Published on February 5, 2014 by Mark DeVine  
Photo by Tracy O via Flickr
Photo by Tracy O via Flickr

"You ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day that we might not be a burden to any of you." (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8)

What off-putting words! Aren't they? Where are Christians admired for such sentiments and speech? If Paul had a wife and talked like this in polite company, surely she would draw him aside and try to teach him a thing or two about how folks tend to receive such braggadocio.

It gets worse. Paul not only sets himself up as a model for imitation but does so in contrast to believers right there in Thessalonica who were idlers eating the food of others. Does he not realize that of course if these idlers had enjoyed the opportunities and benefits Paul obviously had, then sure, they would love to make tents and pay for their own food and forgo deserved pay for preaching. "There but for the grace of God goes Paul, right?" Paul's strutting around is unseemly and unfounded, is it not?

It's a fascinating passage on many fronts, not least because of how politically incorrect it sounds today. Paul sets himself up as a model for imitation precisely because he is able to pay and actually does pay his own way among the Thessalonians. Paul makes a big deal here and in 1 Corinthians 9 of his offering the gospel "free of charge." Some (not many because preachers have to eat too!) have used these scriptures to impugn acceptance of pay by proclaimers of the gospel. But Paul is very clear that his practice involves the forgoing of a right, not the laying down of a rule.

So why do it? In Thessalonica Paul wants to reprimand, shame, and prompt to repentance the idling busybodies who, though they "will not work" still expect to eat. His message essentially is, "Look, I pay for my food. I come here and labor among you as an apostle of Jesus Christ and am due my rightful wages! Yet I take nothing from you. No, I labor at a second vocation with my own hands so as to triply serve you. I preach and I pay and I take nothing for my services."

It's a very heavy, blunt, and impolitic message. Idleness alone (the devil's workshop and all) deserves reprimand. God carves out one day for the cessation of "our work." The other six exist precisely for the accommodation of that work. "On six days you shall do your work."

But Paul's reprimand cannot be comprehended according to the mere inherent perniciousness of idleness and sloth--the mere refusal to work, blameworthy as it is. No. The fire in Paul's words, his in-your-face tone, requires recognition of a second element. It's the eating without paying combined with the idleness--that?s what sets him off. "I pay for my food! You do not. You should. You could. But you don't. And that's wrong. That's wrong because you are making yourself an unnecessary burden to others who are paying because someone else does pay for that food and it ought to be you!"
Love, Paul is saying, not only does not behave as do the eating idlers; love does not aid or abet or tacitly approve or tolerate such behavior. Love calls out such behavior. Love says to the idlers "such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living" because the burden such eating idlers place upon others does real harm to the community.

At a particularly troubled juncture in the raising of my boys, I agonized over what I could do or say that might benefit them. I am their father after all. From the day of their birth I have known with crystal clarity what I want most for my boys--for them to know and love my Lord. But of course this I cannot ultimately provide. During this difficult time, any direct "Christian talk" would have been utterly unwelcomed by them (they are preacher kids!). But in a flash of insight I realized that, in spite of their rebellious spirits, they did, deep down, covet their father's respect.

As I reflected upon this I realized what it would take for them to gain my respect. I called them into the living room for one of those heavy, electrically charged talks that must occur from time to time. I first reminded them of my greatest desire and prayer for them--that they know and love my Lord. But I told them that they could know and love my Lord yet fail to win my respect. On the other hand, they could go to their graves without Christ (horrific prospect) but still gain my respect.

How? By becoming men others can count on. Men whose wives, children, and friends can count on. By, insofar as they are able, taking care of themselves and gaining the capacity to provide for their dependents. By doing so they would in fact be offering tangible, substantive and significant love to their communities by not unduly burdening others through any sort of eating idleness. To pay one's own way through one's own work is an act of real love. Something here needs recovering among us. Something of the connection between love and working, paying one's own way, and un-burdening others belongs to communities where "the love of God" and the "steadfastness of Christ" prevails.