Reflection: A Special Calling
by John Barnet, PhD Assistant Professor of New Testament - St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
Does God call us for a special purpose? If by “special purpose” we mean marriage, a particular job, even a calling to ministry, then the answer is “no.” As the abbot once remarked, “God doesn’t care.” God doesn’t care because all vocations, as the Apostle Paul would have said, are “lawful” (cf. 1 Cor 10:23). God doesn’t care because all vocations, in a sense, have been blessed.11 The point here is not to suggest that exploitative, demeaning, harmful “vocations,” such as prostitution, drug-dealing, and so on, are blessed. Clearly, they are not. Rather, my provocative assertion is intended to challenge the thinking that there exists only a handful of “good” occupations suitable for life in Christ. The real challenge facing Christians, as I argue below, is how can we make our expression of a particular profession “good.”
The word of the kingdom is preached indiscriminately to show not only that good and bad alike are invited to enter the kingdom (cf. Mt 22:10) but also that the kingdom is offered to rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, in other words, to all human beings of every social status and occupation (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 3:11), essentially sanctioning these social roles and occupations. In his letter to the Ephesians, for example, Paul instructs the various members of the household to pattern their lives after Christ’s obedience and sacrificial love (Eph 5:21–6:9). It is noteworthy that Paul does not question the legitimacy of slavery, which at the time was not only the dominant social and economic institution of the Roman Empire but also arguably the most oppressive. Masters are not asked to release their slaves; slaves are not encouraged to seek their freedom. Rather, Paul reminds both masters and slaves that their relationship is to be informed by the example of Christ:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Eph 6:5–9)
Paul’s instructions have the effect of transforming slavery into a positive metaphor of life in Christ, challenging his readers to view an institution of oppression and exploitation as an opportunity for Christian witness.22 On the use of slavery as soteriological symbol, see Dale B. Martin, Slavery As Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). While modern readers are often dismayed that Paul did not apparently take a stand against slavery, the point here is not to condone a social injustice.33 On the other hand, in his letter to Philemon, Paul does ask the master to accept his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother and no longer as a slave (Philem 10–20). Would the writers of the New Testament have been opposed to the eradication of slavery? Not likely. See Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), who shows how the New Testament can be used as a guide for contemporary ethics. Rather, the aim is to argue that the overriding intention of Paul is to articulate the possibility of Christian witness in every stratum of society. More often than not, we today are faced with a choice of vocations rather than being forced into an occupation not of our choosing. Nevertheless, the possibility of witness is the same in both situations. From this perspective one can say that all vocations—marriage, monasticism, investment banking, carpentry, teaching, medicine, military service, ordination, professional sports, itinerant preaching—are indeed “lawful,” since all vocations have the possibility of being transformed into a positive image of life in Christ.
While it is true that all vocations are “lawful,” it is also true that not all vocations are “helpful.” All vocations are “lawful,” but some vocations—those ostensibly at odds with a biblical ethos—prove more difficult than others to transform into an image of life in Christ. The rich man in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, is unable to enter God’s kingdom, despite faithfully observing all the commandments (Mt 19:16–22). Because he is unwilling to exchange his great possessions for a heavenly treasure, “he becomes a sign of how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom, much to the astonishment of the disciples, who apparently hold the view that property is a sign of God's favor: ‘Who then can be saved’ (Mt 19.25)? And like the rich man, many of us also turn away from this invitation [to sell what we have, give to the poor, and follow Christ], whether our possessions are many or few, before we understand the meaning of Jesus’ words: ‘With men this [salvation] is impossible, but with God all things are possible’ (Mt 19.26).”44 John Barnet, “Stewardship and the New Testament” in Good and Faithful Servant: Stewardship in the Orthodox Tradition, edited by Anthony Scott (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 49
All vocations are “lawful,” but some vocations prove unfruitful because we forget that they too must be animated each day by the spirit of Christian charity. In this regard it is important to recognize that the vocations that seem to match well with the life of service envisioned by the Bible, such as ministry, medicine, teaching, and so on, can be the ones we most forget need to be illuminated by this Christian charity.
In his letter to the
Corinthians, Paul upholds the believers in Corinth who have correctly
grasped the concept of Christian liberty, in this case, their right to
eat meat offered in sacrifice to idols. Nevertheless, he also
admonishes them for failing to understand that their newfound liberty
in Christ is intended only for the purpose of building up of the
community: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek
his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor 10:23–24). To seek
one’s own good at the expense of the neighbor, especially if it causes
the neighbor to stumble, is to sin against Christ, as Paul warns the
Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 8:12).
To seek one’s own good at the expense of the neighbor is to act from a divided heart, the condition of anxious believers, who make the word of the kingdom unfruitful and thus are condemned on the day of judgment (cf. Mt 7:21–23). To seek the neighbor’s good, on the other hand, to build up the neighbor even at the expense of one’s own freedom in Christ, is to actualize the saving pattern of Jesus’ kenosis, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phi 2:5–8). To seek the neighbor’s good at one’s own expense, in other words, is to have the mind of Christ, a sign that the word of the kingdom has indeed been fruitful.
All vocations, therefore, are “lawful,” but only insofar as they are used to build up the community of believers. All vocations are “lawful,” but only those that seek the neighbor’s good are “helpful.”
Does God call us for a special purpose? If by “special purpose,” on the other hand, we mean a life of witness that informs all vocations, then the answer is “yes.” Indeed, we Christians have only one true vocation—to witness to the salvation that God has accomplished in us. This vocation is strikingly depicted in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21–35), who is released by the king from the impossible debt of 10,000 talents for no reason other than that he pleads for mercy. Subsequently, the servant is expected to witness to his “salvation” by showing the same mercy to others. When he refuses to forgive a fellow servant the insignificant sum of 100 denarii, however, his forgiveness is withdrawn and the servant is cast into prison. The lesson of the parable is clear: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus likens the witness of salvation to a light that shines before others: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16). To perform good works openly before others, however, risks bringing praise to oneself rather than the glory to God. Indeed, the good works of the hypocrites are rejected by God because their intention is to secure the praise of others (Mt 6:1–5), the condition of a divided heart. The light of salvation, on the other hand, is none other than the word of the kingdom, which not only sustains the afflicted messenger of the gospel but also ascribes the messenger’s works to the power of God:
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor 4:5–11)
This is an excerpt from an article entitled, “Seek First His Kingdom: An Invitation To Christian Vocation.”
The complete article is included in the forthcoming book Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Vocation Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides, Editor Holy Cross Press A collection of theological essays on vocation from the Office of Vocation and Ministry of Hellenic College Visit www.vocations.hchc.edu.