Unless the Lord build the house,
they labor in vain who build.
Unless the Lord guard the city,
in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.
How many of us do the things we do in vain! Like the example in Jesus’ New Testament story of one who might build only part of a tower, for lack of planning (Luke 15:28), we go through our relationships at work and at home, taking on any number of responsibilities, forgetting our true purpose and winding up, at the end of the day, a little short.
Psalm 127 reminds us to reflect on the type of work we do and why. This prayer—indeed, we sing it in our liturgy—we return to constantly, praying for right reasons for our actions. That we’ve prayed it for centuries is a big clue that we need to pray it today.
A lot of understanding is wrapped up in these few words. In the Christian tradition, we have seen it expressed as the great debate on the nature of grace, the debate between faith and works. St. Paul and the Apostle James struggled with it (see Romans 1:17, Ephesians 2:4-10, Galatians 5:6 and James 2:17). Augustine struggled with it in the fourth century and it was of major contention in the 16th century, during the Reformation.
Catholics, Lutherans, and others now say together that God’s grace is the beginning of everything, but that we people are called to respond to God’s invitation by doing the works of God. So yes, the Lord builds the house but, as the psalmist recognizes, there is a human laborer involved, as well. That would be you or me.
So what is our labor? What house are we building? The most important work for any of us would be developing the relationships in which we grow through the years. In our families, in our relationships with friends and neighbors, here we see the work fields of the Lord. Here we are called, simply yet profoundly, to love one another.
If any of us is more concerned about what we can gain from—rather than what we can give to—another, we are building in vain. We are called to keep our priorities set on love.
Those who are married and raising children are called to put the well-being of their spouse and children in front of other needs and wants. It is the Lord who will build the house that lasts. If we want our families to be healthy, if we want to keep a family together when so many forces want to pull us apart, we must find ways to be sure we include the Lord in our family: Pray together, at home and at church. Break bread together. Spend time together.
Psalm 127 sounds very much like proverbial wisdom reflections on everyday life. Ordinary things—house, city/community, work and family—involve our efforts but all are ultimately gifts of God. Trust in the providence of God is decisive. The Lord’s presence and care are with us in the everyday.