Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019
Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture. On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped. On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes. On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.
First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture. The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end. We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live. And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten. Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens. This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that. Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity? Of course there are. But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it. And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need. If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing. If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting. They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.
Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time. Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city. Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like. They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.
And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent. They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged. Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen. And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community. Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons. First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work. Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle. Jesus gave us work to do. We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way. We’re called to put that love into action. And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus. They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.
But it gets worse. They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work. They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way. It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do. This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever. This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community. Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either. And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime. Work that God has called us to do in the here and now. The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things. The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world. We have work to do.
But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important. And that’s especially true when it comes to work. Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work. Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods. People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens. They have less value. And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up. We see people with price tags. If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more. And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is. I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing. Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die. Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help. One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that. It causes so much unnecessary suffering.
God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance. The work is not the point. The love and grace and abundance are the point. The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance. And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that. God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter. Love is one of the deepest needs we have. Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have. And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone. You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.
If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you. But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy. If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too. And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God. You are not a burden. Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do. It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world. That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another. May we all share in that.