Pastoral Perspectives

Essentially Valuable And Equally Valued

Recently, The Sunday Times commissioned an online survey to find out how people’s perceptions of essential workers have changed, if at all, against the backdrop of Covid-19, and whether they would be willing to pay these workers more. Amongst the questions that were posed to the respondents was “Which are the jobs that they consider to be most crucial in keeping Singapore going?”. From a nationally representative sampling across age, gender and income groups that involved more than 1000 Singaporeans, the papers reported that more than 75% of the respondents ranked being a doctor/nurse, cleaner, garbage collector and hawker as the topmost essential jobs (The Sunday Times, 14 June 2020).

While it not surprising that being a doctor or a nurse is rated as the top essential job, some were considerably dismayed that 71% of the respondents ranked an artist as the topmost non-essential job. Although it is uncertain how the survey defined ‘artist’, the findings of this survey created quite a stir amongst the local artists in our country.

After all, if you are a musician, photographer or if you see your work as involving some form of artistic expression, it is quite understandable to be rankled when others think lesser of your occupation and passion. Furthermore, when one often has to justify his or her rates to tight-fisted clients or demanding audiences on a regular basis even before this pandemic, it will sting even more to discover that fellow Singaporeans appear to be blind towards your contributions to society. And to rub salt to the wound, many artists are already in a tight spot themselves, with gigs being cancelled and work offers drying up ever since the circuit breaker measures were implemented.

If there is any comfort to the artists, it is that even though their jobs may be deemed as “non-essential” by many, it does not mean that people have a negative opinion about what artists are doing. In the same survey, only 29% of the respondents indicated that they do not want to be artists in comparison to 57% who will shun being a rubbish collector and 24% who do not want to be nurses.

This suggests that the social bias towards certain occupations have not changed significantly. As much as people may have grown in their appreciation of some of those jobs considered essential, few are prepared to take them up unless they have no other choices. The reality is that it is one thing to consider a job as essential, it is quite a different matter for people to seek after such jobs or consider them as attractive.

Without going into further discussion whether there are better words to use to categorise the different jobs, it is suffice to say that comparisons are inevitable when it comes to occupations. Christians are also unwittingly caught up in it judging from how parents tend to “advise” their children to study certain courses over another. For that matter, even Christian conferences prefer phrases like “servant-leaders” instead of just “servants” in their publicity videos.

In the Gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus’ disciples had a heated debate about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). Perhaps out of pride or insecurity, they were trying to justify before one another whose “job” deserves the most recognition or which individual will be worthy of the highest accolades. They were possibly dreaming about the status, honour and power that they would enjoy since they expected Jesus to emerge triumphant against Israel’s enemies.

However, when you consider the context of their dispute, it does make their argument look rather silly. This is because it was not that long ago that the disciples would have beheld Jesus’ glory at his transfiguration and heard God the Father voicing his authoritative stamp of approval upon Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus had displayed his power by delivering a boy from an unclean spirit which the disciples themselves were unable to cast out. All these hints of Jesus’ unique divine identity should have driven the disciples to their knees when they were in Jesus’ presence instead of being caught up with petty one-upmanship.

Surprisingly, Jesus does not rebuke his disciples on this occasion. Neither does he dismiss greatness as something that should not be desired. Instead, Jesus patiently instructs them and realigns their understanding of what true greatness is all about. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ definition of greatness turns much of the first-century debate on its head for according to him, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (v.35).

One should note that the phrase Jesus uses is “servant of all”. Here, Jesus is saying that greatness lies in one’s willingness to be of service unto all, regardless of the latter’s status. In a culture of patronage, the disciples are not to be mistaken into thinking that they should only serve the well-heeled to receive some lucrative reward or that they will gain fame when their service impresses an influential person.

To drive home his point, Jesus called a child to himself and said that “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark9:37). In receiving children, Jesus was implying that true greatness is found in serving and caring for those who are unable to reciprocate, those whom the world accords little status, such as a young child. Indeed, to be true followers of Christ, the disciples must not to think of themselves as above any task, or for that matter above any person whom society deems as lowly or “non-essential”.

What makes Jesus’ teaching even more radical is that Jesus himself identifies with the social standing of a young child. As much as society at that time have little regards for a young child, the child is inherently valuable since he or she is a bearer of God’s image. Thus, whenever one affirms the inherent value of a child, he should also be able to recognise the true worthiness of Jesus. This in turn will place him in right relationship with God.

In a world where people end up idolising those with well-paying jobs or impressive achievements or belittling those doing menial jobs or having lower education, Christians must learn to regard everyone as equally valuable. Indeed, we are to walk humbly before God and fellow man who are made in God’s image. After all, our true value is assigned by God and not dependent upon our job scope, salary or social status. It is because of what Christ has accomplished that we are made valuable. Indeed, anything less would be a terrible affront to the greatest Artist the world has ever known.

Rev Edwin Wong

June 21, 2020