Jesus (& Mary Magdalen) Rejects the American Work Ethic (Sunday Homily)

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42. 

This week’s Gospel reading is fun. It’s about work and relaxation. It contains Good News for workers that contrasts sharply with the attitude of their employers.

The reading has Jesus and his closest companion, Mary Magdalen, exemplifying the Master’s habitual attitude towards work which is exactly what American capitalists condemn as laziness. Its take-away: forget Martha’s overwork. Instead, be more like Jester Jesus and Lazy Mary.

I’ll explain that in a minute. But before I do, let me offer an amusing reminder of our culture’s deification of work. It came a couple weeks ago in a Fox News interview with Donald Luskin, the CEO of Trend Macrolytics, a prominent Wall Street consulting firm. As such, it’s his job to forecast market trends and offer stock market advice to institutional investors. I imagine he spends his day making phone calls, having three-martini luncheon meetings with clients, or maybe advising them on the golf course or in a luxury suite at the local baseball stadium. For him, that’s work. It ultimately ends in pressing computer keys to implement his momentous decisions to “buy” or “sell.” Whew!

In any case, Luskin was asked on Fox about a recent report showing that retirement is becoming a thing of the past. In fact, nearly one in four Americans will never have enough money to quit the daily grind. When asked if he found the trend worrisome, Luskin said it didn’t concern him personally. On the contrary, and employing theological language, the man actually called it a “blessing” and a “miracle” that people have been relieved of the burden of retirement that workers had to endure in less fortunate times.

He said:

“It doesn’t worry me personally. I guess I’m one of those people who plans never to retire. I mean, I’ve got to tell you, what do people do when they retire? You know, how do you spend a day? I mean, is bowling that interesting? Is fishing that interesting? I mean, I happen to love my work. Why do I want to stop it? You know, it’s not like it hurts. Why would I stop it? This is great. What a great country where we have the opportunity to keep working. What a miracle where our lives are long enough and we’re healthy enough and mentally alert enough, so we don’t have to retire like generations before us. This is a great blessing. You should embrace it.”

Such words need very little comment. What do retired people do? Are you serious? How about: what you always wanted to do but couldn’t while working two or three meaningless jobs involving physical activity, danger, heavy lifting or boring repetitious tasks for clueless employers like Luskin himself. How about: volunteering for Habitat, working for Marianne Williamson‘s campaign (with its commitment to changed political consciousness); how about spending time with your spouse and grandchildren? How about traveling, reading, writing poetry, listening to or playing music, making love, taking naps, meditating, playing checkers or chess, hiking, learning a new skill, painting – and yes, bowling or fishing.

What Luskin reflects is our entire culture that locates “real life” in the shop or market place. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our European sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off fewer than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings about how we should spend our days.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural even about work. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. He actually does! Read it for yourself.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” Could anything be further from the work Mr. Luskin idealizes? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. [What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.]

More to the day’s point: the world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So, she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than the work people like Donald Luskin would have us devote our entire lives to?

What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of underpaid labor and long hours on the job we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

That’s the message of today’s Gospel reading: we need more free time, more vacations, and assured dignified retirement.

Wake up, Mr. Luskin! Wake up, American workers: You have nothing to lose but your chains.

P.S. Here’s the actual interview with Donald Luskin along with commentary by TYT‘s John Iadarola

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

10 thoughts on “Jesus (& Mary Magdalen) Rejects the American Work Ethic (Sunday Homily)”

  1. At a friend’s funeral, a lady telling stories about him said that he’d told her his view on money. I have delighted in it since. ‘Money is like manure, it isn’t good for much unless you spread it around.’ — Social commentary if followed might make a difference in the lives of many.

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  2. Hi Mike,

    Over a decade ago, after Meeting I was cleaning up the kitchen in the Calusa Nature Center building where the Ft Myers (FL) Quakers meet along with Betty, who was probably 84 at that time. We often found ourselves cleaning up the kitchen — we didn’t have assignments, things just happened.

    She looked up from what she was doing and said “Hank, why do you always help clean up the kitchen?”

    I replied, “it’s something I learned from the Girl Scouts: leave the campsite better than you found it.”

    Her eyes twinkled, she smiled, and said “Me too. I was on the national board of the Girl Scouts when I lived in DC.”

    When we’re led by Spirit in what we do, we are doing what we should be doing. And it’s not a chore, it’s a pleasure.

    Thanks for the opening,

    Hank

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      1. Interesting; your use of the word “breach” is accurate from the outside, and doesn’t fit from the inside. With regard to public spaces (let’s not talk about my home 🙂 ) I experience the contrast between messy and neat and want everyone, including myself, to have the better experience. It’s also a matter of hope. Unless I “leave the campsite better” what hope can I have that everyone will leave the campsite better? Be the change, etc. It’s not a chore, not a duty, I don’t wish someone else were doing it.

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  3. Never once did that bigwig think of “volunteering” as a part of retirement life!!
    His thoughts were all of “me alone” activities!!
    Just goes to show how he has spent his life…

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    1. Thanks Mike, you made me feel better about my “wasted” life! Even as a child I have been criticized for spending my time with books instead of working to become a good wage earner. As I grew older I made a conscious decision to pursue knowledge, beauty and truth instead of slaving and grubbing for money and the myriad things it can buy.

      I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference. I have never regretted that choice…….

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      1. Thanks, Mike. I agree with your choice and did something like that myself. Like you, I’ve never regretted taking the road less traveled. I know both of us are still on that path — supporting one another.

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