2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6We 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 labour 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. 11We 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.
Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.
Now you have it folks: either work and eat, or don’t and don’t. It’s as simple as that.
That, of course, is if we read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians quite literally, as some people are wont to do. Thank God for Paul. It would, of course, help if his writings were more easily understood in a 21st century context, but Paul was writing nearly 2000 years ago and we need to honour not only the context in which Paul wrote those words, but also how they might apply to us, here and now.
If Paul needed to write to a Christian community in this way, especially one he had brought together, what were they doing? Clearly, there were some who didn’t want to be involved in any work, but expected the rest of the community to look after them. Note the want, not an inability. As ever, Paul is trying to lead by example. Though he had every right to depend on a community in which he was operating, his modus operandi was to keep working, to be self supporting, and to provide support for others who were less fortunate than himself. He was determined that they were not distracted from the mission to follow Christ by having to provide for him when he was quite capable of doing that himself.
As with every Christian, the Thessalonians were called to spread the word about Christ. In Romans, Paul exhorted that we are justified by our faith [Rom 5:1], not by our works, but James reminds us that if our faith is real then it will result in us doing work for the sake of the gospel [James 2:17]. If we don’t exercise our faith by doing “works” then our faith is illusory, and not real. In the context of this letter to the Thessalonians, if we are unwilling to work for the sake of the gospel then we shouldn’t expect the community to support us, because we are not expressing our real live faith in the real live world to touch real live people.
Looking back across the passage I note Paul saying that he “did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it”, and I am reminded of a recording I engineered several years ago, in which Ched Myers spoke on the subject “How Many Ways Can I Rob You?” Being idle, and still expecting to be fed because of the generosity of others would be one of the many ways.
The last verse of this passage highlights a problem with translations of scripture. A good study bible will provide a translation which is honest to the Greek of the New Testament, without interpreting it, and would have “brethren” because the word Paul used was adelphoi, which is a masculine plural noun. A good reading bible, however, would use “brothers and sisters” or even “friends” as that is the sense we should take from the reading. I believe that the Revised Standard Version was a good study bible, but the New Revised Standard Version has tried to be both – and it doesn’t work well.
What do I get out of this passage? First, an opportunity to stir those close to me when they sit around expecting to be fed even though it’s clear there are things to do before we can be fed. As a grammarian I love to have fun with the English language, and deliberately taking a text like this out of context provides an opportunity to have such fun when those around can see the intended joke. Second, a reminder that I must continue to do my work as an expression of my faith, not because doing so will justify me in my relationship with God.