Psalm 19

The idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. In the broadest sense, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC 2392). More specifically, in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, this idea of vocation is especially associated with a divine call to service to the Church and humanity through particular vocational life commitments such as marriage to a particular person, consecration as a religious, ordination to priestly ministry in the Church and even a holy life as a single person. In the broader sense, Christian vocation includes the use of one’s gifts in their profession, family life, church and civic commitments for the sake of the greater common good.

Define itself as distinct from the pagan world.

Doctrine of original sin

Influence of Greek philosophers.

A simple line of division:  the church, its ministers, even its property were holy, while everything else was not.  By the lat Middle Ages, there was the world and there was the church:  the two were completely different and always at odds.  You could literally step through a gate in a fence from a lane to a churchyard and enter “sacred space.”  Even within a church building, from the 6th Century onward, the chancel area around the altar was physically screened off from ordinary people.  This was formalized in canon law in 1215, when the 4th Lateran Council decreed that the area of the church used by the clergy was to be screened off from the area used by lay people, to protect the sacraments from irreverent access or abuse.

Use of the word “vocation” before the sixteenth century referred firstly to the “call” by God[2] to an individual, or calling of all humankind to salvation, particularly in the Vulgate, and more specifically to the “vocation” to the priesthood, or to the religious life, which is still the usual sense in Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism recognizes marriage, single life, religious, and ordained life as the four vocations.[3][not in citation given] Martin Luther,[4] followed by John Calvin, placed a particular emphasis on vocations, or divine callings, as potentially including most secular occupations, though this idea was by no means new.[5]

Vocations – other than explicitly religious ones – were part of the secular world, separate from faith and from God.  Daily work, family, friends – even nature – was viewed as “Earthly,” “fleshly,” even “carnal.”

One of the themes of the Reformation was a re-enchantment with life, in general.  Leaders like Luther and Calvin argued that God called people to every kind of vocation, not just religious ones.  In their thinking the cobbler was just as called as the cleric, and the boatswain no less spiritual than the bishop.  Luther wrote, “What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well pleasing to him.”

For instance, to take one of Luther’s examples, we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God give us our daily bread, which he does. He does so, not directly as when he gave manna to the Israelites, but through the work of farmers and bakers-and we might add truck drivers and retailers. In effect, the whole economic system is the means by which God gives us our daily bread. Each part of the economic food chain is a vocation, through which God works to distribute his gifts. Similarly, God heals the sick. While he can and sometimes does do so directly, in the normal course of things he works through doctors, nurses, and other medical experts. God protects us from evil, with the vocation of the police officer. God teaches through teachers, orders society through governments, proclaims the Gospel through pastors.

Luther pointed out that God could populate the earth by creating each new generation of babies from the dust. Instead, He ordained that human beings should come together to bring up children in families. The offices of husband, wife, and parent are vocations through which God works to rear and care for children. (1)

In other words, in his earthly kingdom, just as in his spiritual kingdom, God bestows his gifts through means. God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence. In this context, God is providentially at work caring for his people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations. Each thereby becomes what Luther terms a “mask of God”:


Luther actually uses two different words for what I have so far been collapsing under the general term vocation: “station” (Stand) and “calling” (Beruf). Non-Christians are given a station in life, a place where God has assigned them. Christians, though, are the ones who hear God’s voice in his Word, so they understand their station in terms of God’s personal “calling.”

hus, God is graciously at work, caring for the human race through the work of other human beings. Behind the care we have received from our parents, the education we received from our teachers, the benefits we receive from our spouse, our employers, and our government stands God himself, bestowing his blessings.

The picture is of a vast, complex society of human beings with different talents and abilities. Each serves the other; each is served by others. We Americans have an ideal of self-sufficiency and often dream of being able to grow our own food, build our own homes, and live independently of other people. But our proper human condition is dependence. Because of the centrality of love, we are to depend on other human beings and, ultimately and through them, on God. Conversely, other people are to depend on us. In God’s earthly kingdom, we are to receive his blessings from other people in their vocations.

The purpose of one’s vocation, whatever it might be, is serving others. It has to do with fulfilling Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor. Though justification has nothing to do with good works, vocation does involve good works.

How do we know our vocation? Strictly speaking, a vocation is not something we choose for ourselves; rather, it is given by God, who “calls” us to a particular work or station. Talents, skills, and inclinations are part of one’s calling. So are external circumstances, which are understood as being providentially arranged by God. Since vocation is not self-chosen, it can be known, too, through the actions of others. Getting offered a job, being elected to an office, finding someone who wants to marry you are all clues to vocation.

Essentially, one’s vocation is to be found in the place one occupies in the present. A person stuck in a dead-end job may have higher ambitions, but for the moment, that job, however humble, is one’s vocation. Flipping hamburgers, cleaning hotel rooms, emptying bedpans all have dignity as vocations, spheres of expressing love of neighbor through selfless service, in which God is masked. Perhaps later, another vocation will present itself. But vocation is to be found not simply in future career decisions, but in the here and now. Nor can one use the excuse of “not having a vocation for marriage” for getting a divorce, or claim “not having a vocation for parenthood” as a way to dump child-raising responsibilities. If you are married, that’s your vocation. If you have children, they are your vocation.

Vocations are also multiple. (8) Any given person has many vocations. A typical man might be, simultaneously, a husband (serving his wife), a father (serving his children), a son (serving his still-living parents), an employer (serving his workers), an employee (serving his bosses), a citizen (serving his country). Note how a person at a particular job can be both a “master,” charged with supervising subordinates, and, at the same time, a “servant,” answerable to superiors, whether a CEO or stockholders. Leadership and submission may both be called for, as the different vocations make their claims.

Different vocations have their own kinds of authority and spheres of action, and they operate under different rules. It would be the grossest immorality for someone to make perfect strangers take off their clothes and cut them open with a knife. But this is permissible for someone who is carrying out the vocation of being a doctor. (9) Having sex is immoral outside of marriage, but it is a great good within the vocation of marriage.

When someone injures us, our impulse is to take personal revenge, which is sharply forbidden by Scripture. Punishing crimes-whether this involves high-speed chases, shoot-outs, throwing someone in jail, or executing them-simply is not our vocation. This is, however, the vocation of police officers, judges, and the rest of the legal system (Rom. 12:19-13:4).

The maid who sweeps here kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays – not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.  The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” – attributed to Martin Luther

“All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government-to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.” – Martin Luther

The Reformers also taught that, while God did not want His people to worldly, they were to be active in the world, living and doing His will.  Holiness was not a mater of withdrawing form the world, but rather living as faithfully to God as possible in the world.  So a Christian farmhand, farrier, or fisherman served God by doing his trade as Jesus would if He were in the same vocation – with integrity, hard work, and excellence.  Luther bluntly stated that a few sincere Christians thus living their faith vocationally was more valued that all the works of monks and nuns stuck away in their cloisters.

The Reformers explicitly sent people into the world, as God’s called and commissioned people, to serve His Kingdom by using their intellects, skills, and abilities in all trades and vocations.  Industry, trade, labour – even science – was not really about earning a living or paying the bills but could be a ministry.  As you live each moment of every consciously with God and for God, your calling and your vocation become the same thing.  Daily chores become liturgies of praise, well-scrubbed floors become offerings, workbenches become altars, and labs become chapels dedicated to the praise and glory of God.