often frustrating and marred by want and conflict. Though sin has sullied our vocation, it has not been undone. If anything, one of the great sorrows of human life is the myriad ways in which our original vocation is so often left unfulfilled—stillborn and even aborted by human selfishness and material want.

To be what it is, work must itself be redeemed; it must be work in Christ since it is only in Christ that we can transcend the consequences of sin. And in Christ, our stewardship becomes not only an expression of our shared human vocation, but our personal assent to Christ and His desire to redeem human work, creativity and ingenuity.

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