Apology For The Hireling: A Work Ethic For the Global Marketplace

by Dennis P. McCann

Dennis P. McCann coedited On Moral Business (Eerdmans).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 17, 1995, pp. 542 – 545. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


In embarrassment the churches have lapsed into silence about the Protestant work ethic.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, which points our attention to John 10, my attention is usually focused on the Shepherd himself, occasionally and less piously so on the sheep and their implications for a theology of the laity. Recently, however, I was forced to consider the hireling who, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away.

Perhaps it was the new translation that caught my attention, for the explanation of the hireling's irresponsible behavior is not the customary "because he is a hireling," but the more informative and provocative "because he works for wages" (10:13). Were there any families in the parish, I wondered, whose living didn't depend on wages and salaries? Were we, wage earners and salaried employees, really any different from the hireling?

In the sermon the pastor quickly picked up on the Gospel's view of the hireling, contrasting the things we do for money with what we do for love. An edifying point, no doubt, and always timely. But on this occasion it came across as yet another sign of the clergy's inability to imagine -- let alone speak a word of comfort and challenge to -- what most Christians do from one Sunday to the next. On most days most of us are cast in the role of hirelings. We work for pay; exploiting various dimensions of our creativity and struggling to achieve the self-discipline necessary for effective interaction within an organization. Such efforts may be rewarded with personal and corporate success. They can also bring no end of frustration, as well as the temptations.

The suspicion grows that the clergy's ambivalence, if not indifference, to what we do for a living stems less from evangelical zeal than from the unacknowledged sway of aristocratic values, canonized by the classical philosophers. Aristotle, for example, was sympathetic to the landed aristocracy -- who appropriate for themselves the lion's share of nature's bounty -- and hostile to merchants, who earn a living by exploiting the "unnatural" fecundity of money in the marketplace. Such aristocratic biases may do more to illuminate the disparagement of the hireling in John's Gospel than any sayings that can be linked to Jesus of Nazareth. For if it is hard to imagine the historical Jesus referring to himself as the Good Shepherd, it is just as difficult to think of him puffing down the hireling, who -- as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has reminded us -- is the sort of destitute person destined to inherit the kingdom of God

The first obstacle to constructing a theology of paid employment is thus the tacit assumptions governing Christianity's traditional teachings regarding business and economics. If your pastor, like mine, seems indifferent to what you do for a living, he or she stands in good company. A number of Christian theologians and ethicists have mistaken the Bible's understandable agnosticism about modern economics for some sort of countercultural radicalism.

When was the last time you heard about the Protestant work ethic in church? Its theological affirmation of our worldly vocations these days tends to get dismissed as "old hat." Measured by the churches' utopian aspirations for global justice, the work ethic is regarded as more a part of the problem than part of the solution. The message seems clear: We have enriched ourselves by impoverishing the poor. The Protestant work ethic thus is but the most pernicious expression of the Western will toward economic domination.

The only way to counter such attitude is to draw a sharper and more accurate contrast between the economic logic of our own world and that of Jesus' day. A good place to start is by understanding, as Crossan does, Jesus' world as an agrarian or peasant society in contrast to our modem industrial society. The peasant economy presupposed in the teachings of Jesus is not a capitalist economy. Judged by modem standards, it is no economy at all.

In the peasant economy, market transactions or, if you will, economic relations are socially imbedded. By contrast, the economy of modem Western capitalism seems to function autonomously. In textbook treatments of capitalism, the perennial questions -- what to produce, how much to produce and how to produce it -- are decided in markets, regulated or unregulated, where the cumulative decisions of countless buyers and sellers, seeking an agreement on prices, determine the answers. In a peasant society these same questions come down to one, ultimately political, question: how to allocate the harvest. The answer may be reflected in the marketplace, but it is determined by one's place in the status hierarchy -- by one's social relationship to one of the patronal households.

Working for wages, in short, is the exception in a peasant society; with us, it is the rule. In the world that Jesus knew, day laborers worked for wages because, for whatever reason, they had lost their access to the patronage system that gave them a share in the harvest. A hireling worked for wages because all other means of obtaining subsistence had been denied him.

If a theology of work or paid employment cannot be directly inferred from Jesus' casual observations on the economy of a peasant society, where can we turn for assistance? The fashionably despised Protestant work ethic may still be useful. It rests upon that new and revolutionary vision that became part of our common Christian inheritance through the Reformation. The Protestant work ethic -- now more honored, ironically enough, in Catholic social teaching than it is among mainline Protestants -- developed Luther's liberating insight into the universal significance of Christian vocation within a Calvinist reading of the biblical tradition of covenant. It was encoded in an expansive and this-worldly notion of stewardship that, as Max Weber demonstrated, was indispensable to the development of modem Western capitalism.

As Weber predicted, the very success of the Protestant work ethic triggered the disruptive processes of modernization, which seem to have locked some groups into poverty while substantially improving the quality of life for many others. While the world did not have to become Protestant to gain access to the global marketplace that Western capitalism created, local cultures were placed under extreme pressure and forced to adapt themselves according to the relentless logic of comparative 'advantage. Some cultures have demonstrated a greater aptitude for this than others. American Catholicism, for example, may have developed a superior capacity for corporate success -- both in business and in other large-scale organizations -- by adapting the church's premodern and patriarchal ethic of solidarity to the disciplines of modern industrialization; but the Catholicism so created is hardly the same as that which the immigrants left behind, along with much of the rest of Europe's agrarian past. There is continuity, of course; but it has been achieved at the expense of inherited cultural identities. American Catholics, as well as Protestants, may now work for wages; but they have long since ceased being hirelings in a biblical sense

In embarrassment the churches have lapsed into silence about the Protestant work ethic. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Among other things, it has hidden from the laity the only theological perspective from which they can make sense of what they do from 9 to 5.

But any theological rehabilitation of the work ethic must acknowledge the new global context of paid employment. Good, steady jobs can no longer be taken for granted. Polls show that better than 40 percent of the labor force are seriously worried about the threat of unemployment. How can any sort of motivation to work -- religious, moral or otherwise -- be sustained at this level of anxiety? Can employee loyalty be anything more than a cruel hoax, if the "good corporation" is dead? Given the unraveling or downsizing of corporations -- what's happening to IBM and GM are typical recent examples -- we need to articulate a new approach to work in which we employees accept some responsibility for our own employability or professional development. The Protestant work ethic may be the most effective way to promote a renewed sense of responsibility, because it emphasizes the inner resources of faith rather than any external incentives that our employers may offer.

Before rejecting this idea as simply another example of "blaming the victim," think a moment about what it may mean concretely. Among the positive effects of global economic competition is a chastened realism about the relation between wage increases and increased productivity, and the relation between increased productivity and continuous learning. There is no way for an employee to be rewarded, let alone promoted, unless he or she is actively enhancing the firm's capacity to respond to the changing demands of the marketplace. And because intelligent response to a changing environment is the essential prerequisite for business success, management theory is now turning to the model of the firm as a learning organization.

Granted, the compensation that an employee's contribution justly deserves may still be paid out gradually through some kind of calculus weighted in favor of seniority or length of service; nevertheless, any just claim to such compensation must be based on performance, and it can be forfeited for lack of performance. No employer can run a successful business today on the assumption that the hirelings are likely to abandon their assigned tasks whenever the going gets tough; and no employees can expect to be rewarded for acting like hirelings. Conversely, employees are not likely to become fully productive, so long as their employer continues to treat them merely as hirelings.

The painful truth is that global economic competition is likely to require employers to demand more, unprecedentedly more, from their employees, and vice-versa. A sense of initiative, a willingness to be flexible and help the overall effort succeed, is absolutely necessary. Gone are the days when simply sticking to the letter of one's job description will suffice. Learning how to anticipate the needs of one's co-workers and customers or clients and to meet those needs as they emerge is critically important. Employers and employees must learn to collaborate on a new basis, beyond the usual mix of adversarialism and paternalism. We must be willing to build new working relationships of genuine reciprocity. Paid employment will have to become mutually beneficial or it will not be sustained.

Such a new covenant will require a high level of trust. For anyone who has experienced a change of work rules while the task is still under way, or had to say goodbye to a workmate who has just been fired or laid off, such trust may be very hard to come by. One will be tempted to resist efforts to negotiate a new covenant as simply an abrogation of the firm's previous commitments. While corporate re-engineering, with its attendant disruption of work routines and the lives especially of older (and hence more vulnerable) employees, may be necessary, employers must still accept their share of responsibility for an individual worker's employability. If continuous learning is the expectation, then giving employers access to opportunities for training and advancement to higher skill positions must be part of re-engineering. If reward is to be based on performance, the nature of employee compensation also needs to be re-examined to determine the appropriate mix of wages or salary, bonuses, provisions for employee stock ownership and severance packages. The reciprocity, in short, must extend to a mutually beneficial management of retirement, as well as layoffs, leaves of absence and other transitions. These become more central precisely because the virtual guarantee of lifetime employment can no longer honestly be given.

Talk of a new covenant in business, of course, can be just one more sign of the way in which religious symbols are easily coopted and emptied of meaning. The willingness to discuss such things in public does carry that risk. Nevertheless, the structural changes in the nature of paid employment now under way cry out for theological reflection. I'm suggesting that a retrieval of the Protestant work ethic might be fruitful. The churches that were the historic bearers of the work ethic should not allow their understandable commitment to the world's unfinished agenda for global economic justice blind them to its continued relevance.

Developing an adequate theology of work today means recognizing that we can no longer regard ourselves or be regarded as mere hirelings. But the hireling still has something very basic to teach us. The reason the hireling is destined for Jesus' kingdom is directly connected to the reason he is likely to abandon the sheep at the first sign of a predator. He is free to join a kingdom of nobodies (to recall Crossan's marvelously apt phrase) because he has no stake in the sheepfold. As comfortable as our previously paternalistic relationship with the firms that employ us may have been, it did carry with it a small risk of idolatry. We tend to identify economic security with God, and we will give the unconditioned loyalty that only God can justly demand to anyone or anything that will provide security.

The firms that employ us are no longer in a position to play God in our lives. May the anxieties that we are experiencing regarding our jobs and careers help purify our Christian commitment, and spur us to renewed theological inquiry about the nature of our Christian vocations.