When you read the word, "job" what comes to mind? You might think, "I'm glad tomorrow's a holiday!" Still others think, "Boy, am I glad I have a job." Some may say, "Sure wish I could find a job." Maybe you thought of the song the Seven Dwarves sang as they headed off to work: "Hi Ho Hi Ho, it's off to work we go!"
Do you remember your first job? I remember mine. I was hired to pull weeds on a farm for—get this—twenty-five cents an hour. There I was in the hot sun pulling weeds from among the vegetable plants. Sweat poured down my freckled face. Twenty-five cents an hour. I know it might sound strange but that was a fair wage when I was a kid.
That was my first job, but I trained and worked in the printing business. I was a printer—I made a big impression on people—and was going to become a teacher in a vocational school until God wanted me to make an impression on others through teaching and preaching the good news of Jesus' love for them. This is the work I'm involved with now.
But let me ask you: What about work? What about your work? Where does this thing called work actually fit into what it means to be a follower of Jesus? For many of us, work is just something we do—we do it because we have to—to pay the bills, to feed our family, to live. What if we all decided that we didn't want to work? There are people in this world who've simply stopped working. How are we as Christians to wrestle with these kinds of attitudes?
Labor Day is a holiday celebrating the American worker. It has roots all the way back to a national holiday recognizing workers that was passed by Congress in 1894. This is a good thing. The Bible, speaks about work throughout its pages—from Genesis to Revelation.
A text that helps us to get a sense of what it means to be a Christian and to appreciate the role of work in our lives and in the life of the church is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. As you read the text try to answer this question: "What am I and the church of which I'm a part to understand about work?"
The text is clear: we are to work. We are not to be idle. Those who are idle, lazy, a slacker are wayward. Notice that Paul gives a strong order: "I command … " He follows it up with "every brother." Those who are lazy are not living their lives by the way they have been taught: they are slothful, slackers, idle. They are this way because they think that Jesus is coming back very soon and therefore don't need to work. You've heard the phrase, "She's or he's so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good." That's what some of these Thessalonian Christians were like—and we can be like them, too.
We are to work—and we are to follow and be a good example. Paul the church planter told these Christians that they are to follow his example. Not only was Paul a church planter, he was also a tentmaker. As a tentmaker, he made his living so that he could plant churches. He wasn't dependent upon others—although he had the right to do so, he didn't want to take advantage of his hosts—he didn't want to expect too much. He wanted to be a model, to show the church folks what it means to be a Christian and to be involved in ministry—and to work.
Roger Babson graduated with a degree in engineering from MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1898. Babson was an incredible entrepreneur. He entered into the world of investment and never looked back. He learned from the 1907 Financial Panic and was the first one to predict the 1929 stock market crash. He founded three colleges, including Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Babson was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts and during the Great Depression to provide charitable assistance, he hired the unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational sayings into the boulders of a section of Gloucester called "Dogtown." On these boulders are inscribed: "Help Mother," "Spiritual Power," "Get a Job," "Be on Time," and "Save," among others.
The words are not meant to be a mean, vitriolic, angry, or nasty command. Instead, it was meant to inspire, to encourage. Babson said that the most important experience in his life was his conversion to Christ at age fifteen. Babson understood that as Christians we are to work. Paul communicates this truth that Christians are to work by putting it plainly: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." We are not to be a burden to the church. You can imagine that these lazy bones were actually a drain on the church. They didn't work. They didn't have an income. So they asked for and expected handouts from their fellow church members.
There are those who don't work
Jesus said in John 12:8, "You will always have the poor among you," and that's true. The doorbell rang at the parsonage one spring morning and I answered it. On my porch was an older man clutching his hat. He was unshaven and a bit rumpled. He had spent the night under the railway trestle just outside town. Mr. Gumpf needed something to eat. I don't run into tramps all that often so I asked him, "How did you get started doing what you do?" He told me that he was married, had children, but he couldn't handle it. He had to wander. So he did, from rescue mission to Salvation Army shelter to churches for handouts.
Not only is Jesus' statement true, "the poor you will always have with you" but also, "the lazy, the slacker, the idle you will always have with you." There will be people who don't work, who don't practice their trade and think that they're super spiritual. This text says otherwise: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."
What's the sad result for those who don't work? What do they end up doing? We are not to be busybodies. A busybody gets tangled up into other people's lives. They interfere with healthy community life. They take rather than give. Idle, lazy, slacker types of people don't contribute to the community they clutter the community.
When we work we are doing good
Our work actually matters to God. When we work we honor God by supporting our lives and by supporting the gospel. Even though the words are tough on those who are idle: "keep away from" (vs. 6) and "do not associate with" (vs. 14) this person is still a "brother" and is to be redeemed. We are to help those who are slackers—we are to encourage them to work. We are stewards of the gifts and abilities God has given us. If we are able, we are to work because God calls us to work. We are to work.
We know we are to work. What does it mean to work? We are doing what is good. When we work we are doing what God wants us to do. We are being faithful to the teachings of Scripture. We are following the example of the apostles. We are working and therefore we are eating! We are not busybodies, but are busy. We are doing what is good (vs. 13) "Brothers, never tire of doing what is good." This is literally what the text says.
By working, by caring for ourselves and our family, by supporting the work of the church, we are—you are—doing good. When we do what is right, what is good, we are encouraged and even though it may not always be easy to do, we are doing something, even though we may not realize it, we are part of a much larger work that God is doing—in and through us, in the church, in the city, in the nation, in the world. We are doing good.
John is someone who understands what it means to do good with his job. John immigrated to this country twenty-five years ago with his wife and two sons. He got his master's degree and a doctorate and then, because of the political unrest in his home country of Nigeria he and his wife decided to stay in the United States in order to educate his sons.
John is a Christian. He seized whatever job it took to feed his family. He was a custodian, a grounds keeper, and a houseparent. He cared for his family and gave financially to the church and even goes back to Nigeria every year to do missions work. He is following the tradition and teachings and is providing an example. He's doing good.
We may fool ourselves to think that we are depending on God when we're really being lazy, idle, and a slacker. These slackers thought that since they were Christians they could forget about work. We can't have that excuse, either. Paul commands these lazy bums to work: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat" (vs. 10). He commands them again telling them that they are to "settle down and earn the bread they eat" (vs. 12). There's no getting around it, God places a high priority on work. We are doing good: to others and even to ourselves. But what, then, is this text teaching us about our work?
The text underscores that when we work we are doing good. This is a biblical concept. The work that our first parents did in the beginning of time was part of what it meant to live and to honor God. When we work we are doing good.
Walt and Lil were part of my first church. Walt worked at an automobile dealership and Lil was a secretary at a physician's office. They worked, cared for their family, and tithed to the church. They lived their faith in the workplace and people were attracted to them.
Then there was Dick and Margaret. Dick was employed at the local feed mill and Margaret worked in accounting. They raised their boys and gave to the church as they tried to live out their faith in Christ. Walt and Lil and Dick and Margaret followed the teaching of Jesus and were examples to those inside and outside the church as to what it means to do good.
Don't be a busybody, but be busy
Work may be a challenge, but through it we're supporting ourselves and the ongoing success of the gospel—telling others about the love that Jesus Christ has for them. Christians want to be an example to others. We want others to be part of the "tradition" that the text refers to. Through our work we honor God and those who worship with us. Our work really matters to God: we are not to be busybodies but to be busy.
When we work we are doing good. Perhaps you've not understood the value of work. Maybe as a believer you've come to realize the place work has in your life. You've gained a new perspective. Even though you may not have been idle, your insight into how you view work hasn't been all that clear. Now you know that your work matters to God and that you show who Christ is through a commitment to good, competent work.
Maybe you're not a believer and you see yet another way where God makes a difference in someone's life through his or her work—and you'd like to live that kind of life. Today's the day to commit yourself and your work to God. When we work we are doing good.
We're commanded not to be a busybody but to be busy. There's no room in Scripture for being a slug for Jesus. We are to work. And we do good by working. Labor Day comes once a year. Many will gather on that weekend for picnics and barbeques with the slightest thought about why they work. For Christians, work has much more meaning because of the richness of the tradition and teachings that form the fabric of our lives. We can show others by our lives who Christ is through our work—like Roger Babson, John, Walt and Lil, Dick and Margaret—because we're like them, aren't we? We're men and women who want desperately to be faithful in our lives, so that we might do good. The best good we can do is to help people see Christ in us. On Labor Day and every day you labor, remember this: When we work we are doing good.
Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.