What life experiences do you think would best prepare Jesus for his later public ministry, for his distinctive divine-human role as Messiah and Savior of the world? We might think being born into a priest’s family would provide an excellent heritage for the Messiah, which was the life situation for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer (Luke 1:5–17). Days could be devoted to studying Scripture, prayer and daily access to the temple precincts. Yet Jesus came into a layperson’s family, devoting the bulk of his young adult years to working at a “secular” job.
That seems surprising—particularly since in today’s culture, secular work is widely viewed as less, well, Christian than “full-time vocational ministry.” But as I’ve taken a deeper look at Jesus’ teachings and his own work experience prior to his public ministry, I’ve come to understand that business played a significant role in his life, and continues to play a vital role in God’s ongoing work today. As it turns out, secular work isn’t for second-class Christians after all.
How did business shape Jesus’s life? As was customary for boys in that day, Jesus was probably apprenticed alongside his father Joseph by age 12. Since Jesus began his public ministry about age 30-32 (Luke 3:23), he would have worked at a trade for 18-20 years. That’s six times as long as his three-year public ministry. His former neighbors recognized Jesus by his previous occupation: “Isn’t this the tektōn?” (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55). Tektōn has been rendered as “carpenter” since William Tyndale’s English Bible translation (1526). Yet scholar Ken Campbell suggests “builder” as a more accurate translation, writing, “In the context of first-century Israel, the tektōn was a general craftsman who worked with stone, wood, and sometimes metal in large and small building projects.”
For Jesus’ family to work in a trade indicates they were part of what we’d call the lower middle-income class of that day. Furthermore, tradition suggests that his father Joseph died a few years prior to Jesus entering public ministry. If that were the case, Jesus as the eldest son was the one primarily responsible to see family living expenses were met through his and his brothers’ work as day laborers (Matt. 13:55–56).
If Jesus spent much of his earlier years as a builder, I wondered if his work experience might show up in his teachings. Based on my review, 50 percent of Jesus’ parables are situated within a “business setting” (17 of 32). Did some aspects of these stories have a personal connection? The parable of the two builders and two houses (Matt. 7:24–27) concludes the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine young Jesus working with his father, digging a foundation for a house near the sea. Jesus asks, “Is this trench deep enough, dad?” Joseph replies, “Have you hit rock yet?” “No.” “Then keep on digging, son.” Regarding his teaching on the cost of discipleship, Jesus mentions one should have the funds at the start to complete a tower (Luke 14:28). Might Jesus have built a tower for a customer but was never paid?
These “business situated” parables offer a continuing reminder of Jesus’ hidden years that don’t get much attention. And consider that — unless there was an infusion of moral virtue when Jesus was a baby — we can infer that Jesus’ day job, where he interacted with people and the elements of nature, played a key role in his own character formation to become the kind of person the Gospels portray (cf. Luke 2:52, Heb. 5:8).
Does Jesus genuinely understand the business world as an insider? He probably worked alongside other artisans, completing projects and handling finances — negotiating bids, securing supplies and contributing to family living expenses. During his young adult years, Jesus worked with his hands in masonry and carpentry, in good and bad weather, getting paid and not getting paid. Jesus can identify with the ups and downs of a business workday. For a few years, he had responsibilities for day-to-day operations of running what we’d call a small “secular” business.
Let’s consider some implications from Jesus’ life regarding “secular” work. Our vocational callings range across a wide spectrum, usually classified today into three main working sectors: public (working for government), private not-for-profit (civic, moral and religious organizations that rely on donations for all or part of their operating budgets) and private for-profit (various small and large businesses in the marketplace). Table A provides estimates of the percentages of the 2010 U.S. total workforce. It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of Americans — and by inference, Christians — work in the business sector as Jesus did.
Table A: Three Sectors of the United States Total Workforce—2010 Data
109,094,000 in workforce
Total estimated workforce: 139 million (www.bls.gov/cps).
Note that Jesus affirmed each sector. He implicitly acknowledged the political government has a legitimate role, by paying taxes himself (Matt. 17:24 –27; see also 22:21) and by not requiring Zachaeus as a chief tax collector to change his profession (Luke 19:2–10). Regarding the private, not-for-profit sector, Jesus lived on the donations of others during his three years of public ministry (Luke 8:3, Mark 15:41, John 12:6). Finally, Jesus labored in the building trade for 18-20 years in what we’d call the for-profit sector. Since Jesus acknowledges the value of each of these three working sectors, can we affirm that Christians are able to seek God’s kingdom values and the common good through a good job within any sector?