Monday, February 7, 2011

On Vocation—Jesus Was a Carpenter First

During this season of Epiphany we celebrate the manifestation of Christ on Earth, and in particular the visit of the foreign Magi with their three—mostly impractical—gifts to the infant Jesus. Also during this time, Eastern churches celebrate Jesus’ baptism. Both of these moments mark the manifestation, or “epiphany,” of the second person of the Trinity as a human being in Jesus Christ.

But together, these two moments also mark a significant gap in what the Gospels tell us about the life of Jesus. John and Mark both entirely leave out any mention of a young Jesus, beginning their narrative just prior to his adult baptism. Matthew describes King Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents” and the family’s flight to Egypt, but says nothing specifically about Jesus between the Magi and the River Jordan. Only Luke offers us any glimpse into the post-infant Jesus, relating how as a twelve-year-old he spent three days at a temple in in Jerusalem, listening and questioning the teachers, who were very impressed with his grasp of the material (Luke 2:41-50).

Also according to Luke, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23). That means that for thirty years of his life on Earth, the Word made flesh was doing something other than “his work,” or as the English Standard Version translates it, “his ministry.” So what the heck was he doing?

Mark 6:3 tells us that Jesus was a carpenter: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” (The Greek, “τέκτων,” can mean a craftsman of many different sorts, but whatever his craft, it doesn’t seem to have been, at that point, the saving of souls.) This explains the bumper sticker I saw the other day in a church parking lot, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” It doesn’t explain, though, why Jesus waited thirty years before beginning his ministry—his true vocation.

Last summer I conducted a number of interviews with political, business, and community leaders, asking them about the role faith played in their leadership and their lives. Many of the people I interviewed, and especially the people that seemed the most comfortable and the most “at home” in their jobs, hadn’t started out in their current profession. Instead, they pursued their first career on the basis of social pressure and a sense of what they felt they ought to do. In contrast, their second career fulfilled an inner spiritual obligation, and provided a sense of fulfillment missing from the first career—even though, in many cases, the sacrifices were far greater and the material rewards far smaller.

In my own life, I spent roughly ten years working in politics, mostly on campaigns. I found the work challenging and interesting—and it certainly paid well—but it sucked the soul right out of me. I ended up working as a hired gun for candidates I had little interest in and, occasionally, didn’t even think should win. Now, here at age 30, I find myself at divinity school, looking to find my own true vocation.

Ultimately, why Jesus waited until age 30 to begin his ministry may simply be one in a series of unanswerable questions. Of course, when compared with the many other great mysteries of God, this particular question seems somewhat insignificant. But as we consider our own lives, and the ways in we manifest our faith through how we live, it may help to remember that even our Lord didn’t get started right away.

If we find ourselves lost in a career that doesn’t fulfill us, one that doesn’t answer the voice of God calling us to be and do something more, we may still have time to answer that call. After all, even Jesus had a career before his calling.

Jeff Bridges worked for ten years in Democratic politics and is currently a graduate student at Harvard University's School of Divinity, where he also serves on the leadership team for Hope in Action Cambridge, a project of the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese. Check out his website at

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