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 (see Romans 6)? 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. The work in question does not need to be world-changing or high profile just done faithfully. It reminds me of the old Puritan proverb: “God loveth adverbs: he careth not how good but how well.”
Again, most of those Puritans and a whole lot of others in the Christian tradition have not per se struggled with idleness. If anything, we have struggled to achieve a fitting balance in our lives between work and rest, between reveling in grace and doing kingdom work as a way to say “Thank You” to God. We should not think of what we do too highly but neither should we regard the work God has gifted us to do too meanly. Probably an undue denigrating of our work as “filthy rags” in God’s sight drifts too far in the opposite direction, too. We should delight in the gifts God has given us, in the opportunities we have to work but at the end of the day, we can also rest. The weekly rhythm of Sabbath keeping and in old Israel the tradition of sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee were all instituted to help us remember that although our work is important, it is of only penultimate (and not ultimate) significance in the grand scheme of things. God is still God and we are not. God is still the one who saves and preserves his people and not we ourselves no matter how hard we work.
It may or may not be accurate to look at this passage and say “Well, we’ve got this one covered and then some!” Probably the temptation to misconstrue the meaning and importance of our labors still exist in varying ways. Like so much of the Christian life, striking the right biblical-theological balance can be difficult. It is no better to race through life pursued by an unwarranted guilt than to kick back in life and try to get away with as little effort as possible. Whatever else this passage from 2 Thessalonians 3 means, it is evidence that the Christian God is not the absentee landlord god of Deism or, in its current form, of what Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic Deism.”
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.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 95.
“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God . . . By and large a good way for finding out [God’s true calling] is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of our work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b) but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2016
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Commentary