by Rev. Michael Woolf

If you were to ask most Christians what Jesus did for a living before beginning his public ministry, most would say that he was a carpenter. While this is not incorrect, Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 use the Greek term, tekt?n (τ?κτων) to describe Joseph’s and Jesus’ profession. The range of interpretation of the term ranges from laborer to carpenter to engineer, and some even believe the term tekt?n has little to do with profession at all, instead being used in a symbolic manner for teacher. As with any interpretive choice, where we locate Jesus along that continuum of professionality not only speaks volumes about our comfort with a Jesus who engaged in manual labor, but it also reveals how we think about work more generally.

Late 19th and early 20th-century labor movements gave us the 40-hour workweek, the right to organize, and guarantees of safety on the job. They were also more interested in Jesus’ profession than many might expect, taking care to cast Jesus as a manual laborer with class consciousness who would fight for the rights of working people if he were with us today. For instance, Thomas DeWitt Talmage wrote in 1890 about a Jesus accustomed to hard physical labor: “You cannot tell Christ anything new about blistered hands, or aching ankles, or bruised fingers, or stiff joints, or rising in the morning as tired as when you lay down. While yet a boy He knew it all, He felt it all, He suffered it all.” (Talmage, From Manger to Throne, p. 190). Sarah Cleghorn wrote a poem in The Masses depicting Jesus receiving his “red card,” a membership card in the IWW or “wobblies.” Perhaps most famously, Art Young depicted Jesus as “The Workingman of Nazareth” in a poster, imagining him coming to speak about the “rights of labor” at a union hall in the early 20th century.

Such appeals to Jesus’ status as a worker demonstrate the way that Christianity and the labor movement overlapped and remained in conversation historically, but they also tell us the stakes of how we depict Jesus. If we skip over Jesus’ profession or render him an artisanal craftsman or engineer, we are telling much about what kind of labor that we value and the sorts of labor that we don’t. Jesus may have more in common with so-called “unskilled” labor than many might find comfortable. Could we imagine Jesus working in a fast food restaurant? How about cleaning rubble off of a construction site, which may have actually been his job if he helped to construct Sepphoris, just 4 miles from Nazareth, like some scholars posit?

Such images should not provoke discomfort. Rather, they reveal a Jesus who worked in difficult circumstances like many workers in America currently find themselves. They also sacralize work, making all labor filled with inherent dignity. My hope is that they also move us to advocate this Labor Day for policies on the local, state, and federal level that help workers.

One concrete proposal would be an increase in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. If all labor matters, those who labor should enjoy more security in an economy that has more than enough wealth to support them. When we put Jesus in the place of those who labor in precarious positions and without adequate compensation, it becomes easier for us to advocate for their position. Moreover, it makes advocating for their wellbeing and security a Christian demand that comes from a place of faith, since our tradition proclaims that God’s economy is defined by abundance and “enough-ness,” rather than scarcity. The only question is our priorities in allocating this nation’s economic resources.

Let us proclaim that no labor is unskilled, and that all deserve a seat at the table of our economy this Labor Day. Let us advocate for the ending of exploitation of undocumented workers. Let us acknowledge that Jesus worked, and let that acknowledgment challenge and change our faith. Let us also be filled with a spirit that acknowledges that changing how our world thinks about work and workers’ place in our economy will be hard work – hard, but worth it.

The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University