November 11, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now 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. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and 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. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
I don’t know if, as you’re reading these words, you are poor or rich, tired or energetic, flourishing or beaten down. I do know that I serve a Christ who offers grace and who does not want me to look busy in order to love me.
I have to admit that when I looked at the lectionary passages for this weekend and saw what was assigned, I said, “Oh, no, not that passage” when I glimpsed today’s Epistle lesson.
If you’ve been connected to the faith and work movement for any length of time, you’ll know that there are certain passages that always come up in discussions of faith, work, and economics. There’s the “creation mandate” from Genesis 1:28: the command to humans to be fruitful, multiply, and in some way exercise dominion over the natural world. There’s the injunction in Jeremiah 29:4-7 that our work should in some way bless not only our own families and enclaves, but the wider society. There’s the picture in Revelation 21-22 of the renewed creation as involving a heavenly city, presumably bustling with activity. (No sitting around on clouds strumming harps in Revelation’s picture!) And there’s this passage. Do you want to eat? Better not be idle, no matter what other pressures might be crushing you. Exercise dominion. Transform the entire society. Don’t rest, even after you’re dead. Jesus is coming—look busy!
I want to be clear: I am not against the fruitfulness of the creation mandate, against the call to help our society flourish, or against the notion that our eternal worship of God in the New Jerusalem will in some way be active and engaged with others. I am not even against the idea that there is some intrinsic connection between applying oneself to work and the resulting fruits of that work being food and shelter and security.
I’m just really, really tired. You too, maybe?
I had my conception of what this verse might mean turned upside down recently when I encountered a different interpretation of it than the “Jesus is coming—look busy” explanation. This verse has often been used to speak against any assistance for the poor on the grounds that only work can justify eating. But what if it was the rich who were idle in Thessalonica?
Many people who joined the early Christian movement were poor: they were slaves and servants, constantly at work for their owners and employers and, if they could spare a moment, themselves. In the early church, they met a Christ who said “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, KJV). Wealthy nobles and leaders who joined the early church, on the other hand, would have been accustomed to being waited on. Now here they were in a church context where everyone was equal before the Lord, and they were expected to participate just like everyone else, stepping outside of the client-patron relationships common in Greco-Roman society, and sometimes even working with their own hands.
A few hundred years later, church father John Chrysostom would make a similar point:
But the laws of Saint Paul are not merely for the poor. They are for the rich as well… We accuse the poor of laziness. This laziness is often excusable. We ourselves are often guilty of worse idleness. But you say, “I have my paternal inheritance!” Tell me, just because he is poor and was born of a poor family possessing no great wealth, is he thereby worthy to die? You are often idling at the theatre all day, or in the council chambers, or in useless conversation. You blame many–but you fail to consider yourself as ever doing anything evil or idle. And do you condemn this poor and miserable person who lives the whole day in entreaties, tears, and a thousand difficulties? Do you dare bring him or her to court and demand an accounting? Tell me, how can you call these things human?
I don’t know if, as you’re reading these words, you are poor or rich, tired or energetic, flourishing or beaten down. I do know that I serve a Christ who offers grace and who does not want me to look busy in order to love me. Sometimes we will find ourselves being busy for the kingdom. Sometimes we will work so that we and others may eat. And sometimes we will be, not idle, but heavy laden, and he will give us rest.
How have you historically thought about this passage?
How would you define idleness? How would you define work?
Does Jesus call you right now to work or rest?
The great Black spiritual “Ain’t Got Time to Die” is about being busy. It’s also about what we are called to be busy with: healing the sick, feeding the poor, and praising our Jesus. Are you called to work in these ways? Ponder that while you listen.
Lord, help me know when to work for you and when to rest in your arms. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Problem of Idleness in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 4:9–12 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–16).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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