The offensive worker

The people took offense at him.
Matthew 13: 57

 One of my pet peeves here in Honduras is the way manual workers and campesinos,the poor workers in the countryside, are treated.

They are looked down on, at times despised, for their lack of education, for being manual laborers. They are not culto, cultured.

As I look back on my life I recognize that this is not a concern that began when I came to Honduras almost seven years ago.

Neither my father nor my mother finished high school. They were “blue-collar” workers, though my Dad, because of his incredible math skills, went from working on the floor of a steel-fabrication plant to an assistant supervisor.

But it is also for me a question of spirituality.

I remember the story about St. Bonaventure in which he told a friar that a poor woman could get to heaven just as well – or maybe better – than he could with all his learning.

I remember hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in a north Philadelphia church, with a call much like this text of a 1956 sermon:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

I remember reading this text of John Gardner in the early 1970s and sharing it with a person working at the Catholic Peace Fellowship:

 An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Bill noted the appropriateness of the quote. He was a plumber and I was studying philosophy.

When I was a campus minister at Iowa State University, I kept insisting on the dignity of work and had a special concern for agricultural issues and students studying agriculture at “Moo U” as some called ISU.

In a talk at the Antioch retreat I reminded the students of the priestly nature of their work by quoting Monseñor Oscar Romero who once said,

 How beautiful will be the day
when all the baptized understand
that their work, their job,
is a priestly work,
that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar,
so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench,
and each metalworker,
each professional,
each doctor with the scalpel,
the market woman at her stand,
are performing a priestly office!

Today is Labor Day in most of the countries of the world. Today is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, when we remember that Jesus came from a working family.

The people of his town took offense at this:

 Where does this guy get all his wisdom and powers? He’s just the carpenter’s son.

Today is a day to remember the dignity of manual work – and the need we have for that work and for the people who sweep our streets, wash our dishes, grow our food. It is a day to remember that Jesus was one of them.

They have much to teach us. As Thomas a Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ, wrote:

A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.

 

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One response to “The offensive worker

  1. John, thank you for this most timely and insightful post. It resonates with me in so many ways. Your teachings and your observations just get better and better.

    I’m thinking of the new ‘saints’ that have just been confirmed. I have always had difficulty undersrtanding and accepting the way that the selection process is handled and the persons that have been chosen for this honor. I view the whole process, especially in this time in our history, as ‘political correctness,” Catholic style. In this vein, your thoughts today remind me, once again, that we continually overlook and take for granted the lives and societal contributions of the ‘little people’ – Anawim (Heb.) – who represent what economists and other cultural observers now refer to as ‘the 99%.’

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