What a week last week was—what a surprise! There was cheering from some, wailing from others. The CNN commentator Van Jones said our southern, super-power neighbour was seeing a “white-lash against a changing country” and a “white-lash against a black president.” On the other hand, an American friend of mine sent me a screen capture from her Facebook page: some people she knew were rejoicing, calling their president-elect the new king Cyrus, a minister of God, a divinely chosen trumpet.
One of our readings comes from the book of Malachi (4:1-5). Malachi spoke to a minority people whose known world was controlled by a super-power—the Persians. He spoke at a time when their religious institutions were run by those who were selfish and deceitful. If you happen to have that reading open in front of you look at verses 4 and 5. In a sense they capture all that I’m going to say here, even though we’ll mostly be looking at our New Testament reading. Here are the lines from Malachi I’m thinking of: “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses . . . [v.5] I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord . . . .” Verse 4 is a reminder to be faithful to the way of life that enables flourishing and peace; verse 5 is a reminder that the world is not shut off from God. Malachi’s belief is that one day God will judge the arrogant and the deceitful. God will make things right. As I understand it, this verse is the reason Jews traditionally celebrate Passover with a chair left vacant for Elijah. We need the sense of Malachi at a time like this—the sense that our world remains open to God, the sense that we are never left to face the future alone.
Just about 500 years after the time of Malachi the ancient church of Thessalonica, which within the Roman Empire, was struggling with a similar sense. However, they did more than leave a chair vacant. They stopped building chairs altogether. That what’s behind the most famous line in our reading from II Thessalonians chapter 3. I’m thinking of Paul’s statement that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This is one of those phrases that has been absorbed by western culture and used so often and in so many ways that few realize it comes from a first-century letter. Marxists have used the phrase against the rich: if they don’t work, if they sit around relying on their accumulated wealth, they shouldn’t eat. At the other end of the spectrum, those opposed to social welfare programs have used it against those who receive assistance: if they don’t go out and get a job the taxpayer shouldn’t feel obligated to support them either.
In reality both of those are probably ideological deployments of Paul’s advice. The apostle is not self-consciously laying the groundwork for a social program. We get more of that in the life of Jesus or in the Law or the Prophets. Paul’s statement is not saying anything about social assistance or retirement. We can hardly imagine the early church holding back food from infants because they did no work or from the ill or the very elderly.
Do you remember the main issue this church was facing? We talked about it last week. They had been given the impression that Christ’s return was imminent or that it had already happened. It’s likely that this is why some in the community quit working and became moochers. “What’s the point,” they thought, “tomorrow or next week it’s all over? Why work?”
In their idleness they became busybodies. ‘Busybody’ is an old word, from the 16th century I think. It reminds me of some contemporary slang: the online ‘troll’. Online trolls meddle in other people’s issues. They are intentionally inflammatory and divisive. Troll and busybody aren’t a perfect match, but they’re close. Don’t be a troll, Paul says, don’t mooch, don’t get so infatuated with the coming age that you cease to be engaged constructively in this one. Jesus is not going to magically show up and get you out of your mess.
My hunch is that at one time or another some of us have hoped for the same thing: “Please Jesus come back before she breaks up with me.” Or “Please Jesus come back before my parents do . . . and see the car.” We know instinctively that this isn’t the purpose of Christian hope.
That’s obvious enough, but notice that Paul doesn’t just offer theoretical admonishment to the lazy Thessalonian trolls and meddlers. He points to his own practice. In one of his letters to Timothy and in another one sent to the church in Corinth Paul says that those who serve the church like he does deserve to be supported. He argues the point by reading Deuteronomy 25:4 allegorically. Just as the law says oxen threshing grain should be fed, so should an apostle. But here’s how Paul makes his point against the idle: even though he could expect to be paid, he doesn’t ask for it. He works day and night so as not to burden the Thessalonians. This is how valuable work is. Paul wants them to know work isn’t something we should try to get out of at any cost.
You might not be aware of it, but this passage has been a key text in an ancient and ongoing debate within the Christian community about the ideal form of life. The question is this: is the ideal life one of contemplation or one of action? The vita contemplativa or the vita activa—if you want the Latin. (And who doesn’t?) Are we at our best when all our physical needs are under control and we can focus on the intellectual contemplation of God or when we are actively engaged in the cultivation and care of the earth and its creatures?
The contemplative ideal privileged the monk, the active ideal privileged those involved in the marketplace. The former draws on the Psalms, the latter on the Torah. The former was more amenable to Greek philosophy, the latter more Hebraic. The first half of Christian history tilted toward the life of contemplation, the latter half—ours—tilts toward the life of activity and work. How many impoverished mystics do you know? How many of you recommend spiritual contemplation to your children as a career path?
Unlike the Thessalonians, we tend to think that the only limit to our work is our stamina. Many of us would work 24/7 in one capacity or another if our bodies wouldn’t break down.
The life of one of our contemporary heroes Steve Jobs exemplifies some of these tensions. Jobs was born in 1955 (he didn’t quite make it into the Bible). Many of us know that he was immensely successful without finishing college. Fewer of us know that he dropped out of college to travel to India and explore various forms of eastern spirituality. He returned to a job at Atari wearing a saffron robe; he was asked to develop a single-player version of Pong. Many of us know about Jobs’ passionate perfectionism when it came to design. The original Macintosh computer, the iMac, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, the Apple stores—they all bore the marks of Jobs’ passion for getting every corner and every chamfered edge just right. They showed the way he valued controlling user-experience with an arranged marriage between hardware and software. Some of you might remember the famous 1984 add for the Macintosh. More of you would remember those iconic ads for the iPod, the dancing silhouettes with the white earbuds. Things have been definitive pieces of our culture.
Walter Isaacson wrote a 600 page biography of Steve Jobs. The end of the book is striking. Let me quote a chunk, it will deepen our reflection on work and the big picture.
One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feel well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death. He talked about his experiences in India almost four decades earlier, his study of Buddhism, and his views on reincarnation and spiritual transcendence.
“I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” [Jobs] said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”
He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. . . . “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away . . . .”
[Jobs] fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said. “Click! And you’re gone.” Then he paused and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.” (570-571)
It’s hard to imagine anyone in any field much more successful than Jobs. But still “Click! And you’re gone.”
All that experience, all that wisdom, all those hours, all that struggle, all that frustration, all those exultations and curses. Click!
The problem for the Thessalonians was not that they realized there work would not last forever. In light of God and in light of eternity, most of our work is not of ultimate importance. They knew that, so did Jobs. Although one wonders if Jobs might have worked himself to death in some gesture toward eternity. He hired people with the promise of making a dent in the universe.
Work in its many forms—caring for children or parents, volunteering for worthy causes, crafting legislation, building houses, teaching—it is a gift from God. We see that from Genesis through the Prophets and even in the New Testament letters, letters like this one that look ahead to the renewal of all things. My sense, though, is that many of us wrestle with the temptation to work too much.
Ours is the opposite temptation of the Thessalonians. We can blame ourselves. We can blame our culture. We can blame the Christian tradition that swings wildly from idolizing contemplation to activity. Or we can forget about finding something to blame and look for a way forward. In the Bible, unlike much of Christian history, there is no wild swinging between negative and positive views of work. There are at least three reasons for this. These are worth considering.
First, there is always and everywhere the assumption that we ought to live in light of God’s eternity. We do not set our own goals or define what our lives are about. We do not have to reconfigure the universe. Malachi says “See, the day is coming . . . .” The pretensions and the bullying of the arrogant will go up like the smoke of burnt straw. God’s healing will light the world like the rays of the early morning sun. We mis-calibrate our life’s activity if we aren’t conscious of this.
Second, in the strange world within the Bible all that we do should fall under the heading of service to God. That’s tucked in the last verse of Malachi chapter 3. There the prophet tells us that the righteous are those who serve God. That’s something worth contemplating as we ride the bus or as we make our morning coffee. How is the day I am about to embark on service to the Almighty and Ever-loving creator? It’s worth using that too as a way of thinking back over our day, maybe as we go for a late walk or as we relax after flicking off the light. It’s good perspective and it helps us worry about the right things. How is what I do service to God?
Third—and we’ll end here—in Scripture work is bounded by the practice of Sabbath. The practice of Sabbath kneads these ideas into the dough our lives. I once heard a story about someone who was so enthusiastic about the idea of taking a day for rest and prayer that he decided not to work at all on Sunday (to honor the Christians) and not to work at all on Saturday (to honor the Jews) and not to work at all on Friday (to honor Muslims). That’s one way to do it, but Sabbath isn’t about getting out of work.
Like so many other Christian practices, Sabbath is one of those things that we’ve probably been so wooden about in the past that we might be tempted to junk it. Or maybe we’ve seen it practiced so unequally that it seems best to forget it. Let’s not. Sabbath offers us a built-in reminder that work is a limited good. It is good, but it is limited. Sabbath reminds us that everything we have ultimately originates in stuff beyond our control. It reminds us that ultimately there is much that we simply can’t reshape or reform—so we pray.
There is before us then the way of striving, exhaustion and worrying that we might not have made a dent in the universe after all. There is also another way. This is the way of flourishing, contentment and openness to God. This is a way that, in the words of Malachi, will lead us to “go out leaping like calves from the stall.” In this way our work will bring us joy and energy, not because the end has come but because God is just, loving, patient and sovereign.
God of creation and of eternity, for good work that requires our best efforts, for the discipline of Sabbath, for these we offer thanks and for these we pray. Amen.