Wednesday of week 21 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Thess 3:6-10, 16-18

We have our final reading today from 2 Thessalonians. It is a short work with only three chapters. The teaching is a warning against people who do not work and do not pull their weight in the community.

It seems that this was partly related to the expectation of the Lord’s imminent second coming among the very early Christians. They believed that Jesus would return while they were still alive. As time passed, this belief receded and is reflected in the later books of the New Testament.

If the end of the world was so near, what was the point in killing oneself working? Paul (or the anonymous author) will have none of that and Paul’s own behaviour is proposed as an example to follow.

Next to the question of the Second Coming, he pays more attention to this related issue than anything else. It seems to have worsened since the earlier letter. The Christians are even told to keep away from, to have nothing to do with those who will not work. The word Paul uses is strong, an authoritative word with a military ring about it. This would not imply a complete separation from people who were in effect brothers and sisters in Christ but rather a total refusal to identify with their behaviour. Idleness is sinful and disruptive but those guilty of it are still brothers. Such behaviour was not at all in accordance with the “traditions” that had been handed on to them.

Instead, they are called on to imitate Paul, to make him their model. The Jerusalem Bible comments:

By imitating Paul, Christians will be imitating Christ, who is himself the one that Paul is imitating. Christians must also imitate God, and they must imitate each other. Behind this community of life is the idea of a model of doctrine, that has been received by tradition. The leaders who transmit the doctrine must themselves be ‘models’, whose faith and life are to be imitated (edited).

The New International Version makes this comment:

The order in Christian imitation is:

(1) Believers in Macedonia and Achaia imitated the Thessalonians, just as the Thessalonians imitated the churches in Judea;

(2) the Thessalonians imitated Paul, just as the Corinthians did and just as all believers were to imitate their leaders;

(3) Paul imitated Christ as did the Thessalonians;

(4) all were to imitate God (edited).

In case of any misunderstanding, Paul spells out just what he means. Whenever he was with the Thessalonians, he always worked to support himself and even paid for the food that he was offered. To “eat…food” is a Hebraic term for ‘making a living’. Paul, of course, does not say he never accepted hospitality (in fact, he says below that it is the missionary’s right) but that he did not depend on others for his general living. He and his companions worked hard “in toil and drudgery” so as not to be a burden on any community. (We know from elsewhere that Paul was a tent-maker.)

They did this, not because they had no right to expect some material support from those to whom they were preaching, but because they wanted to set a good example which they expected the Thessalonians to follow.

It is another example of Paul setting aside a principle [in this case, the community’s duty to support the missionary] for something he believed was more important [that each one pull their weight in the community]. (Another example is his refraining from eating certain foods which the scrupulous might regard as “unclean” or in having Timothy, who had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, circumcised, even though he himself did not believe in the necessity of circumcision.)

Paul had even laid down a ruling with them that food was not to be given to those who refused to work. There was apparently a secular proverb in the form, “He who does not work does not eat”. Paul sets it down as a rule to be followed in the community. He clearly had no time for spongers and social parasites, however exalted their motives.

The reading ends with the final blessing of the letter, a prayer of blessing for peace “all the time and in every way”.

He then signs off in his own handwriting. Although he normally dictated his letters (there are hints his sight was poor – was this the “thorn in the flesh” he speaks about in 2 Cor 12?), he sometimes added a handwritten signature as a sign of the letter’s genuineness. Here he tells us that this practice was his distinguishing mark.

And, although he had had words of criticisms for his readers, he concludes with a typical prayer that the loving grace of the Lord Jesus be with them all.

We could perhaps reflect today on our attitudes towards work. On the one hand, there are the ‘workaholics’, those who are compulsive workers, irrespective of the need to do what they are doing or of the rewards it produces. There are others who work very hard simply to earn more and more, often way beyond the needs of a modestly decent standard of living.

In both cases, other personal, family and social needs are neglected and the individual him/herself can suffer. Paul clearly would not approve of this.

On the other hand, there are those who have a strong aversion to work and who will do all they can to live off others, whether that be their family, friends or the state. Such people can become experts at “milking” social welfare in its various forms. Paul would not approve of them either.

There are others who work hard and make significant contributions to society but whose work cannot always be quantified in monetary or economic terms. An obvious example is the full-time mother. The idea that mothers with young children should also be full-time salary earners or else that they should be paid for the work they do at home seems to confuse the idea that work is primarily for service and not for remuneration.

Many of those who work for churches or other social service organisations come in this category too. They all deserve that their needs (not necessarily all their ‘wants’) be provided by the wider community. Surely Paul would give his approval here.

So I need to look at my life and see whether, given my various resources, I make an appropriate contribution to my society:

  • Do I work too much?
  • Do I work enough?
  • Do I work as a service to others? Is that how I see the job or profession I am in?
  • Do I work only for the material reward?
  • Am I sufficiently and appropriately remunerated for the work I do?
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