Thou do cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Psalm 104 is known by bible scholars to be a hymn written in praise of a God who provides us with everything we need to live. The world God created is a reflection of His wisdom and power and His works sustain all creatures great and small – in ways simultaneously obvious, miraculous, and mysterious.
In our passage for today, the sacred author makes clear that God’s gifts are intended, not only to sustain our bodies, but to gladden our hearts and strengthen us in our efforts to engage faithfully in the tasks of human living. This brief excerpt from Scripture reveals the undeniable fact that, in spite of the fall, the God who created us really does intend for us to be happy. But we are also to grasp that this happiness is arrived at through our labor – the work we must do in order to receive what has been given and then “bring forth” what we need for ourselves and our families.
In our culture, work can often be seen as a burden, perhaps one we bear as a result of the fall. But St. John Paul II teaches us that, on the contrary, since the call to work comes before the fall with the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” at Genesis 1:28, work should be understood to be a “fundamental dimension of human existence.” The Holy Father points out that we are called to it while still in the state of “original innocence” – and thus it is an essential human act, one that invites the person to engage continuously in an on-going movement of self-transcendence. In fact, he even argues that work occupies a place in the salvation process!
Our work matters, both in the home and in the public domain, because through it, we develop into the person we were meant to become. Whether it is making a bed or a meal, diapering a baby or wiping a snotty nose – or serving in some sort of “professional” capacity in the workplace, work forms us and, as John Paul says, the value of work is found, not in its objective result, but in the fact that the one doing it is a person.
As parents, we know this instinctively. I remember when my daughter Madeline was just at the point where she could start to help a little around the house. She seemed confused at first when I asked her to empty the knife and fork tray from the dishwasher. But I knew she simply had to do it. Why do I make her clean her room, even though I have to restrain myself from jumping in to get it done? Why do we insist that our children take on tasks, clean their rooms, help with family chores? After all, we could probably do the job in half the time.
Because we know that if our children never learn to work, to value it – and even to enjoy it – they will never be happy.
Psalm 104 reveals this connection in beautifully lyrical language – God’s gifts are ours to use both as a means for sustaining our bodies, but also to gladden our hearts. The glass of wine we might be free to enjoy at the end of the day has a much sweeter taste when we are able to reflect on our work and see that “it is good.”
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