Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2022
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Commentary
Paul spends relatively little time in his second letter to Thessalonica’s Christians talking about Christian ethics. He might have spent that addressing things like healthy relationships and the proper attitude toward those in authority, as he does in his other epistles. However, in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson the apostle talks, instead, about Christians’ work.
Both my colleagues Chelsey Harmon and Scott Hoezee have written fine commentaries on this website that explore what Paul says about Christians’ daily work. But those who wish to the let the Spirit lead their reflections on 2 Thessalonians 3 in a slightly different direction might choose to view it through the lens of verse 16’s, “As for you, brothers [and sisters], never tire of doing what is right.”
After all, the “work” to which Paul summons the Thessalonians throughout chapter 3 may include well-doing. The verb the NIV translates as “doing what is right” is kalopoiountes. Verse 16 is the only instance in which the Scriptures use this particular verb. So translators infer the word’s English meaning from its combination of two root words, kalo (“well”) and poules (“do”). Many have deduced that it means something like, “living virtuously.”
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul asserts that at least part of “doing what is right” involves how the Thessalonian Christians go about doing their daily work. The commitment to living virtuously, in fact, impacts whether or not they do daily work, whether they’re “idle” (6, 7, 11), or work hard.
The apostle grieves that some of Thessalonica’s Christians have chosen the route of being “idle” (ataktos peripatountos), literally “idly walking.” However, the word ataktos is what the biblical scholar Jennifer Wyant (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-3/commentary-on-2-thessalonians-36-13-5) calls “a strange little adverb.”
It only appears in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 10, as well as in a related verb form that appears in verse 7. So Wyant helpfully goes on to note, “Outside of the New Testament, this word means ‘disorderly or irresponsibly’ and is often found within the context of battle imagery, of men not being ready at their post or ready for the fight ahead because of their disorder.” This at least suggests that Paul means that idle Thessalonian Christians are acting irresponsibly.
Some biblical scholars suggest that the idle Thessalonian Christians assumed they didn’t have to work because Jesus was coming soon. Others point to Paul’s reference in verse 11 to “busybodies” (periergazomenous) as implying that some of Thessalonica’s Christians were so busy meddling in others’ lives that they had neither the time nor energy left over to do their daily work.
In either case, however, as the New Testament scholar Mariam Kamell points out, those whose idleness Paul criticizes in this Lesson aren’t simply lazy or somehow unable to work. They are, instead, unwilling to work in ways that benefit the community. Those busybodies “work” to create chaos in the community.
Behaviors that negatively impact the community are, in fact, the focus of many of the apostle’s ethical commands. Throughout his epistles he often chose to focus on actions that harm the Christian as well as broader community.
In inviting his Thessalonian brothers and sisters in Christ to “settle down and earn the bread they eat” (12), Paul doesn’t just summon them to a more productive lifestyle. He also uses his own work in Thessalonica as an example. The apostle reminds them that when Timothy and he ministered there, they weren’t idle. They didn’t even mooch free food from those with whom they stayed.
While Paul and Timothy were religious teachers who had the right to expect the Thessalonian Christians to support them, the apostle insists they worked “night and day” so that they wouldn’t be “burdensome” (epibaresai) to their brothers and sisters in Christ. They, in fact, always paid for what they ate (8).
Timothy and he did this, adds Paul in verse 9, in order to make themselves a “model” (tupon) for Thessalonica’s Christians to “follow” (mimeisthai). The apostles seemed to understand that Christian discipleship is in some ways as much “caught” as “taught.” Christians don’t just teach what it means to follow Jesus. We also show what it means to follow him. We sense that when Paul and Timothy were with the Thessalonians, they were conscious of modelling a kind of lifestyle that sought to bless rather than burden the Thessalonian Christians.
But, of course, it’s hard to read Paul’s call to imitate the apostles’ faithful work while ignoring the penalty he seems to impose on the Thessalonians who don’t imitate them. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he “commands” his Christian brothers and sisters to “keep away from” (stellesthai) people who are idle and don’t live according to the apostles’ teachings (6). As if that’s not difficult enough to understand, he adds in verse 11. “If a man [or woman] will not work, he [or she] shall not eat.”
Preachers can admit that these are problematic verses that Jesus’ friends ought not simply ignore or even try to explain away. But perhaps we might point our hearers back to the kind of idleness Paul especially condemns in verse 12: that which arises from being a “busybody.”
The apostle has already suggested that Christian discipleship is as much “caught” as “taught.” So what if he’s suggesting that disobedience can also be “caught”? That by approaching or staying close to rather than keeping away from (6) people who are meddling in others’ affairs, the Thessalonians make themselves vulnerable to also becoming busybodies?
What’s more, what if by insisting that those who don’t work won’t eat (10), Paul is challenging Thessalonica’s Christians not to enable busybodies to further meddle in the community’s life by feeding them? Might the apostle be suggesting that Christians who feed meddlers are actually encouraging them to further harm the community?
It seems highly instructive that Paul ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by saying, “As for you, brothers [and sisters], never tire of what is doing right” (13). This capstone to his letter is even pithier in the Greek than in the English – just three words (me enkakesete kalopoiountes) as opposed to the English’s seven. Yet it’s loaded with importance.
So what does the apostle challenge the Thessalonian Christians to literally “do well”? Certainly their daily work. Paul calls his readers to continue to do what is right so that they can care for both those they love and those who struggle to support themselves. He invites Thessalonica’s Christians to do their work so well that they’re not an unnecessary burden to their community.
Yet Paul also seems to think that doing what is right encompasses more than just daily work. The biblical scholar Frank L. Crouch suggests that the apostle is basically saying, “Don’t get tired of doing what is right. Don’t get sick of doing good. Keep on keeping on in doing good things. Never stop lifting up those around you if you can. Don’t ever give up on doing good. Do whatever good you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, in whatever ways you can — even if you don’t have to.”
Paul summons his readers of all times and places to do not just our daily work but everything that we do, well. Jesus’ friends do it all, not so that we may save ourselves or even help God save us, but so that we may bring glory to God and bless our neighbors.
That a reason why this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson omission of 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 is regrettable. Those verses, after all, help explain what it means to continue to do right even toward people who remain idle. “If anyone does not obey our instructions in this letter, take special note of him,” Paul writes there. “Do not associate with him in order that he may feel ashamed.” That command is, of course, consistent with verse 6’s call to keep away from Christians who remain idle.
Then, however, the apostle adds, “Do not regard [anyone who doesn’t obey my instructions in this letter] as an enemy, but warn him as a brother [or sister].” While some Christians may, in fact, be “idle,” Paul reminds Jesus’ friends that they aren’t God’s people’s enemies. To do what is right is to view and treat even those who are idle, instead, as God’s dearly beloved children who are our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith.
In the April/May, 2016 issue of The Economist, Ryan Avent wrote an article entitled, “Why Do We Work So Hard?” Yet while he writes extensively about work, he’s not writing about the kind of work Paul has in mind when the apostle encourages Christians to “never tire of doing what’s right.”
In his article, Avent notes that “One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.
“Work, in this context, means active, billable labor. But in reality, it rarely stops. It follows us home on our smartphones, tugging at us during an evening out or in the middle of our children’s bedtime routines. It makes permanent use of valuable cognitive space, and chooses odd hours to pace through our thoughts, shoving aside whatever might have been there before. It colonizes our personal relationships and uses them for its own ends. It becomes our lives if we are not careful. It becomes us.”
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