2 Thessalonians 3:6–13 (NRSV)
Warning against Idleness
6 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. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and 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. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
At times scripture is confusing. We initially read a passage and we think that we fully understand it. Then we look a bit deeper and it is as if there is a different universe just under the surface. I have been asked by friends why it is so important to keep reading one book over and over, this is why. As soon as I think I get it another door opens, a window is cracked, a light gets turned on, or the aroma of something in the oven begins to draw me into another room where the feast is about to be served. This is one of those passages that is layered, it can become a bit confusing when you begin peel off the layers. So let’s just take it easy as we dig in.
As I was first beginning to pay attention to what was being said as a young man, I heard this passage often encouraging everyone to work hard and earn their bread. I grew up in rural Kansas on a farm, we worked hard. The ideas of work were engrained into our minds. Someone without an ethic of work was not heard of. So when I initially read, “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” It means something to me. It is the core of who I am. This is so much of who I am personally I actually do not know what to do when I am not at work. I begin to fidget, I get irritable. And the few times when I was unemployed for a period of time I felt worthless.
I would venture to say that most of us here have a similar understanding of life. I am not saying that this is wrong. I am not even saying that it is improper to interpret scripture this way because that is what it says. When Paul says that we should keep away from people who live in idleness, we should do it. Idleness is a lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that honors waste, corruption, greed, and gluttony. Those that are idle fill their time with various lusts of the flesh because they have nothing better to do. Do not associate with the idle. But be careful in how we read this. Idleness is a lifestyle that takes many forms. Just because someone is without work does not mean they are idle, and individuals that make substantial incomes are not necessarily exempt from idleness.
I want to make this distinction because the term idleness does not necessarily mean lazy. Idleness is a lifestyle without order and without discipline. With that in mind Paul is saying, “Keep away from believers who are undisciplined.” This takes on a much deeper meaning than just laziness. Laziness is just one minor aspect of what Paul is speaking about. Keep away from the undisciplined believers, who do not live according to the traditions they received from us.
We have discipline and traditions. Traditions are the practices of an order. Traditions are not necessarily a bad thing even though those of us from protestant expressions of faith. A tradition is basically the framework a group uses to develop and encourage participants in their group. Every group that you have ever been associated with has traditions that they utilize. Every corporation, athletic team, school, and church has traditions. Paul is concerned because there are people involved in the assembly of believers that are expressing a tradition of idleness instead of the tradition that was shown while Paul was with them.
So what are the traditions that Paul is speaking about? My first thought would be a proper understanding of the gospel. This is fundamental to faith. The Gospel that was taught by Jesus was that the kingdom of God was at hand. I have mentioned this quite often because it is very important. The kingdom of God is something very different than our understanding of nationhood. The concept of kingdom is the influence, or the area over which a ruler has influence. When Jesus preached the gospel message he was saying that the influence of God is all around us. It is here, if we are willing to see it. The difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world is that there is no land or borders, only people. The influence of God is one that changes the way that we think and when we are truly influenced by this kingdom our actions are changed as well. But these things happen within the kingdom of men as well. When people emigrate from one country to another the influence of their former home diminishes as they become integrated into the culture of the new country. This does take time to fully occur. The first generation usually live in a community with people that emigrated from the same country, they live together there speaking their primarily their native tongue. In many ways only their location changed but much of their old life remains. Then they have children, these children do not know the old land, they are only aware of the nation of their birth. They still hold similar traditions because their parents taught them and they still live within that community. The difference is that they general speak both languages, that of their birth nation and that of their parents. They speak one at school, and one in the home. They grow and because they have influences outside of the community they tend to have a blending of cultures. As they mature get jobs and marry their children or the third generation become even more integrated to the new culture to such a degree that they barely know the original language if at all, and now they think like a citizen of the new nation and only have a hint of the land of their ancestors. I saw this with the German community back home and I see it occurring with the various people groups I work with. So if the Kingdoms of men can change the way people think what is the difference of the Gospel? That comes with what the change of though actually is. The kingdoms of men seek different things than the kingdom of God. Mankind seeks wealth and power, where Christ taught to love your enemy, to turn the other cheek, and to lay up treasures in heaven not one earth. And as Paul taught it, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility regard others more highly than yourself.” The difference between the kingdoms is who we consider important, me or them.
Jesus taught the Gospel but he also gave us something else. He lived the gospel. This is most likely the tradition that Paul speaks about. When Jesus first called the disciples he asked them to follow him. What he is asking them is to leave the life and lifestyle they were currently living and taking on the life that he will show them. He lived a life where he made it his custom to worship in the synagogues, he withdrew often to pray, and he ministered to the needs of those around him. Jesus taught a great deal while he lived out his life, these teachings are very important to faith, but to put these teachings into action requires something discipline. This is what the lifestyle of Jesus provides. How do I love my enemy? We look at Jesus’ life and we can see how that is supposed to work. As Jesus walked and talked and while he ate and socialized; he established within his disciples a tradition of life. This tradition focused on Worshiping God, individual devotion and prayer, and service to others.
Paul taught this same tradition to his disciples, and to the disciples among the Thessalonians. He says to them “imitate us.” This concept of imitate means that they are an example, a model of what this sort of life should look like. So when Paul speaks about the idle believers, his is saying that they are distracting people from this sort of lifestyle, and if they are distracting them from a life devoted to worship, prayer and service, how are they living their lives?
But what is this about eating? Many believe that the traditions spoken about by Paul are primarily the traditions within the worship meetings. In the early church they would often break bread together and share a meal in reembrace of Jesus. This goes back to the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before his arrest and trial. During this meal Jesus took the bread broke it and saying that it was his body broken for them. He shared this bread with all at the table. He then spoke about the wine in a similar way and also shared it. The bread and the wine are the two most common staples in ancient meals. And when the early church gathered to worship sharing a complete meal was just part of it. Jesus is the sustenance that provides life, He is also the example and perfect life lived out for us. So is Paul speaking about the traditions of worship? Yes and no.
Later on Paul speaks about work. He toiled day and night and did not take anything from the community but paid for the bread that he ate. Since bread was a staple of the meal, Paul could be speaking of wages, saying that he earned the bread that he ate. But again he could also be saying that he worked outside of the church to supplement and finance his livelihood. But if we were to combine the ideas of labor and worship we find something beautiful.
If you are unwilling to work you should not eat. When we combine the tradition of sharing a meal as part of worship, this exposes a different layer. Paul is encouraging those around to participate fully in the ministry of the church. If someone is sharing in the tangible elements of worship they should also participate in the ministry there in. The church is filled with various gifts of the spirit that should be used for mutual benefit within the body. Paul is concerned that within the traditions of idleness there are people that have sat back and allowed others to do all the work, yet still want to share the meal around the table. Paul is telling us that it is not just the pastor’s job, or the worship leader’s job to expand the kingdom. Each and every person that calls on Christ has a part in the kingdom work. Every aspect of your life should be reflecting the influence that God has made. When we are helping customers we should be expanding the kingdom in some way. When we are enjoying life together with friends, there should be some testimony of Christ being spoken or shown to those around us. Our life with God should be something that just is.
Which leads us back to discipline. As most of you are aware I enjoy a good hockey game, I actually enjoy a mediocre hockey game to be honest. An athlete participating in that sport must be disciplined. They are skating around on ice at great speeds, carrying sticks made from wood, carbon fibers, or even metal. As they travel around the ice with blades on their feet, wielding a club, they are hitting a solid rubber frozen puck traveling faster than the speed limit on the highway. There are several ways that a player could be injured. So they practice. Most of the people that play a sport professionally have great discipline because they practice daily. They know how to skate and how control their stick so they can keep serious injury to a minimum. They practice so that people like me can watch a good game. But do we put that amount of discipline in our faith? Scripture tells us that we should be able to bear witness to the hope that we have at any moment. We cannot do this if we have not disciplined or trained in the traditions of faith. But if we are actively working with the church for the mutual benefit of all involved, so that when we are called to speak or act we can do so with little effort.
Keep away from idleness. Keep away from lack of discipline. Instead take on the lifestyle Christ offers to us. Do not allow the ways of the world to distract us from the work that God is calling us to. Work hard and make a living so that we can become a blessing to others, and while we share. Do not be distracted. How well are we doing this? Have we become people that are worthy of the name of Christ, or have we become an undisciplined believer focusing on the end and not living the present.