Why were people in Thessalonica not wanting to work? Was it because they figured that Jesus was returning soon, or had already returned? Was it because things were a bit desperate after a famine in the area? Was it because many of them were continuing in a very normal pattern of client-patron relationships common in the Greco-Roman world? We cannot say which of these is the most likely reason (or what combination of these scenarios may have been at play) with absolute certainty. However, based on what Paul writes in our lectionary section today, as well as his teachings in the first letter to the Thessalonian church, this was not a new issue in Thessalonica.
It’s helpful to remember all of this context as we dive into this section of the letter, otherwise Paul’s words could seem quite harsh. Shun hungry people, Paul? That doesn’t sound like what Jesus taught when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” (Matthew 25.35) Paul’s instructions get even more firm in verses 14-15: “have nothing to do with them; so that they may be ashamed…”
But it’s those verses that also help us begin to soften the blow of Paul’s strict instructions. Right after he writes that he wants the ‘freeloaders’ to feel shame, he says, “Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.” The people in question are part of the community; they matter.
Along with mattering as human beings, how they live as part of the community matters. Like Paul implicitly reminds the faithful in so many of his letters, the community’s life together is a lynchpin for its safety in the Roman Empire. In tumultuous times, they need each other. Furthermore, as Christians live together, care for and with one another, they show through their living what God is all about and who God is to their nonbelieving neighbours.
So if some of the members of the community are not contributing to the well-being of everyone, then they are not truly taking part in the caring for and with one another that is paramount to the Christian life. This has direct consequences on the survival of a persecuted community as well as on the reputation of the Christian community within the city—and thereby directly reflects on the God of the Christians.
Paul took this so seriously that when his missionary travels took him to Thessalonica, he looked around at the situation there and decided to work a little differently in their midst than he had in other cities. Instead of getting donations from the locals to help cover their costs, Paul says that he and the other missionaries worked hard (bivocationally) day and night to make sure that they weren’t a burden to anyone in Thessalonica; they always paid for what they ate even though they could have asked for the people to help out. Teachings from both Jesus and Paul support workers, including missionaries, being paid for their labour by the people they were serving and allowed for (even celebrated) donations being collected from other believing communities to see the gospel be spread. But here in Thessalonica, Paul realizes that his way of being is also telling a story, modelling a needed transformation, pointing people to a better way of living for the glory of Christ.
Making such a conscientious choice in Thessalonica allowed Paul to use himself as an example, as he is apt to do in many of his letters. This time though Paul isn’t just setting himself up as an example of faith and knowledge, but of practice. Paul blessed and gave to the community of believers forming in Thessalonica without burdening them financially nor taking away from their resources. And he did so because there were too many people already doing that.
Returning to the various reasons why people didn’t want to or weren’t working in Thessalonica, it’s important to note that none of them are based on an inability to work. Note too that in verse 10 Paul says that if anyone is unwilling to work, then they should not eat.
It seems to me that the implication of Paul’s words is that people were choosing to engage in practices that Paul wouldn’t call work—even if it was an acceptable way of making a living in the Greco-Roman world—because they didn’t fit the godly, or Christian criteria.
So was it because they thought Jesus was coming back soon and/or had already returned? If you believed that you missed the thing you were waiting for, wouldn’t you be more than a little despondent and give up? But earlier in this very letter, Paul cleared up the confusion about Jesus’ return, so no one has an excuse to continue to stay downcast and uncaring about what’s to come. Instead, the refrain is to care deeply about living Christ’s righteousness in the here and now. In other words, if someone decided to keep being unwilling to work, this excuse was no longer a viable option.
Similarly, if this letter was written after the time of the famine in AD 51, then some of the Christians could have recently gone through a period where they severely struggled to put food on the table. Famine and poverty are often interconnected cycles. Once conditions turn around, it can be difficult to step out of old practices. In the case of the church, especially in the early church which was known for its benevolence and sharing as anyone had need, it isn’t difficult to see how such relationships could turn co-dependent. Co-dependent relationships “benefit” both sides… the person receiving doesn’t have to try him or herself to change and overcome their challenges. The person giving gets to feel good about themselves for helping (also known as altruism), sometimes even developing a sense of being superior to the person they are helping (which can also make us feel good about ourselves). So when Paul says that an unwilling person should not eat, he could also be instructing the person tempted to give them something to eat to really consider whether their aid is warranted and to examine their own motives for helping out.
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility for why Paul’s instructions were necessary comes from a common practice at the time. In the Roman Empire, a person of influence, a patron, sought to build up a network, or following, of clients. In exchange for their political or civic service, a patron made sure that a client had food to eat without having to work. In other words, clients busied themselves with the work of their patron instead of working for themselves.
So why might this be an issue for a Christian? If your patron wasn’t also a Christian, some of the things you might be expected to do could easily contradict your newfound faith and morality. For instance, clients could be told to go to a temple and make sacrifices to the gods on behalf of their patron. Uh oh! Or, they could be told to represent their patron at cultic meals at pagan temples as part of making sure that a patron kept their social status in the community even while they were out of town or attending other events. It’s easy to see from just these two examples as to how this system wouldn’t really work for a follower of Jesus.
This client-patron scenario seems quite possibly what Paul witnessed in Thessalonica. Consider the play on words he uses in verse 11: these busybodies who are at issue are not willing to do their own work, but they sure are willing to be involved in someone else’s business.
And there is definitely a word for us modern listeners in this text. Along with the reminder that we are part of a community that cares for one another and that we contribute to the common good of the faithful, we are also reminded that work is good and meant to be for good. It turns out that not every kind of way of making money is worthwhile in the kingdom of God. If our work is built on idleness or it makes us dependent on another for our own well-being—especially when we are able to do better and more, then perhaps we need to reconsider. Or what if the company purposely exploits the vulnerable of the world? Paul tells us to not grow weary in doing what is right, but to busy ourselves in doing the good God has placed in us to do. What we choose as our daily work and the way we make our livings truly ought to reflect the goodness of God.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown opens with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Paul was definitely a “man in the arena,” a man of God who tried and tried to serve the kingdom and God’s people. Paul’s willingness to work day and night instead of receiving offerings in Thessalonica is an example of the lengths he would go to live the worthy call and cause of Christ. His is a voice worth listening to, and his life one worth learning from.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 17, 2019
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Commentary