This is the fourth part of a series on myths about work. If you missed the first parts, please see part 1, part 2 and part 3.
Some of the lies we believe in any area of life are held consciously, while others sneak in through the back door. We absorb the latter from the glances and body language of those around us, the jokes we laugh at, the tropes that dominate TV. Often, if we were directly asked if we believe these lies, we would recoil in horror. But they lurk behind our attitudes, priorities and actions. The myth I want to discuss today is one of those sneaky lies that many people hold without knowing it. It is the myth that inferior work is for inferior people.
Many people judge the worth of others based on the kind of work they do. They automatically think of business owners, doctors and lawyers more highly than they think of truck drivers, fast-food workers or garbage collectors. The probably wouldn’t say these people are inferior, but the way they think of them and treat them shows that kind of condescending attitude. Sometimes, this manifests itself as arrogance about one’s own job. In different circumstances it could be the refusal to accept a steady but unglamorous position like flipping hamburgers because you feel it is beneath you.
Like the other myths I have discussed, I see this one reflected in the Babylonian creation myth. The story says that the gods created humans to do work, because work is beneath them. Clearly, the gods are superior to humans, so if the gods can pass work off to inferior beings, humans can do the same. This was a justification for slavery in many ancient cultures; those who were born into noble families were expected to cultivate their minds and leave menial, physical labor to lesser people.
The Bible, however, leaves no room for such a distinction. It presents all human beings as descended from one set of parents, which means that we are all equal in terms of our heritage. Moreover, the thing that gives us value, the image of God in us, is shared equally among all people. It is who we are, and nothing we do can change that. Seeing someone as less valuable because of their career is essentially saying that their work is a more important part of who they are than God’s image is. It makes one’s career more important than God.
The Bible never allowed people to view manual labor as inferior. In fact, it encouraged manual labor, and any other kind of honest work: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Paul, who wrote that verse, set an example of that himself. Although he was a teacher, and thus could be expected to gain an income through his teaching, he chose to make tents to earn money, rather than let people think he was preaching for selfish reasons.
Jesus goes a step further. He doesn’t merely that manual laborers are as dignified as intellectuals. He actually says that serving others, even doing the lowliest tasks like washing feet, is the way to greatness. The greatest person in the kingdom of Heaven the one who serves others.
I have found in myself a tendency to succumb to this lie and to believe that people who do certain jobs are less intelligent than myself. I believe the key to combating it is recognizing it for what it is. Since this is a myth that hides in the unconscious recesses of our minds, we must bring it out to destroy it.
We must also make sure we behave with respect and dignity toward people, no matter what their position is. Everyone, including waiters, bus drivers, janitors, and the tech support people at the company that produced your stupid, malfunctioning computer, is made in the image of God. The way you treat them reflects your attitude toward Him.
Update: See part 5.
Update: See part 5.