We are on the third, and final chapter, of 2 Thessalonians. This second letter to the church of Thessalonica is a brief three chapters long. The first chapter was focused on the author’s words of thanksgiving, as it offered a commendation to the community for remaining steadfast in their faith in the face of persecution and affliction. The second chapter offered a word of correction, critiquing the community amidst the belief by some that Christ’s return had already taken place. The second chapter makes clear that Christ’s return has not yet taken place, and that the community should continue to stand fast in their faith, living according to the traditions they had previously been taught.
The third chapter offers the ending to the letter, which itself consists of three parts. Verses 1-5 offer a request on behalf of the author for prayer. The author is asking for prayer that their apostolic leadership may continue to spread the word of the Lord.
The last few verses offer a closing salutation.
Our focus this morning is on the middle verses, which offer a final exhortation in the parting words of the letter.
Similar to the start of chapter 2, verse 6 begins with a strong corrective phrase, “We command you, beloved …” This final exhortation will offer another corrective teaching. Though the author has already dealt with the concerns of a wrong belief regarding Christ’s return, it is not just a wrong belief that must be dealt with. Here, the author is dealing with wrong action. The wrong action is read to be in-action. “We command you, beloved, keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.”
At first glance in our English translation, it would seem the author is saying, don’t do nothing. Following what was offered by the author previously in chapter 2, that seems to make sense. Remember, the prior correction was about a wrong belief that Christ had already returned. If there were people who believed Christ had already returned, it’s possible that they had stopped trying to live out their faith altogether. What’s the purpose in still living faithfully if Christ has already returned? Is my work now in vain? Has Christ already passed judgement?
This mindset is one that we see lived out all the time. Like when an employee works super hard for a promotion, but, following the denial of their promotion, they almost stop working. Why work so hard if my work isn’t going to be rewarded? … Or the student who works hard all semester to be the top student in the class, but upon realizing that no matter how hard they study for the final, they have no mathematical chance at the highest GPA, so, instead of studying, they give up trying. … Or how many of us let our houses get disorganized and have stacks of paper and dirty clothes piling up until someone is coming to visit, at which point we spend all day cleaning. We care about how we are perceived, how we look to others, but once that person has come and gone, the house returns to the pig sty it was before.
At first glance, it is this idleness – this lack of working – this giving up that the author seems to be criticizing. And if we were to understand this critique as being associated with the concern of wrong belief, which we read in chapter 2, it would make sense. … But this understanding of idleness is hard to make.
It’s hard to make for a few reasons: first, this exhortation is separated from the critique regarding the wrong belief by the first five verses of the chapter, which ask for prayer. If this exhortation were tied into the prior correction, if the concern for idleness was related to the wrong belief in the timing of Christ’s return, wouldn’t they have been offered together? Why separate them with a call to prayer? Why interject a request for prayer, a prayer that seems to have no connection to the correction, unless the action and belief aren’t really concurrent?
The other reason this connection is difficult to make is because it doesn’t make logical sense given what we know about the faith community in the early centuries. We know that in the early church, there was a socialist-like atmosphere, where in the resources of the community were used to care for everyone who was part of the community. Everyone who had wealth pitched in to a community fund that helped those who did not have enough to care for themselves. To understand verse 6 as referring to idleness, as in, not working, we would have to also understand that verse 10 means that anyone who is incapable of working should go hungry. Jump down and look, verse 10 reads, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” If read to be about idleness, this text would suggest that if you were not working, you should not receive from the community fund. … Lutheran Pastor, Rev. Jacob Bobby, criticizes this reading by asking, “What about the disabled? The feeble? The old? The systematically marginalized?” Bobby continues, “From this perspective, Paul here is simply giving voice to a harshness that marks many pre-modern thinkers, or, perhaps is an unintended carryover from his training in a Pharisaic tradition that neglected the needy.”[i]
This distinction is necessary. When we think of this passage to be speaking of “work” in general, it makes space for poor Christian euphemisms such as, “God helps those who help themselves.” It is this kind of shallow theological thinking that leads some to criticize social support that aids those who may not be capable of caring for themselves. It’s read as if Paul is saying, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” so we’re not going to provide SNAP or WIC benefits to anyone who isn’t working. That’s a shallow reading that clearly doesn’t jive with the rest of the gospel text.
What happens when we look deeper at the text? What if, instead of settling for our English understanding of this word idleness, we looked back to the Greek to understand the contextual nuances of the writing? What if the author isn’t speaking about non-working persons, but something different all-together? Is there a reading of this concluding exhortation that allows this text to fit into the greater teachings and witness of Christ – something that Paul in all of his writings, and this author in 2 Thessalonians, have maintained should be a primary focus for the church? … I’m glad you asked.
Going back to verse 6, the Greek word translated as “idleness” is ἀτάκτως (ä-tä’k-tōs). In this form, the word is found only one other time in the Bible, found here in the same chapter in 2 Thessalonians 3:11. The root word, ἄτακτος (ä-tä’k-tos), is found only one time in the Bible, in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Given its limited usage, we don’t have many Biblical references to compare to aid our understanding. However, pulling from the greater usage of Greek vocabulary, we find that this word, ἄτακτος, instead of meaning “non-working,” is better defined as, “disorderly,” “irregular,” or “deviating from the prescribed rule.” Other translations of the Bible do a better job of reflecting this definition. The King James reads, “withdraw from every brother that walketh disorderly …” The Common English Bible reads, “stay away from every brother or sister who lives an undisciplined life …”
This idea of ἄτακτος as deviating from the norm – being disorderly – makes sense, even if we just re-read verse 6. Just look at the verse in its full reading, “We command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in ἀτάκτως and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” It seems, in context, the author is concerned that there are believers who are not living according to the tradition that they’ve been taught previously. It’s not about inaction – it’s about wrong action. People are living in a way that deviates from the instruction they have been taught previously.
Now, keep this definition in mind as we keep reading. In verse 7 we see another variation of this word show up. Here, the word is ἀτακτέω (ä-täk-te’-ō). “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not disorderly when we were with you…” Their example has been one of right living, not deviating from the tradition that has been taught. Verse 8 picks back up, “we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked every night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.” Their example was not just one of being busy, but of living and working rightly, according to the witness of Christ.
The complicating verse 10 is here then read, not about people not working, but about people deviating from right work. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” In the context of this exhortation, this verse isn’t about refusing food to those who are not working. We are not withholding support from the disabled, the elderly, or the infirm. This text says we should be keenly aware of those in the community whose work deviates from the tradition that has been named, and affirmed, in the apostle’s teachings.
The teaching that 2 Thessalonians has upheld multiple times, which was first made clear in 1 Thessalonians (and in many of Paul’s other letters), is that our faith should lead us to offer care and support for one another. The teaching of Paul, Paul’s exhortation for us to be imitators of Christ, is to offer care and support for the greater shalom – the well-being – the greater body – the eternal peace of the whole community. “If some members of the community are not contributing to the well-being of everyone, then they are not truly taking part in the caring for and with one another that is paramount to the Christian life.”[ii]
Verse 11 takes verse 10 one step further: “For we hear that some of you are living disordered lives – lives that deviate from the tradition. You are mere busybodies, not doing any work.” If we misread the word idle in this text, it again seems the qualm of the author is with people not working, but instead, mindlessly keeping themselves otherwise occupied. But, when read in the greater context of this exhortation, when we fix our mis-translation of the word idle, we find that the concern of the author isn’t with people not working. The author instead is shown to be concerned that people are working in ways that are not in line with the greater focus of the life, teaching, and witness of Christ. It turns out that not every way of making money is worthwhile in the kingdom of God. If our work is built on a deviance from the call to faithfulness, if our work is based on anything that does not build up the well-being of the community, if our work is structured around anything but lifting up God’s love and the shalom for God’s people, then it is ἄτακτος work – idle work; deviant word; disorderly work.
Verse 12 continues to speak to this crowd of deviant workers, “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” If your work doesn’t fit within the call of building up God’s created humanity … if your work deviates from God’s witness in Christ of offering peace and shalom to all persons … if your work goes against Paul’s call to care for one another … if what you’re doing does not fall in line with the teachings we’ve offered in the past, then go do it quietly and don’t expect the support of the greater community of faith. In other words, stop being a detriment to the church, or don’t be surprised when the church doesn’t support your work! If you insist on going against the call of God in Christ, if you insist on deviating from the traditions of the church that are built upon Christ’s salvific presence, go on your merry way and do it on your own. The church is not expected to support anyone whose work offers a toxic presence that, instead of building up God’s people, tears the church down.
Finally, shifting from this idle working deviant group, in verse 13 the author shifts his focus back to the community of faith who is working rightly: “Brothers and sisters – brethren – do not be weary in doing what is right.”
It can be exhausting doing what is right. It can be challenging to maintain our focus on living faithfully in the midst of a world that criticizes the truth of God’s audacious love. Love that gives up of oneself for the betterment of the whole, rather than to focus on and ensure self-stability. The invitation of this final verse is to the faithful who have not given in to busy-body work, idle work, or deviant work. This work of self-efficacy may look nice, it may be personally rewarding, and it may be a more financially wealthy endeavor – but do not be weary in doing what is right, what builds up and participates in God’s vision for creation.
In the world today, there are many organizations, companies, and career fields that one could argue do little to build up the greater peace of the community. From industries that design and build weapons of mass destruction, to a for-profit medical world where-in some financially benefit from others’ opioid addictions, to many of us as home owners who financially benefit when section 8 housing complexes are moved out of our neighborhoods – there are many fields and endeavors that could be the target of 2 Thessalonian’s exhortation. Certainly any professional could be working in a way that is detrimental to the health and well-being of the community. Even individuals working in public service areas have proven to be at risk of living in ways that Paul would have strongly critiqued – teachers, law enforcement, and yes, even church professionals. We are all at risk of putting our selfish gain and personal righteousness above the witness of God’s love in Christ Jesus.
And yet, we still hear the call of the Biblical text. Do not be idle-workers – do not deviate from God’s witness in Christ to bear love to one another. Do not be weary in doing what is right. … Even in the past couple weeks, I am encouraged and strengthened by the witness of those who, at risk of their own professional and personal lives, are willing to speak the truth to a world in which the truth is hard to come by. … Do not be weary in doing what is right.
As we close out 2 Thessalonians, I invite you to hear this text as it was first offered – not as three divided chapters, but as one encompassing apostolic teaching. Paul offers to the Thessalonians, and from his teaching we learn. We give thanks to God for you are good and faithful people, who maintain your faithfulness amidst hardship. Know that, while the Lord is coming, that time is not yet, so continue to be faithful. Let us be in prayer with one another, as we work to live faithfully. As we let our work exemplify the traditions of our faith, let us remember the promise that while Christ has already redeemed us, God’s work is not yet done. In our endeavor to be a part of God’s work, the Spirit strengthens and sustains us, so that all may know God’s love – that all may be welcomed into Christ’s church – and that all may experience the joy and the hope of our Lord.
For the glory of God, we believe, and we work with diligence that God’s love may be known by all. Amen.