The Meaning of Work

By Ajit John

A Reading from the Gospel of John 6:27-40

27 “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us, then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away, 38 for I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Meditation

We live in a tumultuous age where the meaning of work has been turned inside-out. Does one have to produce something tangible or master a virtual office? People in Jesus’ day struggled with understanding what work means for the spiritual life. Does it mean rigorous compliance with the Torah? Jesus upends this.

Do not work for food that perishes, he told those around him. Rather, work for the food that endures, things that the Son of Man will give you. You can sense in the gospel record that people were fixated on meeting the law’s demands, but in an unhealthy way, as if to be counted faithful you had to succeed on a heavenly questionnaire: marry into the right community, stay away from the ungodly, shun those who failed at ritual cleanliness, and so on. The rules that seem particularly cruel today involved treatment not just of lepers, but the lame and the blind. Jesus had a lot to say about such “works.”

Well, what must we do to perform the works of God? Jesus turned the word “work” on its head and said that work is belief — not something held at a distance. It means owning a gift that God has sent freely and without condition, bringing it into one’s life somehow. That’s what believing in the Son of Man is meant to signify. It isn’t what we usually call “work” at all. It doesn’t require money or social standing or special schooling. The work of believing is merely to accept the one God has sent.

Well, some in the crowd said, we believed Moses because he gave us the sign of manna in the desert. What’s your sign?, they blurted out, hardly aware of the irony, missing the point of the feeding of the 5,000. They weren’t really looking for a sign. Jesus, seeing the argument was going nowhere, simply said, “All who believe will be raised on the last day.” Work for that!

The Rev. Ajit John is an associate priest at St. Paul’s L’Amoreaux, a vibrant multi-ethnic parish in Toronto, Canada.

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