I grew up in a very blue collar family in western Pennsylvania. My father was a diesel mechanic and bus driver, my grandfather worked in the freight yard on the Pennsylvania railroad, my uncles and cousins worked deep in the coal mines. One of the things that always impressed me about all these men was their hands. When my grandpa would take my hand, for example, I could feel all those rough calluses from so many years spent handling couplings on train cars, and my dad always had grease under his fingernails. Their hands had plenty of scars and usually a band-aid or two, and usually smelled of that pumice hand cleaner they used every day before leaving work.
And it wasn’t just the men in the family who had rough hands. My mom’s hands were softer, but very strong from all the homemade bread she kneaded every week, and grandma’s hands always seemed to have a paring knife in them where she’d cut the fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden by slicing the blade toward her thumb, which never seemed to get cut.
Hands tell us a lot about a person and their work, and when I read this story about the calling of the first disciples, I can’t help but think about their hands.
Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen. Even today, commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the world (Just watch “Deadliest Catch”), and that was even more true in the first century. Simon and Andrew, just like James a John a little further down the beach, spent a great deal of their lives in small, patchwork wooden boats, braving the ferocious storms that could blow up on the Sea of Galilee, and hauling on rope nets with their bare hands. If you’ve ever worked a wet rope with your bare hands, you know that it can be painful. Imagine doing that every day from sunup to sundown and sometimes longer and then, when you get back to shore, having to mend those nets so they’ll be ready for the next day, too. It’s hard to image rougher working class hands than these men would have had.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote a description of the hands of a fisherman he encountered in Cuba: “His hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of the scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.”
Simon and Andrew were once again casting their nets into the sea, just off shore—their hands at work—when Jesus walked by. Jesus himself, though, was no stranger to hard work. At age 30, he had spent most of his life laboring alongside his father, who was a contractor.
We often understand him to have been a carpenter, though the Greek word used to describe the work of father and son is “tekton” or builder. Given the fact that stone is used almost exclusively for building in the region, even today, it’s quite likely that Jesus was a stonemason. His own hands would have reflected years of the effects of rough bruises, cuts, scars, and maybe some broken bones. He had now put aside his hammer and chisel, and came to the lakeshore to find some fellow workers for a new job.
“Follow me,” he says to the hard-working fishermen, “and I will make you fish for people.” As a working man himself, Jesus understands that these men have themselves been hammered and shaped by their profession. They were experts on the water, skilled at knowing where the fish were and strong on the lines when the catch was made. They would always be fishermen, Jesus seemed to understand, just like Jesus would always be a builder. Now, however, Jesus was about building a shaping a new project called the kingdom of God, and he was calling these men to leave their nets and cast different ones for an even more valuable catch.
“I will make you fish for people,” says Jesus. I will take what you know, I will take all that skill and knowledge and muscle memory, and I will teach you to use it to catch people for the kingdom. It was an invitation to a new vocation, but one grounded in their old one.
Matthew tells us that the Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, left their nets and followed him. Matthew would do it himself a little later, leaving behind his tax collector’s table and offering his own softer, financial industry hands to Jesus. He doesn’t say it, but I wonder if Jesus said something to him like, “I will teach you how to collect people as highly valued treasures of the kingdom.”
The hands of the disciples were thus put to a new work, but one that somehow reflected the old. Jesus redeems the work of their hands.
Indeed, Jesus would begin to teach them how to use their vocations and their experience in the service of people. Matthew tells us that Jesus went through Galilee, laying his working man hands on the sick, the broken, and the demon-possessed. Those rough hands conveyed a gentle touch that healed—a touch that was a sign that the kingdom he was talking about was a reality. His touch repaired people.
Jesus would teach these working class disciples to use their hands in the same way, sending them out with the same vocation he had. They would fish for, shape, value, heal, and lift up people for the rest of their lives. While they were no longer in the boat, they would never stop fishing. Jesus had taught them that their work had meaning, so long as it was done for people.
On this Labor Day Sunday, when we celebrate the meaning and value of work, Jesus calls each one of us, too. We are called to see our work not as a necessary evil, but as an opportunity. Unlike these first disciples, most of us are not being called to leave behind the office or the workshop. We are, however, being called to see our work in light of God’s kingdom. We work with, and worship with, the same hands, and it is with these hands that Jesus calls us to do whatever it is we do with a new sense of purpose—to use our hands in the service of people…to fold our hands in prayer for people…to hold out our hands as an invitation to people to know the Jesus whose touch heals and saves, and whose kingdom is forever.
A statistic I read once said that some 77% of Americans hate their jobs. There are a lot of reasons for this. Patrick Lencioni, in his book Three Signs of a Miserable Job, says that there are three main dysfunctions that cause job dissatisfaction: 1) a feeling of anonymity, as if no one cares if you’re there, 2) irrelevance, not knowing whether your job is actually important to someone, and 3) immeasurement, or an inability to gauge progress in the work. To put it another way, a miserable job is one where the hands seem to have no purpose.
But what if we saw our work, no matter what it is, as a way to use our hands for people? What if we saw each of our vocations not only as a job, but as a ministry—an opportunity to extend the hands of Jesus to customers and coworkers?
If you’re an accountant, for example, what would it mean to allow Jesus to make you account for people, showing them how their use of money can either hurt or help them?
If you’re a teacher, what would it mean for your to teach not only to people but for them as well, becoming a mentor for those who need it most?
If you’re a student, what would it mean to learn for people, learning about your peers and teachers and offering kind words and a helping hand when they are discouraged or being pushed aside by others?
If you’re a mechanic, your work is fixing things for people honestly and with high quality.
If you’re a computer programmer, you could be working systems for people, helping them to link to one another while you represent a link to the kingdom through your care and love.
If you’re a pilot, you could pilot people. If you’re a salesperson, you could be selling for people, offering them Christ through your integrity. If you’re a leader, you could be leading people to a life that matters.
Hey, even if you’re retired, you can use your experienced hands for people, offering them the touch and healing and service of the kingdom.
Whatever your profession—whether your hands are rough or soft, whether they hammer or type—Jesus can make you do it for people and for his kingdom. All we have to do is accept his invitation to follow, and when we do we discover that our lives and our work have meaning for an eternity.
I invite you now to take a long look at your hands. What have these hands done? How have they worked, how have they healed? How can they be used for the kingdom?