Theology of Work: 5 Volumes of Bible Commentary
Publisher: Hendrickson Publishers (30 April 2015, Vol.5)
reviewed by Richard Higginson
Many visitors to this site may be familiar with the organisation and website www.theologyofwork.org. The Theology of Work Project began in 2007, when a mainly American group of scholars came together fuelled by a shared frustration. They were frustrated because the church has so little to say about work, and scarcely ever preaches about work in a helpful, well-informed way that makes imaginative links between the biblical world and the present day. So they joined forces to explore the full riches of what the Bible says about work. The outcome is a commentary which – in the words of the foreword – ‘goes through the Bible book by book to bring to the surface what we might not have seen about work at first blush’. An online version of this was published first, being completed by June 2014. Since then a five-volume print version has been published by Hendrickson. This covers Genesis through Deuteronomy (volume 1), Joshua through Song of Songs (volume 2), Isaiah through Malachi (volume 3), Matthew through Acts (volume 4) and Romans through Revelation (volume 5). The latest development is that a one-volume hard cover edition is now available.
I have been aware of this commentary for some time and periodically dipped into it. The Executive Editor of the Theology of Work Project, William Messenger, wrote a lively introduction to the commentary for Faith in Business Quarterly in 2016. But it is only during the last month that I have systematically read through it, one volume after another. I have gained much from this experience, and the commentary has repeatedly sent me back to the biblical text to ponder anew exactly what it says – which cannot be a bad thing. But it’s not the way of using this commentary that I’d recommend. I suggest readers are better off consulting the online version as and when they want to see what the commentators have to say about a particular passage and what the Bible has to say about a particular topic. The website has several useful articles of a topical nature (e.g. ‘calling and vocation’, ‘competition and work’, ‘truth and deception’) which cover material touched on in passing in the published volumes.
Readers are also better off using the Commentary selectively because it is – in my judgment – of variable quality. This is invariably the case when a publication is multi-authored. It involved 140 contributors from 16 different countries. Some books are handled with much greater depth of insight than others. The outcome is distinctly uneven. There are places where the concern to apply a passage of general or ecclesiastical relevance to the workplace feels unduly strained. But there are also passages which have a directly commercial setting whose relevance goes unexplored, including several biblical passages featured on this website. The commentators don’t even mention Solomon’s supplier King Hiram of Tyre (1 Kings 6) and pass quickly over Jeremiah’s purchase of the field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32). Although the project emphasises the international nature of their team and the variety of backgrounds they represent, a look at the list of contributors shows that biblical scholars from the USA predominated. Oddly, there was scarcely any UK contribution.
Ruth and Mark
However, I would like to emphasise the positive more than the negative! Two books where the quality of commentary is excellent are Ruth and Mark. The book of Ruth ‘tells the extraordinary story of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the life and work of three ordinary people – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. As they work through both economic hardship and prosperity, we see the hand of God at work in their productive agricultural labour, generous management of resources for the good of all, respectful treatment of co-workers, ingenuity in the face of necessity, and the conception and rearing of children’ (Volume 2 p.25). In particular, the book shows how the gleaning laws provided a remarkable support network for poor and marginalised people. The gleaning process preserved Ruth’s dignity, made use of her skills and abilities, freed her and Naomi from long-term dependency, and made them less vulnerable to exploitation. Plenty of food for thought, then, as we in the 21st century try to work out the appropriate connection between work and welfare.
The Gospel of Mark is first and foremost about the work of Jesus, to teach, heal, perform works of power, and most of all to die and be raised to life for the benefit of humanity. ‘By studying Mark, we discover God’s call to work in the service of his kingdom. We discern the rhythms of work, rest and worship God intends for our lives. We see the opportunities and dangers inherent in earning a living, accumulating wealth, gaining status, paying taxes, and working in a society that does not necessarily aim towards God’s purposes’ (Volume 4 p.45.) Mark emphasises that the disciples often got it wrong – there are no less than three boat scenes in chapters 4, 6 and 8 where the disciples fail to comprehend Jesus’ power and authority. This should prompt a humility that we, too, may have much to learn in our work: attitudes to repent of that need to change. Another interesting observation is that Jesus may not, after all, have been a carpenter, or not principally so: the Greek word ‘tekton’ refers to a builder in any sort of material, and in Jesus’ day houses were normally built of stone. If this was the case, it may make sense – as the commentator suggests – to view his teaching in the parables in a more concrete light!
There are plenty of other little gems to be found. Abraham at several points in his story is notable for his generosity, and this may be why Jesus described Zacchaeus as a ‘son of Abraham’ at the point where the latter says he will reimburse those he has cheated fourfold. The third commandment about not taking God’s name in vain includes falsely attributing human designs to God. Ezra and Nehemiah show contrasting perspectives about trust in God: whereas Ezra thought that trusting God meant he should not ask for royal protection, Nehemiah saw the offer of such protection as God’s gracious hand of blessing. The excellent wife and worker of Proverbs 31 is well described as a Valiant Woman. In the workplace we are double agents of the kingdom: serving our organisation well but having a higher loyalty. While 1 Corinthians 13 on love is often read at weddings, it is actually a perfect manifesto for the workplace.
So there is no shortage of excellent titbits that stimulate the mind and get you thinking! But I recommend that you use the commentary in manageable chunks, not seeking to digest it in one fell swoop as I did.