Continuing in the second letter to the
week we looked at the second chapter, and so this week I
want to look at the third chapter of second Thessalonians,
verses 6 through 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. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and 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. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
I'm going to go out on a limb and
suggest that this possibly is not a good text to use in a time
of a severe recession and high unemployment. You know what I'm
saying? Doug Rose said it is a good text to use on reflection in
that last drive last night in the Duck football game when they
clung on to the ball for the last nine minutes of the game, you
know, a real work ethic :) I knew there had to be a connection
somewhere, so thanks to Doug for that.
On the surface, the principle given here makes perfect sense --
if you don't work, you don't eat. We call that 'natural
consequences', and it's one of the basics of good parenting, to
teach children to take responsibility for their actions. If you
don't do your chores, you don't get your allowance. Right,
parents? If you don't put your dirty clothes in the laundry
basket, you don't get any clean clothes. Actually, I learned
that one in my marriage. Took awhile, a few years of not having
any clean underwear, but I eventually figured it out. Talk about
natural consequences, we don't want to go there :).
At any rate, natural consequences -- you don't work, you don't
eat. But doesn't that sound just a little cold? What if it's a
farmer who has lost his land and is despondant? What if its
someone who is disabled? What about seniors -- talk about
idleness, right? No? :) That went over differently in the first
Keep in mind there wasn't any Social Security back in those
days. What if it's someone with a severe mental illness? Who is
going to hire them? Actually, I have the same question about
those politicians who just got voted out of office -- who is
going to hire them?
Do circumstances make a difference, or do we set this one hard &
fast rule that applies equally to everyone? That's fair, right?
No exceptions -- don't work, don't eat. But before we go any
further, I want to look a little deeper at the context. There
are two possible scenarios here. The first is that expectation
that Jesus was coming back soon, or maybe even the belief that
he already had, which was part of the context of chapter 2 that
we looked at last week (that the author is seeking to refute).
But at any rate, if Jesus is coming, why work? We don't have
long, why not concentrate on more important things?
And every few decades we hear about some delusional cult leader
who convinces a small group of devout followers that they have a
direct link to God, that they know something everyone else
doesn't know, and they go off into the desert or do something
bizarre. Remember Heaven's Gate, 15 or 20 years ago down in
Southern California (why are these things always in Southern
California?)? A cult leader had convinced them that there was a
space ship that was waiting for them. All they had to do was
drink this little potion, commit suicide together, and they
would be taken up in a spaceship. And they did it. Crazy things
happen. Of course, convincing our nation that we had to launch a
war, pursuing weapons of mass destruction that did not exist,
well, you know, maybe makes some of the other craziness not look
so bizarre after all. But that's one possibility -- they are
waiting, Jesus is coming, why work?
There is another possibility that I
think is probably even more likely that explains this text.
Think for a moment of all the stories about Jesus and food.
Jesus feeding the crowds. The wedding feast at Cana. The parable
of the great banquet, you know, bringing people off the street
to eat at this banquet table. The accusation of Jesus, that he's
a glutton, that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The
post-resurrection stories of Jesus breaking bread with the two
he met on the road to Emmaus. And then there's Jesus cooking
breakfast for the disciples, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. And
of course, the Lord's supper -- the central meal, the central
image for the kingdom of God for the church.
All the stories about Jesus, stories told by Jesus, about food
suggests both the problem and a promise. The problem is, the
relative scarcity of food in that time, and hence the reason for
so much focus on food. And the promise is that uttered in our
Lord's prayer, that we say every week: give us this day our
daily bread. This is the kingdom of God, that place where we
don't have to worry about where the next days food is going to
And when Jesus says in John's gospel "I am the the bread of
life", is that a metaphor, or is that a promise? That in true
Christian community, nobody goes hungry. And in fact, recall
twice in Acts we are told that those early Christian communities
held all things in common, distributed to each according to
their need. And then in the second letter to Corinthians, in
chapter 8, Paul writes of those churches in Galatia, that during
a severe ordeal, even in their extreme poverty, voluntarily gave
beyond their means, overflowing in a wealth of generosity. And
so he urges the Corinthians to do likewise, to excel in their
generosity as evidence of the genuineness of their love, modeled
after the love of Christ where, Paul writes, 'for your sake, he
became poor, that by his poverty you might become rich' And then
Paul goes on to say "I do not mean that there should be relief
for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair
balance between your present abundance and their need. So that
their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be
a fair balance".
John Dominic Crossan says for Paul, love
meant to share. Only Crossan says "do not think of it as humanly
extensive charity, a free giving of our stuff, but as divinely
distributive justice, a necessary sharing of God's stuff". For
Paul, Crossan continues, "a Christian assembly of sisters and
brothers was one that had committed itself to sharing together,
just as in an ordinary human family because it actually was a
divine family -- the family of God".
So we might think, then, of those early Christian communities as
a collection of share communities. Where all shared in the
rewards and the responsibility of the household of God. And
think about how attractive such a community would be, where
there was no Social Security, no Medicare, no pension plans, no
food stamps, no health insurance, no soup kitchens, no emergency
shelters. A place where all were invited to come and to share
equally in the bounty of God's 'stuff'. Where there was always
something to eat.
Only here is the problem: when you offer a place where everyone
gets something to eat, it's only a matter of time before
everyone comes expecting something to eat. And you can just hear
those who are working hard to put food on the table begin to
complain about those who are not carrying their own weight. And
hence Paul, or likely a disciple of Paul's, has to offer this
correctlive. It makes sense to say -- if you don't work, you
Only note 5 things. That first of all, this message is directed
to those inside the community, inside the church. It's not a
social commentary about those out on the street.
Secondly, in that ancient world, with no retirement, no Social
Security, no pension plan, no Medicare, if you wanted to eat,
you had to be prepared to work until the day you died. And it's
no wonder that people did not live long, beyond 55 if that.
Third, to require someone to work, if they wanted to eat,
assumes that work was available. And we know that's not always
Fourth, accountability goes both ways --
Paul (or a disciple of his), may be hard on those who do not
work, but Jesus is even harder on those who do not share.
Remember that story of the rich person, who asked what he would
have to do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus says "Go, sell all
that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me". But he
went away sad, because why? He was exceedingly rich, could not
Lastly, for small communities like those
of the early church, it makes sense to use natural consequences.
Tough love. But is such an adequate basis for social policy?
Consider some of the problems that affect our quality of life:
crime and addiction, mental illness, infant mortality, life
expectancy, obesity, teenage pregnancy, a burgeoning prison
population, bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, and on and on and
What if I told you that there is one thing we can do which will
improve all of those things? You know what that is? To lesson
income inequality, and wealth inequality.
Two British social scientists, Kate Pickett and Richard
Wilkinson, just recently published a book entitled "The Spirit
Level", with a massive amount of data collected from 23 of the
wealthiest nations, which shows that inequality of wealth is the
number one indicator of almost every social problem you can
name. The higher the inequality, the greater the problem.
They write that the effects of inequality are not confined just
to the least well off, instead they effect the vast majority of
the population. Even something like mental illness. Now how does
income effect mental illness? Turns out that the incidences of
mental illness are two-and-a-half times greater in this country
(which has the highest income inequality) than it is in Japan
(which has one of the lowest rates of inequality). Homicide,
drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality,
all are higher, their data shows, in those most unequal
societies, namely Britain, the United States, Portugal, and New
Zealand, and lower in the more equal societies such as Norway,
Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Japan.
Likewise, life expectancy is as much as five years longer in the
latter countries than they are in the former (and our own). Why?
The authors postulate that consumerism, isolation, alienation,
social estrangement, anxiety and stress increase as inequality
increases. And hence make us sicker, more violent, and more
dependent on drugs and alcohol. Contrary to conventional wisdom,
then, we have more to gain by promoting equality and sharing of
our wealth than we have by accumulating wealth.
On Wednesday, Oregon's son and now a
columnist for the New York Times (Nicholas Kristof)
compared the U.S. distribution of wealth to that of certain
Banana Republics like Nicaragua and Venezuela. In that
he cited the work of three Economists from a recently published
paper, and I was so intrigued by that paper that I looked it
up on the Internet (if anyone is interested, the link is here),
but in it were three graphs that I think said more about this
than the data that Kristof cited in his column.
In the first graph, he shows the growth in wealth among all
segments of the population. And this is data from the United
States Census Bureau, from 1949 to 1979, a 30 year period,
divided by each 20% grouping (the bottom 20% on the left, then
the middle, and then the top 20% to the right -- the final
column on the right is the top 5%):
That was the increase in wealth from 1949 to 1979, roughly 100%,
give or take some, in each of those groups. Then when you look
at the data from 1979 to 2003, we see a dramatic change,
covering a 24 year period:
The top 5% have a 68% increase in wealth, as compared to the
rest on down. And this, by the way, is before-tax income. When
you factor after-tax income, look what happens:
The top 5% increased their wealth by 200% now. And then 68% for
the top 20%, and on down from there. Someone said there's an
editorial in today's paper, I haven't seen it yet, that has some
of this same data, only more recent, in which the bottom three
or four groups actually have seen a decrease in their real
wealth while it has increased dramatically in that top group.
So these Economists have a essentially confirmed the hypothesis
of Wilkinson and Picket, that wealth inequality increases social
problems. They looked at three in particular, examining this
data from the Census Bureau, and they found that those states
with the highest inequality also had the lowest rate of personal
savings and the highest rate of bankruptcy and divorce.
Why? Inequality damages the human psyche.
Sometimes we call it the soul. We try to keep up with the
Joneses. We measure success by those above us. We aspire to be
and do more than we can afford. In sum, inequality in wealth
increases all of the negative effects of materialism. The result
is detrimental to our families, to our homes, to our health, and
especially to our common well-being.
So is the problem we face in our time
one of those unwilling to work more, or of those unwilling to
The greatest lesson we may have to learn from imitating Paul, as
this text suggests, is not our work ethic, but our share ethic.
Or maybe these are two sides of the same coin. Work that leads
to sharing, and sharing that provides purpose to our work, is
what that Christian work ethic (or we might say the work-share
ethic) is all about.
So here is the message, I think, for us in times such as these:
share the work, yes, of course, if you want to eat. And share
what the work provides, if you want to be a part of God's great
banquet, where there is plenty for all.
For ultimately, we cannot work our way into the kingdom of God.
But we can share our way.
May we so do.