What can people with disabilities teach us about faith, work, and economic wisdom? Why, when I began my role as pastor for a residential community of adults with intellectual disabilities, did a respected employee say to me about those same adults, “Our job is to be their students”? The short answer to both questions is that we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters with disabilities. The Brookwood Community where I serve provides jobs through its various funding streams, including its enterprises — its café, garden center, and retail store — and about 200 of those jobs are reserved for adults with intellectual disabilities. The organization is built on the value of work with frequently used cultural sayings like, “Every. One. Works.” and, “Work = worth.” What exactly do we mean by “Work = worth”? The precise relationship between work and worth is one of the areas people with disabilities can help the church as a whole think through more clearly. By their existence, friendship, joy, and love, they beg the question: Am I worth less if I produce or work less?
More broadly, how is our work related to our worth as human beings? I actually think the common answers to these questions would be something along the sympathetic lines of, “Of course you are not worth less if you produce less.” But I also think, in the back of our minds, there might be a little theological doubt about that stance. Further, I think in the reality of our lives and relationships, that stance is not always — and for many, not even usually — how we operate, especially in the workplace. We need a firmer grasp on our theology. To that end, I want to share two relevant, biblical truths that being friends with people with disabilities has helped me think through and understand more.
What defines our worth
First, our worth is not determined by our work or our value add to the economy. Again, this may be something we already believe or at least wish to believe. However, especially as we come to appreciate the intricate link between faith, work, and economic wisdom, we can slip into overestimating the importance of our work ethic or economic productivity to our faith lives and, by extension, to our worth. Thankfully, Jesus says something important about this. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. He says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who pays guys who work full-time, part-time, and barely-time the exact same. Of course, the full-time union workers are incensed. We out-worked and out-produced the others, they argue. How can you pay them the same as us? The landowner makes it simple: I am paying you the fair wage we agreed upon, and I can be generous to the others if I so desire.
This parable is told in response to Peter pointing out the disciples’ commitment to Jesus and their financial sacrifices in comparison to the rich young ruler and his refusal to give his wealth to the poor. Illustrating his point with the parable, Jesus makes clear that even hard work, economic productivity, and generosity on behalf of the kingdom do not determine one’s worth before God. We will be rewarded for our kingdom productivity a hundredfold, but, Jesus implies, so will the unproductive be rewarded. There is no distinction in worth based on our work or our economic contribution to this world or to God’s kingdom.
Value in God's eyes
The other foundational idea for understanding work and worth is that while our worth is not determined by our work or value add to the economy, our worth is determined by our relationship with God. Genesis 1:27 tells us that all humans have the inherent worth of being a creation of the God of the universe as well as a being made in God’s own image. However, due to the marring of that image through our sin and our resulting separation from God, more must be said about how relationship with God determines our worth. To do that, we look at how another creation text — Ephesians 2:8-10a — makes clear that our works (including our work!) do not gain us our worth before God; only Christ’s work does that. After emphasizing that, “It is by grace you have been saved...not by works so that no one can boast,” that nothing about our identity as Christ-followers is based on our own deeds, Paul declares, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” That is a statement of worth if I have ever seen one.
Our worth is found in the fact that we are not only created in God’s image but also re-created in Christ; we are the workmanship of God, and God only makes valuable products. Therefore, apart from work, every human, created by God and made in his image, is worth our respect and our sacrificial care, and, apart from work, all those saved by Christ are worthy of eternal life and glory. Worth is not even secondarily determined by our work or economic impact. These things are not in the same equation. This God-centered understanding of worth is constantly attacked by the marketplace’s logic and the workplace’s demands. But when we spend time with those who are not always free to be productive in the same way neurotypical adults are, questions are raised, assumptions are challenged, and we are able to think about work with fresh eyes. At least, this was my experience.
Work equals worth
It was also the experience of Henri Nouwen, the renowned priest-scholar of the late 20th century who intentionally lived and worked among adults with disabilities for many years. Nouwen was tasked with being the primary caretaker of a man named Adam who was non-verbal and unable to move on his own. Nouwen notes about this brother in Christ, “Adam was—very simply, quietly, and uniquely—there! He was a person, who by his very life announced the marvelous mystery of our God: I am precious, beloved, whole, and born of God.” Adam did not — could not — work (as we usually think of it), but his worth remained immense because he was a creation and a child of God. Of course, work and economic contribution are still vitally important for human flourishing. Christ refurbishes them and hands them to us renewed along with our grace-filled worth in him as a package deal. People with disabilities are no exception. My friends work and contribute economically — painting, planting, cultivating, waiting tables, and more. And by saying, “Work = worth,” we mean that having meaningful work and purpose equals a healthy sense of worth. But at bottom, worth is based solely in God and his works.