Poverty and Work

“You shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; happy shall you be and favored” (Ps 128:2). “The poor shall eat their fill” (Ps 22:27). Work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself. 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 that distinguishes man from the rest of creatures. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth (cf. John Paul II.: Laborem exercens).

In May, we honor St. Joseph, the Worker. With this liturgical memorial the Church emphasizes both the dignity of St. Joseph and the dignity of labor as personified of St. Joseph (cf. Chorpenning, J.F.: Just Man, Husband of Mary, Guardian of Christ, p. 157). According to the custom of the time, every Israelite was to work to earn a living. We know that Jesus Christ was a carpenter, Sts. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen, and St. Paul was a tent maker. Psalm 128 expresses it aptly: you shall eat of the labor of your hands. Overall, this psalm expresses the family life of the Israelites. According to the patriarchal model of the family, the center and head of the family was a pious and just man; thus St. Matthew describes St. Joseph. An Israelite man, happy with his way of life, worked to support his family. His wife stood by his side, and full of the joy of life, she was a blessing to her husband. The source of a blessed life was and is God, who is the only real source of life and blessing. Work was and is a means to obtain God’s blessings.

We know from the Gospels that Joseph was carpenter. Today, under the word carpenter, we would imagine a man working with wood. Joseph, however, while working, used not only wood but also iron and stones. Pope John Paul II says that work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth. Joseph was a carpenter. This simple word sums up Joseph’s entire life. Jesus, obedient to His “parents”, shared in the work of Joseph. Having learned the work of His presumed father, He was known as “the carpenter’s son.” Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness. Human work, and especially manual labor, receive special prominence in the Gospel. Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption (cf. John Paul II: Redemptoris custos, 22).