Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash
Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell there.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy,
Before the LORD who comes,
who comes to govern the earth,
To govern the world with justice
and the peoples with fairness.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Thessalonians 3:7–12
November 13, 2022
Today, we conclude our examination of 2nd Thessalonians. As we have noted previously much of it is a mystery. We are uncertain who wrote it, to whom or when. We are certain only that the author, who may very well have been St. Paul himself, had read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and was very familiar with the other writings of St. Paul. He also had a distinct message or, to be more precise, two messages. Today we will examine the second message and again seek not to lose the forest for the trees.
We began this section last week and saw that it would take up a new topic. We knew that it would be challenging because the author spoke about the dangers of perverse people and the work of the evil one. They would need the love of God to have the endurance of Christ. The sentence immediately before our passage today reads:
We instruct you, brothers,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to shun any brother who conducts himself
in a disorderly way
and not according to the tradition
they received from us
(2 Th 3:6)
This is an appeal to and statement of the importance of tradition. Whoever the audience is Paul has given them enough to know what the teachings of the community are. They are so clear that there is no excuse for ignoring or disobeying them and so a person should be “shunned” for doing either. This does not mean abandoned by the community but reminded of their deviation from the norm. For Paul, an error in belief has real world consequences. Paul always calls attention to the behavior of people who do not share his gospel. Indeed, he often compares his behavior to theirs as in the next sentence:
For you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone
(2 Th 3:7–8a)
Disorderly both here and in the previous line means lazy and unproductive. As we will see, Paul and with him most people in the ancient world, perceived that an idle person would fill his or her time with gossip and meddling in other people’s business. Paul immediately reminded his readers that he was working productively enough that he did not have to take food from anyone. He emphasizes this in the next line:
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery,
night and day we worked,
so as not to burden any of you
(2 Th 3:8)
Paul notes that he had the right to ask for assistance but did not take it so that he could be a role model.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
(2 Th 3:9)
A role model of what and why was this important?
The author of 2nd Thessalonians seeks to build on 1st Thessalonians whenever he can. It would be impossible in this brief space to list all the connections much less to show how he has structured the second letter after the first. Let us take only two examples.
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters;
we worked night and day,
so that we might not burden any of you
while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
You are witnesses, and God also,
how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct
was toward you believers
(1 Th 2:9–10)
Nevertheless, we urge you, brothers,
to progress even more,
and to aspire to live a tranquil life,
to mind your own affairs,
and to work with your own hands,
as we instructed you,
(1 Th 4:10–11)
The next line is the most famous in the letter:
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
(2 Th 3:10)
This is not original with Paul and is a rather common proverb. It is sometimes assumed that the need for this warning was that some of the members of the community had decided that, if the Lord had returned, there was no need to work. This has a certain appeal. The first section of the letter was written to confront the belief that the Lord had returned and it probable that some people took this as a license to take very premature if not early retirement. Yet there is no direct reference to this, and the section did begin with “Finally” indicating a new topic.
A more likely reason would be that, as the early church struggled to share a common life, some people took advantage of this and sponged off the wider community. One example would be the liturgy itself. It was a potluck dinner, and some people would bring a substantial meal and others would bring themselves. As always, it would be easy for these people to make theologically grounded excuses proving once more that bad theology brings out bad behavior.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you
in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy
but minding the business of others
(2 Th 3:11)
Here again we see the admonition to avoid a disorderly life. We are ordered, created to work (see Genesis). When we do not the tendency is to become intrusive.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ
to work quietly and to eat their own food.
(2 Th 3:12).
“Quiet” here does not mean “silent” but living in accordance with God’s will which would make one a good member of the community and not calling attention to oneself. They should bring enough food from their own labors and eat it.
In the quotation from 1 Thessalonians above Paul used a related verb meaning “tranquil.” This is shalom peace: being in harmony. It is the sign of the kingdom of God and so important that those who disturbed it needed to be as we have seen in verse 6 shunned. But this does not mean abandoned. Several verses beyond today’s reading the author writes.
If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter,
take note of this person not to associate with him,
that he may be put to shame.
Do not regard him as an enemy
but admonish him as a brother.
(2 Th 3:14–15)
Work is important for everyone. The author is a leader of his community and knows the negative effects of idleness on that community. Yet there is more to it than that. The author of St. Luke’s Gospel, a leader in his community, wrote:
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table,
and proceed to wait on them.
Working well with our families, our jobs and our community are all signs of vigilance. Ask yourself: “What do I do best” and then pray that you will be doing it when the Lord returns.