It Is Hard to Hear..., Proper 28 (C) - 2007

November 18, 2007

It is hard to hear today’s epistle without recalling Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ants. Thinking about the fun-loving grasshopper who showed up at the hard-working ants’ door, cold and starving during a winter storm, seeking food and shelter, it’s easy to imagine what the ant doorkeeper had to say. Maybe something like: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

It would be easy to consider this a very appropriate answer. It would sound about right if we were to imagine ourselves as parent ants seeking to protect our innocent baby ants from the irresponsible grasshopper who might eat the precious food we had saved for our little ones. Anyone unwilling to work should not eat – especially the able-bodied but lazy among us. This is a natural opinion.

Engaged in Christian worship, however, we might consider that such a view clearly seems more in keeping with the realities of modern politics than with the teachings of the church. Yet, of course, we realize that the response made by the ants to the grasshopper is nearly an exact quotation from today’s Epistle reading.

St. Paul reminded the Christians in Thessalonica that “We gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” And he added, “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

This doesn’t sound like the gentle, caring Jesus we normally think of, does it? Perhaps we even wonder if Paul misunderstood the Messiah, who seemed far less judgmental. Wouldn’t it seem more like Jesus to tell the ants, “You need to share what you have with this poor creature”?

How do we understand these seemingly inconsistent views?

We can begin by recalling the context in which Paul wrote. The new Christians in Thessalonica were caught up the spirit of believing the Second Coming of Christ would occur immediately. Assuming that was the case and that all would be fulfilled very soon, some of them appear to have decided not to do anything except wait and watch for Jesus to return and bring in the fullness of God’s realm. What riled up Paul was that the idle were taking advantage of the loving, outreaching and given nature of the local Christian community.

It is important to remember that what is being called into question here is a refusal to work – an unwillingness to contribute – like the grasshopper in the fable. Paul obviously was not referring to those who have no ability to produce. We must be careful not to apply this lesson to those who have lost their jobs, or are disabled, or to retirees reaping the fruits of a lifetime of work.

The refusal of some Thessalonians to work is bad enough, but what Paul seemed to dislike most was what the idleness was causing. These people weren’t just playing away the summer like the grasshopper, but their idleness had led them also to become busybodies. Paul is alert to the fact that there are few sins more damaging than gossip, especially in the life of the church. Malicious interest in the business of others is harmful and hateful. Even gossip that is not intended to be harmful has little chance of becoming productive and has no place within a life lived in the spirit of Christ.

We don’t have to be lying around waiting for the Second Coming to fall prey to this malady. It is all too easy to have enough time on our hands to spend it as busybodies. We see this among our friends and acquaintances and in ourselves. We recognize it as the familiar peeping-out-the-window desire to know what the neighbors are up to. We see it as a growing phenomenon that feeds on a culture of celebrity in which people take undue interest in every detail of famous people’s lives.

Listening to and spreading gossip about public figures, about anyone in authority, or about anyone in the church or our local community is something St. Paul warns us against. The warning he issued to the church in Thessalonica is a warning for us too: This is not the way Christians love their neighbors as themselves, and it not a way to respect the dignity of every human being, as the Baptismal Covenant requires of us.

What led to the Thessalonian busybodies’ refusal to work was a fundamental misreading of basic Christian ethics. They understood the beginning of our faith: the grace of God, love given without our having to earn it, given with no strings attached; God loving us and forgiving us regardless of our sins; unconditional love. But they missed the fact that this is only the surface view, only the beginning.

The idle people in Thessalonica took advantage of God’s grace, asking “Why should I exert myself to do God’s will? Why should I work? Why should I take risks? Why should I sacrifice and give myself away for the sake of others? Why not just sit back and take it all in?”

Perhaps in our time we have moment of relying on such a surface view, wondering “Why should I, too, not also become idle?” And so we ask, “What is the incentive?”

In today’s epistle reading, Paul used his own behavior as an example. “We were not idle when we were with you, 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.” St. Paul understood better than anyone about the power of God’s grace, but he did not “rest on his laurels” or take advantage of God’s love. He did not fall into idle pursuits. Rather, he did what he could to contribute the well-being of the community. He did not become a busybody or gossip or talk maliciously about others.

The incentive for us not to be idle comes through the development of a thankful recognition of what God has done and continues to do for us. In grateful response, we Christians do all in our power to respond to God’s love by loving God in return and, in so loving, also love our neighbors as ourselves. We do share as we are able, day by day, discharging the stewardship opportunities the Christian life lays before us. Using our God-given abilities to their fullest, keeping focused at all times on the values of God, we will not have the idle time to lapse into being busybodies.

Knowing that God loves us unconditionally, with no strings attached and regardless of our sins, we still have an incentive to refrain from the idleness that reaps such a bitter harvest. Our incentive is to gain the richer, fuller, more meaningful life to which God draws us.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema