The God of Wooden Plows

The Splendor of the Ordinary

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Those of you who have seen The Passion of the Christ know that the film is difficult to watch because it reveals the horrific brutality of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. But the film does contain one humorous moment, which hints at the high value God places on work.

The scene shows Jesus at work as a carpenter, finishing a table. His mother comes over to examine it. Her opinion? The table is too high. Not to worry, Jesus responds; He’ll build tall chairs to go with it. Mary is not convinced. As she walks away, she mutters, “It’ll never catch on.”

The scene is a reminder that Jesus spent most of His life engaged in manual labor. Back in Galilee in the second century, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr said that during his lifetime it was still common to see farmers using plows made by the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth.

In his book, titled The Call, theologian Os Guinness reminds us that even the humblest work is important if it is done for God. “How intriguing,” Guinness writes, “to think of Jesus’ plow rather than His Cross—to wonder what it was that made His plows and yokes last and stand out.” Clearly, they must have been very well made if they were still in use in the second century.

Today, Christians typically exalt spiritual work above manual work. After all, what’s making a plow compared with preaching to multitudes, feeding the five thousand, or raising someone from the dead? But the very fact that Jesus did make plows—and made them well—suggests that any work can be done to the glory of God. Any work can be a genuine calling. A calling, Guinness writes, is anything we do “as a response to God’s summons and service.” When God calls us to some task—even if it’s something the world sees as lowly—that task is invested with what Guinness calls “the splendor of the ordinary.”

“Drudgery done for ourselves or for other human audiences will always be drudgery,” he writes, but “drudgery done for God is lifted and changed.”

Accepting drudgery is one of the ways we practice discipleship—learning to offer it up sacrificially to God. “We look for the big things to do—[but] Jesus took a towel and washed the disciples’ feet,” Guinness writes. “We like to speak and act out of the rare moments of inspiration—[but] He requires our obedience in the routine, the unseen, and the thankless.” We, His followers, must be willing to take on the humble and thankless tasks as well—and not become impatient with changing diapers, doing homework, or taking out the trash.

During the week leading up to Easter Sunday, we tend to focus on the sacrificial elements of the life of Christ—of His willingness to suffer and die on our behalf. But we should never forget that the second Person of the Triune Godhead spent much of His life laboring in a woodshop.

If you are frustrated in your job or think the work you have to do is beneath you, just remember that for a season the One who turned water into wine and raised the dead to life . . . also made wooden plows.

For Further Reading and Information

Os Guinness, The Call (Word Books, 1998).

Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (Free Press, 1996).

John Beckett, Loving Monday (InterVarsity, 2001).

Read the Dialogue of Justin, philosopher and martyr, with Trypho, a Jew.

Catherine C. Liddell, “Jesus the Carpenter.”

Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Timothy George, “ What Makes This Week Holy?Christianity Today, 5 April 2004.

Darrell Bock, “Peter Jennings Goes Back to the Bible,” Christianity Today, 2 April 2004.

Robert Louis Wilken, “The ABC of Holy Week,” Wall Street Journal, 2 April 2004.

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).

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