Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +23
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
I thought that we should start with something from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Question 14 is a wonderful place to begin:
What is sin?
Yeah, what is sin? How do we define sin? Do we really even believe in sin, anymore? Well the church’s answer is that: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.
No matter how we define sin, we all struggle with sin and temptation and so we need to heed the challenges of Scripture when it advises us on how to lead God-glorifying lives. It would be merely self-deceptive and tinged with no small amount of hubris for us to dispense with any parts of God’s Word on the premise that we have this or that aspect of Christian living in the bag.
I myself would be very slow to ignore parts of the Bible by thinking “Oh, I got this part down.”
But honestly, having grown up steeped in the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic,” when I read this passage from 2 Thessalonians 3, I am tempted to stamp it with “N/A: Not Applicable.”
The last thing my forbearers needed was a warning against idleness. If anything, they needed to be warned to take a Sabbath break once in a while. I’ve known people who have labored for the kingdom without ceasing even into their later years. And when I have suggested to them that it would probably be acceptable in the Lord’s sight if they throttled back a bit, I’ve been told “Well, I don’t think ‘retirement’ is a biblical concept.” When the Lord returns, people want to be found being very busy. True, some of this is borne of an undue burden of guilt that some of us in the Reformed tradition have altogether too good at inculcating into ourselves. If all our works are filthy rags in the Lord’s sight anyway, the least we can do is pile up as many rags as we can in the hope that quantity might garner God’s favor in case quality is found lacking. But for others, incessant kingdom labor is fueled less by guilt and more by genuine fervor for reaching out and helping other people in ministries of various kinds.
Either way or both ways, the point is that I’ve not grown up among an idle folk. Maybe many of you have not either.
Probably we all would love to know exactly what was going on in Thessalonica that garnered these stern words from Paul.
Was there something about the Gospel of salvation by grace alone that made people get morally lazy?
Was it some version of the same mentality that made people careless about their sinning seeing as God would forgive it all anyway?
Or did the early church’s newly minted diaconate do such a good job of caring for people that a few came to rely on that ministry at the expense of pitching in themselves?
It’s hard to know with great precision what led Paul to order people off their duffs in order to do meaningful work. It appears, though, that the work in question was not holy work or church work per se but just earning one’s keep through vocations and occupations of all kinds.
Paul says that idle busybodies and lazy folks were not living according to “the tradition” they had been given.
What is the tradition in question?
Again, it’s a bit hard to know precisely. This part of 2 Thessalonians is another reminder that when we read the epistles, we are reading somebody else’s mail and so we are at a bit of a disadvantage in knowing the background and precisely what Paul was reacting against. But it appears that the tradition in question was the whole Gospel package. It was not only the good news that salvation comes to us as a free gift that we cannot earn but also the wider proclamation of Jesus that calls on redeemed people to ACT like they have been transformed by doing good deeds in Jesus’ name.
In the Gospels, Jesus made it clear that we are to be salt and light, that we are to be Jesus’ own hands and feet. Jesus warned against salt losing its savor and light being hidden under a bushel basket. He commended ministry to the poor and downtrodden and never saw a marginalized person whom he did not want to raise up in dignity and in love. Jesus told parables about rich people who stored up wealth for only themselves and how that kind of mentality would never do. When he told a story about a Samaritan who helped a crime victim, he ended it with “Go and do likewise.”
None of that undermines grace. None of that should get twisted into a “work your own way to heaven” mentality after all. We don’t want to confuse the roots of our salvation with the fruits that those roots enable us to produce (though keeping that all straight is an abiding battle for most of us). But good roots in a well-planted tree—good branches grafted onto a robust vine—will produce fruit. Something has gone seriously wrong with the whole enterprise if trees and vines that have been given every advantage in the world to produce fruit end up being barren and empty.
Of course, you don’t do this to garner praise and adulation for yourself, either. Paul urges here that people do honest work quietly and steadily as they earn their keep in the community. One of my favorite examples of people not working honestly, quietly and steadily is from Acts 5:
5 1-2But a man named Ananias—his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him—sold a piece of land, secretly kept part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles and made an offering of it.
3-4Peter said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to men but to God.”
5-6Ananias, when he heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard of it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him.
7-8Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened, came in. Peter said, “Tell me, were you given this price for your field?”
“Yes,” she said, “that price.”
9-10Peter responded, “What’s going on here that you connived to conspire against the Spirit of the Master? The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you’re next.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. When the young men returned they found her body. They carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
11By this time the whole church and, in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with.
Ananias and Sapphira are the most infamous illustration of “freeloading”. This couple represents a disruptive impact upon the community by appearing to join in its generosity without being truly committed to it. It is difficult to image a more effective way to undermine generosity as a community norm than by pretending to honor it while simultaneously ignoring it. Such behavior amounts to idleness vis-à-vis the norm of generosity, resulting in disruption of the overall life of the community.
The call that Paul gives to the church in Thessalonica and to the church in Woodbury is that to continue to faithfully serve the community.
God is interested in our daily lives and activities. He’s interested in the flourishing of this world and in our participation in all that. After all, as we can read elsewhere in the New Testament, God so loved this world—THIS world of daycare centers, factories, schools, and supermarkets—that he sent his only Son here to redeem it. As disciples, our own interest in the activities of this world ought to be no less ardent.
Commentary provided by D. Cameron Murchison, Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Joel Weible, Frederick Buechner, Scott Hoezee, Sally A. Brown, and Mariam Kamell