Anyone Unwilling to Do Spiritual Work Will Not Be Spiritually Fed

A sermon based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 17, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The owner of a manufacturing firm decided to make a surprise visit to his factory. Right away he noticed a young man lazily leaning against a packing crate, The owner angrily asked the man, “Just how much are you being paid?” “$300 a week,” replied the young man. The irate owner pulled $300 out his wallet, handed them to the young man and sternly said, “Here’s a week’s pay. Now get out of here you’re not working in my factory!” Without a word, the young man took the money and left. The owner turned to the warehouse manager and asked. “How long has that lazy man worked for us?” He’s never worked for us,” replied the manager. “He just delivered a $20 pizza to the break room and was waiting to be paid. Nice tip.”
The owner in that story assumed a working man was not working and sent him home with what he meant to be the worker’s last pay. The owner’s rash action is turned on him in the joke, but he did not bat an eye about the harshness of putting someone out on the street without a knowing they had a future means to pay for necessities, like food. He offered no warning, no second chance, no grace.
Pretty harsh. He was not as harsh, however, as our Lectionary text at first glance seems to be. At least the owner provided $300 in severance for what he thought was an unwillingness to work. However, 2 Thessalonians 3 at verse 10, instructs that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
That harsh sounding verse leapt out at me. It leapt out in two ways. It seems in harmony with a cultural idea that everyone not inheriting wealth must work and pull themself up by their own boot straps. But it also leapt out as seemingly being in disharmony with Biblical instructions to unconditionally feed the hungry. Here’s just a sample of the Biblical instructions. In Isaiah 55 (1) the prophet says
everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
In Matthew 6:(25-26) Jesus says
“do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink . . . Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
Later in Matthew 25 Jesus instructs in no uncertain terms that we are judged by whether or not we feed the hungry.
Making sure that people had daily bread– food to eat– remained such an important teaching of Jesus’ that after he ascended we are told members of the early churches shared possessions and took care of one another. Speaking of the first church in Jerusalem, Acts 2 (44-45) states:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
The quotes that I just read from Isaiah, and about Jesus and the early church, seem to be at odds with the Lectionary text Olivia just read so nicely. They seem at odds as well with the cultural ethos about pulling our self up on our own. The cultural clash is so great that I suspect some in our culture might even mislabel as socialism the Biblical instructions to provide food to the hungry without condition. I say mislabel as socialism because socialism according to the Oxford Dictionary is an “economic system in which the means of production are controlled by the state.” Socialism is not about religious practices, it’s about rules of government over economic systems. Isaiah and Jesus and the early church’s “feed the poor instructions” are about religious practices and systems of living in a Way that adhere to rules of the realm of God, not the rules of the realms of humankind. Those instructions are not about socialism, they are about righteous behavior, spiritual and religious practices, Jesus’ Way of best being.
But all of this raises a number of questions. What do we do with the part of today’s lesson that reads “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Does it conflict with Isaiah, Jesus and the early church, or what? Is it applicable to us today? Is the idea that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” a good personal faith or church-wide policy? What does it mean, and how might it play out?
First of all, lets admit it makes us uncomfortable on both ends of the spectrum. Even as we want people to eat, we want able-body people to work if they can get a job, to sustain themselves. Most of the adult population has no other means to eat. So, mostly, anyone not working will not be fed, unless those who work provide the means for them to eat.
Which circles back to the instructions in the Bible about providing food to the hungry. There is another bit of conflict not at all clear from just a reading of our Lectionary text. In 2 Thessalonians chapter one the author claims to be Paul, but many scholars think it is not likely that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Back when it was written it was not frowned upon for followers of a person to pen things in their name as form of honor. It was sort of like dedicating a writing to someone today, except that the whole work was given over making it completely in the honor person’s name. So the author of 2 Thessalonians was not trying to be deceitful, he was trying to honor Paul to continue what the author thought would be Paul’s advice. But for a lot of us since the words are not Paul’s the are suspect, they have a taint of falsehood to them, and of course the authority and wisdom of Paul is not present.
While that certainly is problematic for those who subscribe to modern Christian doctrines of literalism, inerrancy and infallibility of words in the Bible, it does not necessarily mean this particular teaching is wrong or in conflict with Paul’s real teachings. While some pseudo- Pauline texts conflict with Jesus, the Bible and Paul, some do not. But they should all be approached with caution to tease out whether they have value and truth in line with Jesus’ love centered teachings. A careful approach to our lesson today suggests the real trouble with the verse is not that it was written by a well meaning imposter, but that the instruction “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” is misread, misused and taken out of context. Those wanting an excuse to not unconditionally feed the hungry in the world as the Bible instructs, erroneously claim the verse gives them that excuse. But the verse does not say don’t feed people unless they literally work. It says “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” The words do not apply to those unable to work or find work. They do not apply to those who work but are not paid enough to afford necessities.
Moreover the verse was penned to address a very narrow issue involving a small group of people in the Church of Thessaloniki (Theh so lone a key). Paul actually did express similar concerns in 1 Thessalonians (the letter he really wrote) to the members of that church. Here’s what was going on, Paul’s churches were set up so its members would take care of one another in difficult times. In the Roman Empire the vast majority of people were paid barely enough to live hand to mouth and they could easily lose whatever paying work they had.
Imagine the vast majority of our population working at today’s minimum wage jobs vulnerable to the whims of owners and markets and the lack of sufficient funds. That’s sort of what it was like they just could not get ahead, and could easily fall behind. This made the acquisition of daily bread a constant worry. So Paul set up Christian “share communities,” so that “if some couldn’t work or find work for a period of time, those who had enough would share with them.”(1st Paul p 189). While the sharing was intended to help those unable to work or find work, or those without enough for necessities, some able-bodied members took advantage in the share community churches choosing not to work and kickback and freeload off of others members’ work and good graces.
As theologians John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg put it in their book The First Paul, “Some people [were] attracted to such communities because it is a good deal–they got to be taken care of.” Crossan and Borg point out that that is the context the author of 2 Thessalonians wrote “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” In other words, it was written about church members purposefully choosing to NOT work and contribute, basically cheat the church and the shared community system. Here’s how Crossan and Borg sum up verse 11 in context:
This text has sometimes been quoted by Christians to justify [an] economic policy [that] those who do not work should not be taken care of. But it is not a heartless command that anybody who does not work, regardless of the reasons should starve. Rather, the text reflects that in these shared communities some were abusing the practice. It means, in short, that if you can work and you’re not willing to, perhaps even not trying to look for work, then you ought not to receive the benefits of the shared community. (190)
As a rule American churches, including this one, are not literally shared community churches like the one Paul set up for the Thessalonians. While we are one of the most generous congregations I have ever been associated with– or heard of– we do not, as a rule, cover all the food costs for members who cannot work. We help members and friends and people we do not know in many ways with time, talent and treasure. We volunteer at and donate resources to non-profits, we serve hot meals with no questions ask. We help with necessities, but not for weeks on end of unemployment. We were never set up for that. I do not know of any denomination with an American shared community church. So the instruction that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” does not literally apply since the context of shared community is missing.
But we can still metaphorically apply the concept in our context, at least with respect to spiritual nourishment. Although modern churches are not the same sort of shared community addressed in the lesson, the Feasting on the Word commentary (p 306) on our text suggests that we can still find it applicable to spirituality. The commentary suggests we read it to mean anyone unwilling to do spiritual work does not get spiritual nourishment. In that way the commentary points out that the admonition
“If you will not work, you cannot eat,” becomes descriptive rather than prescriptive. If you do not read the Bible yourself, if you do not have your own prayer time, no one else can do it for you. You will not be fed. You will not grow. You will not mature as a Christian.
In my experience that is very true. Participation in church– whether as a formal member or a friend or a visitor– is not very effective when there is an unwillingness to do spiritual work because it leads to a lack of spiritual nourishment or growth. Being active in the church is one way to help us and others learn and do spiritual work that leads to our being fed spiritually, as well as being able to fed others.
I love that this Lectionary text came up today when we are holding a class at noon for anyone interested in learning how to formally join the church, (if you have not already signed up but want to attend let me know at social hour). We do, of course, have beloved spiritually healthy members of this church family who have not formally joined the church and like those that have joined they are clearly capable of doing spiritual work and are fed and nourished grow and help others do so too.
So this is not a pitch to pressured anyone to formally be an official member. We love everyone in this church family. What it is meant to suggest is that we appreciate that anyone who is unwilling to work spiritually will not be fed spiritually– not because God, Jesus or anyone in this church has decided to not feed any person. But because the only way to get spiritual nourishment is for individuals to choose to do the Spiritual work to get it.
Being here at worship is a form of Spiritual work, so is prayer, so is being in awe of creation, singing in the choir, Bible study, Adult forum, Sunday school, Chi Gong, volunteer work, offering time, talent and treasure, and any other intentional action that aims toward the well being self, others or creation. Such and actions are the very definition of love. And love is God. And knowing that, and believing that, and loving God and being love . . . all of that nourishes us Spiritually. It takes work to be Spiritually fed. May we find ways to do that work together and alone with God–love.