No question is more pointed and central to ask a young girl or boy, ‘where are you going to work when you grow up.’ Or ‘what are you going to be.’ It is good to be sure, to encourage young people to start planning and thinking about their skills and talents from a young age.
However, the error underlining such a fascination with work, concerns where our identity and worship lies. Capitalism and Marxism when they are both treated with religious devotion share a common fixation with work, and action. The Marxist is consumed by the question of his self-production and self-creation. The Capitalist devotion lies in an obsession with acquisition and wealth. Both fundamentally determine self-identity and become religious systems.
In a culture of philosophical Marxism, in which we live, the one thing needful is work. The Father of German nationalism, Johann Friedrich writes to the German people defining their lives by their personal activity: “You are here for action,” lectures Fichte, “Your action, and your action alone determines your worth.” In turn, the inaction of an unborn child or the non-production of an elderly citizen compromises “worth.”
A friend of mine who visited Auschwitz has told me that there is a eery sign above the entrance to the death camp that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work makes you free.” Certainly a demonic twist of the words of our Lord, “The truth sets you free.” The death creed at the entrance of Auschwitz confesses that it is your work that saves you. What you do – Where you work – your credentials – your mutual funds – your service – your production – your self-work – your reputation – your legacy - these are the portion that holds savific value.
It is true that all heresy and false teaching comes down to a thousand lies about works righteousness: and the inward gaze into the human heart to determine worth and value. It is note-worthy that the highest suicide rates lie with men over the age of 75. When I used to work in a nursing home (and even these days as a vicar) I have encountered innumerable men who speak about feelings of worthlessness and depression. It almost always has to do with not being able to work, craft, produce, and create. Surely this is a natural human response to deteriorating health and rethinking identity and place in the world now that functions of earthly service and production are coming to a close. In the philosophical marketplace where self-worth is wrapped up with work, it follows that those who identify their self-worth with work, will find no value in themselves when they are no longer functioning.
That aim of pastoral care must be to direct those tired searching eyes away from their calloused arthritic hands and point them to the crucified and blessing hands of the risen Christ. Self-worth does not consist of “merit or worthiness in me” (small catechism) but the worthiness and work of another; Christ alone.
The importance of St Lukes catechesis on Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) ought to shape and inform our appreciation of that “one thing needful.”
38Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. 40But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: 42But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
Mary was listening to the preaching Christ, who spoke her into existence; who created, justified, and sanctified her. There is no worship higher than sitting at the feet of the Lord and being addressed, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” And the advent of faith only brings us to receive. It puts to death that self-justifying human activism and grants Sabbath rest. For faith seeks only to receive and bask in the life of Christ and in that faith to claim that which is His to be one’s own possession.
When it comes to identity we know ourselves not by self-definition or one’s work. To truly “know thyself,” is to be spoken to. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). While Martha is busy working - hosting and making preparations to host the Lord, she missed that one thing needful – the faith of hearing the Words of Jesus. Or as our Lutheran confessions correctly state “Faith is the highest worship.” Mary has chosen the “good portion” the meal that satisfies – “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).