The Kingdom of God Shows Up at Work (Luke 1-5)
Zechariah’s Surprising Day at Work (Luke 1:8-25)
Luke’s Gospel begins in a workplace. This continues Yahweh’s long history of appearing in workplaces (e.g., Genesis 2:19-20; Exodus 3:1-5). Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel on the most important workday of his life — the day he was chosen to minister in the holy place of the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1:8). While we may not be accustomed to thinking of the temple as a place of labor, the priests and Levites there were engaged in butchery (the sacrificial animals did not kill themselves), cooking, janitorial work, accounting, and a wide variety of other activities. The temple was not simply a religious center, but the center of Jewish economic and social life. Zechariah is impacted deeply by his encounter with the Lord — he is unable to speak until he has given witness to the truth of God’s word.
The Good Shepherd Appears Among the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
Albert Black of On Target Supplies & Logistics says he’s watched God “break into the midst” of his work, as the shepherds did long ago. God wants people to have jobs, so Albert started a business in his boyhood neighborhood where unemployment was high. Just like the shepherds in the fields, Albert’s people do work that serves people, in Albert’s case delivering whatever people need whenever they need it.
The next workplace encounter takes place a few miles down the road from the temple. A group of shepherds watching their flocks by night are visited by an angelic host announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9). Shepherds were generally regarded as disreputable, and others looked down on them. But God looks down on them with favor. Like Zechariah the priest, the shepherds have their workday interrupted by God in a surprising way. Luke describes a reality in which an encounter with the Lord is not reserved for Sundays, retreats, or mission trips. Instead, each moment appears as a moment of potential in which God can reveal himself. The daily grind may serve to dull our spiritual senses, like the people of Lot’s generation whose routines of “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” blinded them to the coming judgment on their city (Luke 17:28-30). But God is able to break into the midst of everyday life with his goodness and glory.
Jesus’ Job Description: King (Luke 1:26-56, 4:14-22)
If it seems strange for God to announce his plan to save the world in the midst of two workplaces, it might seem even stranger that he introduces Jesus with a job description. But he does, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to give birth to a son. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
While we may be unaccustomed to thinking of “king of Israel” as Jesus’ job, it is definitely his work according to Luke’s Gospel. Details of his work as king are given: performing mighty deeds, scattering the proud, bringing down rulers from their thrones, lifting up the humble, filling the empty with good things, sending the rich away empty, helping Israel, and showing mercy to Abraham’s descendants (Luke 1:51-55). These famous verses, often called the Magnificat, portray Jesus as a king exercising economic, political, and perhaps even military power. Unlike the corrupt kings of the fallen world, he employs his power to benefit his most vulnerable subjects. He does not curry favor with the powerful and well-connected in order to shore up his dynasty. He does not oppress his people or tax them to support luxurious habits. He establishes a properly governed realm where the land yields good things for all people, safety for God’s people, and mercy to those who repent of evil. He is the king that Israel never had.
Later, Jesus confirms this job description when he applies Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). These are political and governmental tasks. Thus, in Luke at least, Jesus’ occupation is more closely related to present-day political work than it is to today’s pastoral or religious professions. Jesus is highly respectful of the priests and their special role in God’s order, but he does not primarily identify himself as one of them (Luke 5:14; 17:14).
The tasks Jesus claims for himself benefit people in need. Unlike the rulers of the fallen world, he rules on behalf of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and those who have fallen into debt (whose lands are returned to them during the year of the Lord’s favor; see Leviticus 25:8-13). His concern is not only for people in desperate need. He cares for people in every station and condition, as we will see. But his concern for the poor, the suffering, and the powerless distinguishes him starkly from the rulers he has come to displace.
Note the men in the parable who refuse the invitation to the wedding banquet because they need to look at their recently purchased field (Luke 14:18) and oxen (Luke 14:19). Rather than being open to find God in their work, they use work as a means to avoid God.
Even those books that call Christ the “head of the church” — that is, Ephesians (4:15, 5:23) and Colossians (1:18) — also speak of him as the “head over everything” (Ephesians 1:22, NIV) and the “head over every ruler and authority” (Colossians 2:10). Christ is the chief of state, the head of all things — or will be, when the redemption of the world is complete — of which the church is a special subset.
Twice Jesus goes to people’s workplaces to call them to follow him. The first is when Jesus gets some fishermen to interrupt their work and let him use their boat as a podium. Then he gives them some excellent fishing tips and suddenly calls them to become his first disciples (Luke 5:1-11). The second is when he calls Levi, who is at his work of collecting taxes (Luke 5:27-32). These people are called to follow Jesus by leaving their professions. We tend to think of them as full-time church workers, but full-time “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) would be a more accurate description. Although these individuals are called to a particular kind of work in Jesus’ kingdom, Luke isn't saying that some callings (e.g., preaching) are higher than others (e.g., fishing). Some of Jesus’ followers—like Peter, John, and Levi—follow Jesus by leaving their current employment (Luke 5:11). We will soon meet others—such as Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-41), another tax collector named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and a Roman military officer (Luke 1-10)—who follow Jesus by living transformed lives in their present occupations. In one case (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus commands a person not to leave his home and travel around with him.
Those who travel with Jesus apparently cease wage-earning work and depend on donations for provision (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24). But this is not a sign that the highest form of discipleship is to leave our jobs. It is a specific call to these individuals and a reminder that all our provision is from God, even if he typically provides for us through conventional employment. There are many models for following Christ in our various occupations.
For more about Jesus’ calling of the disciples, see "Mark 1:16-20" in Mark and Work and "Matthew 3-4" in Matthew and Work at www.theologyofwork.org. For more about calling in general, see the article Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.
Besides appearing in workplaces, Jesus also sets many of his parables in workplaces, including the parables of the new patches/wineskins (Luke 5:36-39), the wise and foolish builders (Luke 6:46-49), the sower (Luke 8:4-15), the watchful servants (Luke 12:35-41), the wicked servant (Luke 12:42-47), the mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19), the yeast (Luke 13:20-21), the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). Workplaces are where Jesus turns when he wants to say, “The kingdom of God is like…” These passages are not generally meant to teach about the workplaces in which they are set, although sometimes they do provide a bit of workplace guidance. Rather, Jesus uses familiar aspects of workplaces primarily to make points about God’s kingdom that transcend the parables’ particular settings. This suggests that ordinary work has great significance and value in Jesus’ eyes. Otherwise it would make no sense to illustrate God’s kingdom in workplace terms.
Much of Luke consists of Jesus’ teaching. As it happens, the first teaching in Luke is directly about work, although it comes from John the Baptist rather than Jesus. John exhorts his audience to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) lest they face judgment. When they ask specifically, “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14), John gives economic, not religious, responses. First, he tells those who have an abundance of possessions (two tunics or ample food) to share with those who have nothing (Luke 3:10). He then gives instructions to tax collectors and soldiers, relating directly to their work. Tax collectors should collect only what they are required to, rather than padding the tax bill and pocketing the difference. Soldiers should not use their power to extort money and accuse people falsely. They should be content with their pay (Luke 3:13-14).
When John tells the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3:13), he was speaking radical words to a profession marked by entrenched, systemic injustice. Taxes throughout Palestine were gathered through a system of “tax farming” in which governors and other high-level officials outsourced the right to collect taxes in their jurisdictions. In order to win a contract, a prospective tax collector would have to agree to give the official a certain amount over and above the actual Roman tax. Likewise, the tax collectors’ own profits were the amounts they charged over and above what they passed up to the governmental officials. Since the people had no way to know what the actual Roman tax was, they had to pay whatever the tax collector assessed them. It would have been hard to resist the temptation for self-enrichment, and almost impossible to win bids without offering fat profits to the governmental officials.
Notice that John does not offer them the option to stop being tax collectors. The situation is similar for those Luke calls “soldiers.” These are probably not disciplined Roman soldiers but employees of Herod, who at that time ruled Galilee as a client king for Rome. Herod’s soldiers could (and did) use their authority to intimidate, extort, and secure self-gain. John’s instruction to these workers is to bring justice to a system deeply marked by injustice. We should not underestimate how difficult that would have been. Holding citizenship in God’s kingdom while living under the rule of kings of the fallen world can be dangerous and difficult.
John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 150, “Tax collectors had to work in a social context whose very structures were defined by graft and corruption. The honest tax collector would face problems akin to those faced today by a businessman seeking to operate without graft in relation to the bureaucracies of certain countries.” Robert H. Stein, Luke (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 134, “The soldiers probably were not Romans but Jews whom Herod Antipas employed (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.1 [18.113]) perhaps to assist tax collectors in their duties. Soldiers were…not required to resign [by Jesus] but to avoid the sins of their professions, i.e., violent intimidation (‘extort’), robbing by false accusation, and dissatisfaction with wages (or perhaps ‘rations’).”
Just before Jesus begins his work as king, Satan tempts him to abandon his allegiance to God. Jesus goes to the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days (Luke 4:2). Then he faces the same temptations the people of Israel faced in the wilderness of Sinai. (The answers Jesus gives to Satan are all quotes from Deuteronomy 6-8, which tells the story of Israel in the wilderness.) First, he is tempted to trust in his own power to satisfy his needs, rather than trusting in God’s provision (Luke 4:1-3; Deuteronomy 8:3, 17-20). “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3). Second, he is tempted to switch his allegiance to someone (Satan) who flatters him with shortcuts to power and glory (Luke 4:5-8; Deuteronomy 6:13; 7:1-26). “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Third, he is tempted to question whether God really is with him, and therefore to try forcing God’s hand in desperation (Luke 4:9-12; Deuteronomy 6:16-25). “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (the temple). Unlike Israel, Jesus resists these temptations by relying on God’s word. He is the man that the people of Israel — like Adam and Eve before them — were meant to be, but never were.
As parallels to the temptations of Israel in Deuteronomy 6-8, these temptations are not unique to Jesus. He experiences them much as we all do. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Like Israel, and like Jesus, we can expect to be tempted as well, in work as in all of life.
The temptation to work solely to meet our own needs is very high at work. Work is intended to meet our needs (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but not only to meet our needs. Our work is meant to serve others also. Unlike Jesus, we do not have the option of self-service by means of miracles. But we can be tempted to work just enough for the paycheck, to quit when things get difficult, to shirk our share of the load, or to ignore the burden our poor work habits force others to carry. The temptation to take shortcuts is also high at work.
The temptation to question God’s presence and power in our work may be the greatest of these temptations. Jesus was tempted to test God by forcing his hand. We do the same thing when we become lazy or foolish and expect God to take care of us. Occasionally this happens when someone decides God has called him or her to some profession or position, and then sits around waiting for God to make it happen. But we are probably more likely to be tempted by giving up on God’s presence and power in our work. We may think our work means nothing to God, or that God only cares about our church life, or that we cannot pray for God’s help for the day-to-day activities of work. Jesus expected God to participate in his work every day, but he did not demand that God do the work for him.
The entire episode begins with God’s Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness to fast for forty days. Then, as now, fasting and going on a retreat was a way to draw close to God before embarking on a major life change. Jesus was about to begin his work as king, and he wanted to receive God’s power, wisdom, and presence before he started. This was successful. When Satan tempted Jesus, he had spent forty days in God’s spirit. He was fully prepared to resist. Yet, his fast also made the temptation more visceral. “He was famished” (Luke 4:2). Temptation often comes upon us far sooner than we expect, even at the beginning of our working lives. We may be tempted to enroll in a get-rich-quick scheme, instead of starting at the bottom of the ladder in a genuinely productive profession. We may come to face to face with our own weaknesses for the first time, and be tempted to compensate by cheating or bullying or deception. We may think we can’t get the job we want with the skills we have, so we are tempted to misrepresent ourselves or fabricate qualifications. We may take a lucrative but unfulfilling position “just for a few years, until I’m settled,” in the fantasy that we will later do something more in line with our calling.
Preparation is the key to victory over temptation. Temptations usually come without warning. You may be ordered to submit a false report. You may be offered confidential information today that will be public knowledge tomorrow. An unlocked door may offer a sudden opportunity to take something that isn’t yours. The pressure to join in gossiping about a co-worker may arise suddenly during lunch break. The best preparation is to imagine possible scenarios in advance and, in prayer, plan how to respond to them, perhaps even write them down along with the responses you commit to God. Another protection is to have a group of people who know you intimately, whom you can call on short notice to discuss your temptation. If you can let them know before you act, they may help you through the temptation. Jesus, being in communion with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, faced his temptations with the support of his peer community — if we may so describe the Trinity.
Our temptations are not identical to Jesus’, even if they have broad similarities. We all have our own temptations, large and small, depending on who we are, our circumstances, and the nature of our work. None of us is the Son of God, yet how we respond to temptation has life-changing consequences. Imagine the consequences if Jesus had turned aside from his calling as God’s king and had spent his life creating luxuries for himself, or doing the bidding of the master of evil, or lying around waiting for the Father to do his work for him.