Written By: Raphael Ma
This article is based on a spiritual conference given at the seminary I attend
“…the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” – Genesis 2:15
When God put Adam in the Garden of Eden, He gave him work to do, to till it and keep it. That must have been a lot of work, to take care of paradise. But another thing that this truth reveals, is that work is not a punishment for sin, because God’s entrusted work to Adam before the fall of man. Work is part of human dignity.
But we don’t often think of work that way. It’s very easy to resent work as a necessary evil. It’s tempting to think that work is a punishment for sin, a result of the fall, and so it is something we just have to live with, to be endured. If you’ve ever read Genesis, you can probably think of the verse that can be used to support this temptation:
“…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it al the days of your life;” – Genesis 3:17
Now since I haven’t taken Greek yet, I’ll be using the Latin Vulgate to help us get a broader sense of the meaning of the words in the two verses of Genesis we’ve looked at so far. The words “till” and “work” in Genesis 2:15 are rendered as “oparetur” and “custodiret” by St. Jerome. The word “toil” in Genesis 3:17 is rendered as “laboribus”.
Whittaker’s words, a latin dictionary, defines the three words like this:
“oparetur” – (v) – labour, toil, work; perform (religious service), attend, serve; devote oneself
“custodiret” – (v) – guard, protect, preserver, watch over, keep safe, take heed, care, observe, restrain
“laboribus” – (n, masc.) – effort, labour, toil, exertion, work; suffering, distress, hardship
From that I think you can see that there’s a distinction to be made here between work, and toil. As we’ve already seen, and as Pope Bl. John Paul II taught:
“Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore, he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work.”- Laborem Exercens (literally: “doing work”), 1981
Work therefore was not and still is not a penalty for sin. What Adam suffers after the fall is toil, or the burden. So, it’s not work that is the penalty of sin, after all, God called man to work before sin entered the world, it’s toil, or the burden we experience, that is the penalty of sin.
And work is not only something done for God. Work also reveals who you are to others, and to yourself.
When the Son of God became incarnate to save us, He became a man like us in all things but sin. Jesus reveals us to ourselves, He reveals to us who God intends us to be from the beginning. And one of the things Jesus did was work. Everyone knew that Jesus worked and had a trade for most of his life before His public ministry, since they said – “…is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” – Mark 6:3.
A priest who teaches here at the seminary grew up in a Mennonite community. When they had visitors over, they’d show their visitors furniture they had made, the way we show people pictures. The hours of work which they had put into crafting and finishing these fine pieces of furniture reflected something about their maker.
When we push ourselves, we often discover something about ourselves that we didn’t know was there. As the Second Vatican Council document proclaimed: “Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered towards man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside himself, and beyond himself.” – Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope)
And how many people today feel that they that they don’t know themselves? We often hear of people saying things like “I need to find myself” etc., as they take a vacation, or go travelling around the world. But that search for who they are is unfortunately often separated from work. And so even when they return having “found themselves”, the picture is not complete, because it does not include the vocation to work, which is part of who God made us to be. They live under a non-Gospel mentality that was prevalent in the pagan world, where society was divided into classes, and certain kinds of work, usually any manual labour, were thought to be unworthy of free citizens, and so it was given to slaves. Under this attitude, work is seen as a necessary evil, to be avoided, to hire others to do, or if we can’t avoid it, to do ourselves, but exerting as little effort as possible, to “save” ourselves for the enjoyment that we can have when we’re off work. In their eyes, to “make it” in life, is to no longer have to work.
But on the other hand, St. Joseph, the patron of workers, “of royal blood, united by marriage to the greatest and holiest of women, reputed father of the Son of God, passed his life in labour, and won by the toil of the artisan the needful support of his family. It is, then, true that the condition of the lowly has nothing shameful in it, and the work of the labourer is not only not dishonouring, but can, if virtue be joined to it, be singularly ennobled.” – Quamquam Pluries (“although many”), Leo XIII, 1889
If you’ve had the blessing of meeting someone who loves their work, who really gives themselves fully to what they do, or if you yourself have had the experience one of those moments, when you didn’t really want to do something, but gave yourself fully to the task, it turned out to be fulfilling, and you didn’t even mind being tired, you’ll know that there’s something not quite right about the attitude of resenting work as a necessary evil to be avoided.
And the truth is most that of our burden doesn’t come from the work itself, but from our resentment of the work. And the possibility of experiencing that burden is indeed a penalty for sin. But that burden is not a necessary part of work, and it shouldn’t be. The book of Genesis, and the Gospels, reveal to us that work is part of the dignity of being human, and it is through it that we serve God on a daily basis, reveal ourselves to others, and even to ourselves. After all, Jesus said: “My yoke is easy, My burden light” -Matthew 11:30. Perhaps the reason why we feel burdened is because we are not doing it His way.
St. Joseph, patron of workers, pray for us!
When Adam was in the Garden of Eden, God put him there to till it. That must have been a lot of work.
Distinction: Labour vs. Burden
Labour is not a penalty of sin, burden is.
Jesus laboured and had a trade
Work is done for God, & reveals you to others, and to yourself. e.g. Mennonites show furniture they made when people come over
When you push yourself, you discover something about yourself. Many people today feel they don’t know themselves, because many people look for every possible excuse to evade work or do as little as possible if they can’t avoid it
But Jesus said: “my yoke is easy, my burden light”
The heavy burdens we experience come from us not doing it Christ’s way
Most of the burden doesn’t even come from our work, but from our resentment of our work. E.g. really giving yourself to a task, you’re not even tired, turns out you enjoy it, peace of mind.
The Life and Glories of St. Joseph
Joseph of Nazareth: The Story of the Man Closest to Christ – DVD
Catholic Living, by Catholic Chapter House.