For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.
(2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 NIV)
Misunderstanding regarding the second coming and this issue seem to be the primary reasons for Paul writing this letter. It is hard for us to understand how this could be an issue. The social welfare system of the first century was totally different from the one we live in. Outside the church community poverty was common. Those unable to work begged and everyone else scratched out a living the best they could.
Inside the church community life was different. The believers genuinely did life together. I imagine a potluck for every meal, or at least for the main meal of the day when everyone gathered at the end of the day to eat and share in praise, prayer, and teaching. It was easy to survive in that situation by relying on the prosperity and generosity of others.
This isn’t the only church where this issue developed.
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. 29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:28-29 NIV)
Notice the parallels. We work to be able to be generous with others in need. The expectation is that there will always be people in our community, both believers and unbelievers, who are unable to provide for themselves. We work to be able to share. We also work because idleness leads to discord in the community. When we are idle we talk, and our talk is often not constructive. Idleness and gossip tear away at the fabric of the community.
Paul’s solution has two parts. The first part is to work. God created us to work. The work we do takes many forms and changes during the various seasons of life. Some of the most important work we do is in praying for others and this we can do as long as we have the cognitive ability to do it. Praying for others is related to the second part of Paul’s solution. It is much harder to speak words that tear another down if we are praying for them. Of course, Paul’s solution goes beyond keeping quiet and not tearing others down. He instructs us to find words that encourage and build up.
For my grandchildren:
Learn to work and be generous with what you produce.