Many of you have seen the bumper sticker: “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” In the saying is reflected a basic reason for why we do what we do in our jobs: we need the money.
Sometimes, however, we must have another reason for doing what we do because the money is not particularly great. I happen to preach for a living so I can relate to preacher salary stories.
A friend of mine once filled the pulpit for a mission church that was meeting in a trailer. His pay: some country ham. Granted, it met a basic need, but all things being equal – and since he was in school – money probably would have been appreciated at least as much. Yet my friend achieved a level of satisfaction that was far removed from monetary considerations; he was fulfilling the requirements of his vocation.
The fact that he was engaged in a “religious” vocation begins to broaden the horizons of our understanding concerning the meaning of vocations as it relates to this passage. For in the context of our Christian faith, “vocation” means much more than what we do for a living. Rather, Christian vocation encompasses an entire philosophy of life.
It is a philosophy of life because our view of vocation begins with this fact: the One who calls us to vocation is the One who brought us into being. Thus, God is more than a boss; He is Creator.
My father worked in a textile mill. By the time of his death he had risen as far as he could in his particular job, to the position of foreman of his department. He told me once of having to fire one of the workers in the department. The man was on the 12-8 shift. My father would arrive at work just before that shift got off and he would stay until just after the 4-12 shift came on.
The night foreman had been having trouble with this individual and the situation had worsened to the point that my father had to deal with it. When confronted with the complaints of his foreman, the man said, “That man can’t tell me what to do.” My father’s response: “Of course he can, he’s your boss.”
God is much more than a Cosmic Shift Foreman; He is the One who put us in this world. He has a plan according to which we are to function within the world. This plan is a good gift; it is a blessing. What are the implications of our vocation being a gift from God?
In the first place, the work we have is part of our natural makeup. The biblical view of paradise is not of some idyllic scene wherein one lies around all day being fed grapes by an attractive specimen of the opposite gender. For many of us, the best part of vocation is the vacation — but not in the Bible.
Work is part of paradise. Indeed, our work is to be seen as an extension of the creative activity of God. God created the world and then put us in it to take care of it. No matter what we do for a living, if we are Christian we must subsume our task under the all-encompassing category of “God’s Work.” Whatever our job, it is related to this one task of protecting and developing God’s good creation. Granted, many of us are responsible for very specialized components of that creation, but the responsibility is real nonetheless.
Note in particular the two words which are descriptive of “the man’s” task and of ours: “to till” and “to keep.” To “till” means just what it sounds like: to work. To “keep” has the connotation of “guarding”; it is the same word used to describe the task of the cherubim in 3:24.l We are to work and to develop God’s earth; we are also to protect it and to guard it. The ecological implications are obvious and are related to the task of stewardship to which this passage calls us.
A second implication of our vocation being a gift from God has to do with liberty. We have the liberty to enjoy the gifts of God and the fruits of our labor.
A literal translation of verse 16 is this: “And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden eating you shall eat’.” The Lord had put fruit-bearing trees in the garden. The fruit of every tree was fair game for consumption. Moreover, the man had the responsibility to tend the trees and thus had a hand in their continuing productivity.
So it is with us today. Within God’s plan, we have sub-vocations within the overall vocation which belongs to each of us. As we labor, there will be products of our work. One we mentioned in our opening words: money. We all hope to be able to make our families comfortable and to provide them with the necessities of life. That is a valid fruit of our labors, and we ought to enjoy it. But we also ought to be responsible with it.
Another possible fruit of our labor is opportunity. Someone once told me, “The reward for a job well done is a better job.” Whether it means moving to another job or obtaining a promotion within our present organization, we all strive toward greater opportunity. Most of us desire a ladder as part of our benefit package; that is, we want more rungs to climb. And when we are able to do so, we deserve to revel in the experience.
There are many more possible products of our work. Respect, for instance. I learned the joy of this particular fruit early in life. I worked in a grocery store as a high school student. My supervisor during those years was named “Mr. Ralph.” My admiration for this man was unceasing. He was good to me for the entire three years of my employment there, but I always wondered what he really thought of me.
My job ended there when I left to attend college. During my freshman year, the pastor of Mr. Ralph’s church had to be away and I was asked to fill in on Sunday night. Mr. Ralph introduced me. I don’t remember all that he said, but I do remember this much: “One thing I always appreciated about Mike was that he believed in an hour’s work for an hour’s pay.” I didn’t make much for those hours I worked, but he paid me in manifold measure with words. He respected me; I could want no higher compliment from him. If you get respect, appreciate it.
Another possible fruit of our labor is praise. We may get patted on the back for what we accomplish. We have the liberty to enjoy our praise, but some cautions are in order. First, we should recall that were it not for vocational opportunity provided by our Father, there would be no reason for praise. For a second caution, hear the words of Robert Montgomery: “If you achieve success, you will get applause, and if you get applause, you will hear it. My advice to you concerning applause is this: enjoy it but never quite believe it.”2
Here is a warning of utmost importance which is also sounded by our text. We must, in the midst of our vocational pursuits, avoid the temptation of thinking too highly of ourselves. As the text shows, we live in a tension vocationally: we have real liberty to enjoy the result of our work, but we also have real restrictions on the way in which we can enjoy it.
So we come to the third implication of our vocation being a gift from God. When it comes to enjoying the fruits of our labor, we have the responsibility to live within the bounds set by God.
In verse 17, we encounter what has been termed a “prohibition”:3 “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Ah, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Walter Brueggemann said, “The story has no interest in the character of the tree. What counts is the fact of the prohibition, the authority of the one who speaks and the unqualified expectation of obedience.”4
He may well be right about the story’s lack of interest in the meaning of the tree, but the pens of commentators have spilled considerable ink over it anyway. The best explanation that I can find is that the tree represents knowledge in its sum total.5 In other words, the command not to eat of this tree is tantamount to a command not to seek to know too much, specifically, not to seek to know that which is God’s prerogative to know. Not to seek such is our responsibility — note that this tree was apparently among those to be tended and guarded by the man.
A constant battle we fight is the battle not to think more of ourselves than we ought, which is a tendency of ours. This battle is imprinted throughout the pages of Scripture. Biblical figures constantly succumb to the draw of attempting to become their own gods. Such a desire is outside the boundaries which are set by God on our liberty.
It is indeed a great blessing, in a sense a triple blessing. We are incomplete without our tasks of work, no matter what they be (blue-collar, white-collar, outside the home, inside the home, etc.), and the task for Christians is seen in the context of God’s overall plan for our world and our lives. The second aspect of the blessing is that we have the liberty to enjoy what we attain through our labors.
The third and least obvious of the blessings is that in God’s plan certain things in creation are reserved for Him. We must leave the tree of Knowledge to Him; we must not strive to usurp His place. But on this day we are reminded of another truth: We are His; we owe everything we are and have to Him. Dare we hold any part of ourselves back from Him?
1. John C. L. Gibson, Daily Study Bible: Genesis 2:15-17 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), p. 112.
2. Quoted in Great Words of Our Time, selected by Dee Danner Barwick (Kansas City, Missouri: Hallmark Cards, 1970; reprint of 1968 edition by New York Times Company), p. 27.
3. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation Commentaries: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), p. 46.
4. Ibid.
5. Cf. Gibson, Genesis, p. 110 and Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 71-72.

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