Dr. Mark E. Hardgrove
I realize that the phrase referring to “a workman . . . unashamed,” sounds like the phrase from Paul’s Epistle to Timothy (2 Tim 2:15), “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,” which has to do with the work of ministry and not employment in the generic sense of the word. But I wanted to borrow that phrase and employ its use today as a title for the message on this Sunday before the Labor Day holiday.
For some the concept of work, or of labor is associated with the curse upon mankind for Adam’s sin. For many there is a desire to simply take their hand of the plow and put it instead on the golf club, or the fishing pole. But the truth is that God created man for work.
In Genesis we see that God had created the universe, the earth and the Garden of Eden, and it was all good. He had the garden, the trees, shrubs, plants and herbs, but no one to tend the Garden and no one to be blessed by the Garden. So God said, “Let us make man in our own image, and after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). After creating man and woman God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). In other words, God was telling Adam and Eve, “I’ve got a job for you to do and in the act of serving Me, you will be blessed.” Far from a curse, the original intent of our labors was to be blessed.
In the next chapter, we have a quick review of the creative process and verse 5 says, “and there was not a man to till the ground.” Implicit in this statement is the understanding that man, male and female, would serve God by becoming stewards over His creation.
The result the fall was not that meaningful employment was cursed, but that the process of gaining a living from the earth, and by extension, to many other forms of gaining a living, would be a toilsome and induce the sweat of man’s brow. The earth no longer gave up the produce with the ease and in the measure that it once did. Now, as a result of the fall, the earth would have to be worked, coaxed, and battled to bring forth its fruit.
Work is not the curse, but the result of the curse is that our works will involve more effort and energy than it would have taken had not man fallen. However, God promised to redeem man. God man a covenant with man that if we would honor Him and keep His commandments and statutes that he would cause us to prosper.
With that background, let’s turn back to our text. Paul was writing to the church of Thessalonica and as was common in his Epistles, Paul would address problems or potential problems in the local church that he was writing. Usually Paul’s letters were in response to some correspondence first sent to him, or in response to a report brought to him by word of mouth. In this portion of Scripture Paul is addressing a situation in which there were those who lived with such an eschatological expectation that they quit their jobs and sat in waiting for the return of the Lord. The other members of the church, then, were trying to display Christian charity and concern by ministering to the welfare of these super-spiritual believers.
6In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.
Sometimes when we try to help others, if we are not seeking wisdom from above, if we are not trying the spirits to see whether they be of God, we can end up becoming facilitators for folks who are not willing to take responsibility for their own welfare. In doing so we can create a codependency. We feel good because we are helping them, and they feel good because they are being taken care of. This is not a healthy relationship.
There are times when legitimate needs arise. There are times when members of the body need a hand up, when folks need to be ministered to with temporal services and goods. But if we are not wise, if we do not seek God’s direction, Satan will come in and empty the storehouse until we have nothing left for those who are really in need.
In response to the report of those who were not working, but who, instead, were lazy and refused to work, Paul gives us this warning, “keep away from every brother who is idle.” Notice that Paul calls him a “brother.” He is, it seems, referring to those who claim Christian faith, but who refuse to live according to the teachings of the Apostles. They are idle, they are lazy, and they are sponges looking for a handout rather than a hand-up.
I’m reminded of Peter and John walking into the Temple at the time of prayer when a man crippled from birth asked them for alms. If they had any money, it would have been easy to toss a handout into the basket of the beggar. Instead of a handout, however, Peter reached out his hand and, in the name of Jesus, lifted the man up.
We need to provide food, when we can, to those truly in need. We need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the widows and orphans in their affliction. But more than money, people need love. Sometimes they need tough love, that says, “No, I won’t give you more money, but I will help you find a job if you want one.”
I heard the story of Christian businessman who was quite successful, a man of means and money. He was at an airport on his way to catch his plane, when he was approached by a beggar who thrust out his hand and said, “Hey man, can you spare some change?” The businessman briefly thought about handing the man a dollar, but instead stopped and talked with him. He said, “Listen, I’m a rather successful business man and I know something about marketing. In fact, I now train others to advertise and market, so instead of giving you money let me give you some advice. First, when you approach someone, it is best not to immediately thrust your hand in their face, but to wait until they offer you some money before you put your hand out. Second, instead of simply asking for some change, it would be best if you asked for a specific amount. Ask for a dollar, or two dollars, but give an amount. Finally, you might want to dress a little better, comb your hair and use a breath mint.” After the businessman finished the beggar drew himself up to his full stature and said, “Listen mister, if you don’t want to give me some money then don’t give me anything, but don’t try to tell me how to run my business.”
Paul gives a warning with regard to people have no will to work and who are content to live on the handouts of others, “keep away.” The church must never, even under the auspices of charity, facilitate the idleness of others.
7For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.
In seeking an example of those who work for their keep Paul reminded the Thessalonians of his own example. He states that as a minister, someone coming to minister to spiritual needs, he and his missionary team had every right to request resources from those they were ministering too. But instead, Paul wanted to teach the church something about work ethic, about ministry that is not about getting rich off the labors of others, but ministry that is willing to pay their own way.
We live in a day when there are ministers who act like, and who teach that the congregation owes them something. There are ministers who promote the idea that they should be faring sumptuously while members of the congregation go hungry. They use Biblical terms to twist the arms of the people to line their own pockets. And while they talk about giving by faith, and about prosperity, they are the only ones getting rich. I believe someone will have to answer for this travesty that is carried out in the name of faith. I do believe that the word teaches in many places, including this text, that ministers ought to be able to give themselves full-time to ministry, to the word and to prayer. But I do not believe that means that shepherds should fleece the flock.
In addition to the role of the minister, every Christian worker should be an example in the company of trust, honesty, hard work, and commitment. Sun has been working at Wal-Mart for several years and she makes a pretty good wage for a retail job. She started out at the same rate as everyone else, but she has consistently gotten raises and promotions simply because she is a hard worker who gives eight hours of work for eight hours of pay.
Unfortunately we now live in a lazy society where people want more pay for less work. And yet we have companies who want more work for less pay. Greed in the highest echelons of the company filters down to the floor of the factory where workers feel that somebody owes them something. In this climate of cheating, stealing, and inconsistent performance a Christian who is willing to work stands out. Every Christian should be a testimony to Christ because everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, but who is lazy and lax in their performance, is handing ammunition to the enemy to use against other Christians seeking a job. But every hard working and committed Christian is paving the way for the company to hire more Christians.
One of the highest complements ever paid to me was by the shift supervisor and the foreman of the stove company I was working at while attending seminary. They didn’t even know I was walking behind them but when I heard my name I tuned-in to their conversation. One was telling the other, “there’s one thing about it, if Mark tells you something you can take it to the bank.” The other agreed.
They didn’t like the fact that I would not lie to cover up their mistakes, but they knew that I was honest in my word, my time, my work ethic, and my attendance. In five years of employment, I had four years of perfect attendance and was never late. That should be the norm for every Christian worker. More than impressing these men with my work ethic, I was giving a good testimony as a minister of the Word.
10For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
Paul gives us the warning to keep away from idle people who do not follow the teaching of the Apostles. He gives us his own example to follow with respect to our work ethic. And finally, Paul gives us this rule, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
That sounds kind of harsh at first, but look more closely at the rule. He didn’t say, “If a man can’t work, he shall not eat.” Paul said, “If a man will not work,” this implies that there is gainful employment available, but because of either sheer laziness, or perhaps even because of a false spirituality in which the man claims to be looking for the immanent return of Christ, or some false claim of faith in which he says, “The Lord will provide,” the man who will not work should not be given handouts.
I’ve known people who could get a job and feed their family, but they turned up their noses because they felt they were too good for that job. So instead they simply relied on public assistance. But the Bible says this, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim 5:8).
If we can work, we should work. And when we work we should do so in such a way that God is glorified by our labors.
Likewise, if we are employers, we have been commanded to treat our employees with respect and to give them a fair day’s pay, for a fair day’s labor, because as Christian employers we too are planting seeds. If we are harsh and unreasonable, if we are demanding and domineering we undermine our Christian witness. And frankly our testimony is more important than our bottom line.
I’ve heard many testimonies of Christian employers who applied Christian and Christ-like principles in the practice of their business and they testify to the blessings they have experienced. Several years ago it was J. C. Penney who treated his employees fairly and he was faithful in his tithes. His company prospered. More recently, the founder of Chick-fil-a has built a successful business without sacrificing his integrity or Christian virtues.
On this Labor Day, we need to remember that if we have the strength and the means to make a living, it is God who should get the glory. As an employee, our work should be our testimony. As an employer, our fair treatment of workers and our Christian character in business should be our testimony. Recent event in companies such as Enron vividly remind us of the tragic results of trying to lead a company without integrity. God’s ways are the best ways. In life, in work, in love and in business.