November 17, 2013
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
The past few years have been hard on many families. Jobs have disappeared from the economy and many people found themselves with no income. Families went bankrupt, houses were foreclosed on, and lives were changed forever.
The situation in Paul’s day was not exactly rosy either, but Paul was not simply complaining about the overall financial situation of his day. He focused on a particular problem within the family of faith and in the process contrasted two different ways of looking at work.
The Problem with Idleness
The church is supposed to take care of its members and share generously, right? What happens if people decide they want to take advantage of the goodness of others? What happens if they game the system? It happened in biblical times, and it happens now. Paul warned the church in Thessalonica to avoid those who were idle, not engaged in productive work and lifestyle.
As a pastor I have seen many examples of people who go from church to church to “get a little help.” They don’t work, get an education or do anything to help their situations. I know of a family that has done this for years. Because they have time, given they don’t work regularly, they cause much trouble in the community. They go to civic and government meetings, lashing out at officials and generally causing a lot of trouble. They are idle. Paul warned: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies.” With too much time on their hands, they stir up strife and get involved in other people’s business.
Paul’s prescription for these people sounds harsh: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (v. 10). Hunger can be a great motivator! The church is to avoid an idle person “in order that he might feel ashamed” (v. 14). The purpose is not to hurt him but to bring him back into productive fellowship with the church.
The Productiveness of Work
Paul reminded the church how he lived while visiting them. He did not sponge off anyone, but instead worked regularly to earn his keep. He was a tent maker, so he probably was able to take his tools with him and work wherever he went.
A missionary went from the United States to a small nation in Africa decades ago. When he arrived, the natives of that place knew he would succeed because of what he brought with him. The missionary didn’t take much luggage, but he brought handles for hoes. He arrived among them with the tools to plant and tend a garden while teaching them about the loving Savior.
I appreciate people working and trying even when circumstances are difficult. For example, my wife and I met a taxi driver who worked hard though he was new to the United States. We gathered our luggage after landing at the Newark, N.J., airport and got into the first available taxi. The driver asked were we wanted to go. At least I think that’s what he said. His English was not very good. We were going to Staten Island to visit our son and daughter-in-law for the first time in their apartment. I didn’t know where it was other than on the island. I discovered that wasn’t much help. The cab driver knew how to get from the airport to the island, and then he was lost. Apparently that was his first time there.
He got on his cell phone and called the dispatcher to ask for help. That wasn’t successful, so he took out his portable GPS and tried to use it. He couldn’t figure it out, so he handed it to me. I didn’t know how to use it either. Plus, I didn’t know where we were or where we were going. We couldn’t communicate with the driver because of his lack of English. What a fix! The dispatcher finally called the driver, and with much work told him how to get to our destination. That was one long and expensive ride, but the driver didn’t quit, a fact I appreciated.
Paul’s teaching doesn’t mean we must constantly be rushing around in a frantic panic. Sometimes what appears to be idleness can be the deepest and most productive time of listening to God. The late writer and teacher Howard Thurman wrote, “As a child I was accustomed to spend many hours alone in my rowboat, fishing along in the river, when there was no sound save the lapping of the waves against the boat. There were times when it seemed as if the earth and the river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know—yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me. My response to the sense of Presence always had the quality of personal communion. There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God!” (Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit).
Love God and the church. Do good work, and learn the old lessons for a new day.