Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blessed Are Those Who Fear The LORD, And Walk In His Ways!

Wednesday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, 16-18
We instruct you, brothers and sisters,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to shun any brother
who walks in a disorderly way
and not according to the tradition they received from us.
For you know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery,
night and day we worked,
so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves
as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you
that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.

May the Lord of peace himself
give you peace at all times and in every way.
The Lord be with all of you.

This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s.
This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.
We have our final reading today from 2 Thessalonians. It is a short work with only three chapters. The teaching is a warning against people who do not work and do not pull their weight in the community.

It seems that this was partly related to the expectation of the Lord’s imminent second coming among the very early Christians. They believed that Jesus would return while they were still alive. As time passed, this belief receded and is reflected in the later books of the New Testament.

If the end of the world was so near, what was the point in killing oneself working? Paul will have none of that and Paul’s own behaviour is proposed as an example to follow.

Next to the question of the Second Coming, he pays more attention to this related issue than anything else. It seems to have worsened since the earlier letter. The Christians are even told to keep away from, to have nothing to do with those who will not work. The word Paul uses is strong, an authoritative word with a military ring about it. This would not imply a complete separation from people who were in effect brothers and sisters in Christ but rather a total refusal to identify with their behaviour. Idleness is sinful and disruptive but those guilty of it are still brothers. Such behaviour was not at all in accordance with the “traditions” that had been handed on to them.

Instead, they are called on to imitate Paul, to make him their model. The Jerusalem Bible comments:

By imitating Paul, Christians will be imitating Christ, who is himself the one that Paul is imitating. Christians must also imitate God, and they must imitate each other. Behind this community of life is the idea of a model of doctrine, that has been received by tradition. The leaders who transmit the doctrine must themselves be ‘models’, whose faith and life are to be imitated (edited).

The New International Version makes this comment:

The order in Christian imitation is:

(1) Believers in Macedonia and Achaia imitated the Thessalonians, just as the Thessalonians imitated the churches in Judea;

(2) the Thessalonians imitated Paul, just as the Corinthians did and just as all believers were to imitate their leaders;

(3) Paul imitated Christ as did the Thessalonians;

(4) all were to imitate God (edited).

In case of any misunderstanding, Paul spells out just what he means. Whenever he was with the Thessalonians, he always worked to support himself and even paid for the food that he was offered. To “eat…food” is a Hebraic term for ‘making a living’. Paul, of course, does not say he never accepted hospitality (in fact, he says below that it is the missionary’s right) but that he did not depend on others for his general living. He and his companions worked hard “in toil and drudgery” so as not to be a burden on any community. (We know from elsewhere that Paul was a tent-maker.)

They did this, not because they had no right to expect some material support from those to whom they were preaching, but because they wanted to set a good example which they expected the Thessalonians to follow.

It is another example of Paul setting aside a principle [in this case, the community’s duty to support the missionary] for something he believed was more important [that each one pull their weight in the community]. (Another example is his refraining from eating certain foods which the scrupulous might regard as “unclean” or in having Timothy, who had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, circumcised, even though he himself did not believe in the necessity of circumcision.)

Paul had even laid down a ruling with them that food was not to be given to those who refused to work. There was apparently a secular proverb in the form, “He who does not work does not eat”. Paul sets it down as a rule to be followed in the community. He clearly had no time for spongers and social parasites, however exalted their motives.

The reading ends with the final blessing of the letter, a prayer of blessing for peace “all the time and in every way”.

He then signs off in his own handwriting. Although he normally dictated his letters (there are hints his sight was poor – was this the “thorn in the flesh” he speaks about in 2 Corinthians 12?), he sometimes added a handwritten signature as a sign of the letter’s genuineness. Here he tells us that this practice was his distinguishing mark.

And, although he had had words of criticisms for his readers, he concludes with a typical prayer that the loving grace of the Lord Jesus be with them all.

We could perhaps reflect today on our attitudes towards work. On the one hand, there are the ‘workaholics’, those who are compulsive workers, irrespective of the need to do what they are doing or of the rewards it produces. There are others who work very hard simply to earn more and more, often way beyond the needs of a modestly decent standard of living.

In both cases, other personal, family and social needs are neglected and the individual him/herself can suffer. Paul clearly would not approve of this.

On the other hand, there are those who have a strong aversion to work and who will do all they can to live off others, whether that be their family, friends or the state. Such people can become experts at “milking” social welfare in its various forms. Paul would not approve of them either.

There are others who work hard and make significant contributions to society but whose work cannot always be quantified in monetary or economic terms. An obvious example is the full-time mother. The idea that mothers with young children should also be full-time salary earners or else that they should be paid for the work they do at home seems to confuse the idea that work is primarily for service and not for remuneration.

Many of those who work for churches or other social service organisations come in this category too. They all deserve that their needs (not necessarily all their ‘wants’) be provided by the wider community. Surely Paul would give his approval here.

So I need to look at my life and see whether, given my various resources, I make an appropriate contribution to my society:

       » Do I work too much?

       » Do I work enough?

       » Do I work as a service to others? Is that how I see the job or profession I am in?

       » Do I work only for the material reward?

       » Am I sufficiently and appropriately remunerated for the work I do?*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 128
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Blessed are you who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways!
For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork;
blessed shall you be, and favored.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
The LORD bless you from Zion:
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.
Blessed are those who fear the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++ 
Matthew 23:27-32
Jesus said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs,
which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones
and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You build the tombs of the prophets
and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’
Thus you bear witness against yourselves
that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets;
now fill up what your ancestors measured out!”
We come today to the last two of the seven ‘Woes’ which Jesus throws against pharisaism. Again it is an attack on hypocrisy and he gives two examples.

6. You are like whitewashed tombs… (verses 27-28)

On the one hand he compares the Pharisees to “whited sepulchres”, a phrase (like many others) that has found its way into everyday English through the King James version. In other words, they are like the tombs that people in Palestine could often see spotlessly clean in their whitewashed stones but which inside were full of the decaying and rotting bodies of the dead. One reason they were whitewashed was because a person who unwittingly stepped on a grave became ritually unclean. Whitewashing made them more visible, especially in the dark.

The Pharisees put on an external show of religious perfection down to the tiniest detail but inside their hearts and minds were full of pride and hatred and contempt for their fellow-men. It was epitomised in the story that Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers or even like this tax collector here,” was the sanctimonious prayer of the Pharisee. It was, of course, to some extent true but it closed his mind to a different kind of sin altogether - his pride and imagined self-sufficiency. As Jesus will say in another place, the greatest sin of the pharisaical is their sheer blindness, the inability to see themselves for what they really are.

This, I suppose, is the most dangerous sin of the pious in any age and yet the one least likely to be confessed and repented of. It can happen to any of us.

7. You build the sepulchres of the prophets… (verses 29-32)

Mention of tombs leads Jesus to comment on the Pharisees’ pride over the tombs they have built in memory of the prophets and other holy people. They congratulate themselves that, if they had been present, they would never have partaken in the actions which brought persecution and death to the prophets. Yet here is Jesus, the prophet of all prophets, whom they are preparing to kill. In the last verse of our reading, Jesus tells them to go ahead and complete the murdering of the prophets, referring to what is going to happen to himself. Another classic example of the blindness of the self-righteous.

The more committed we are to our Christian faith and to the behaviour that it expects, the greater the danger that we, too, can fall into the same trap and see ourselves on a higher level than others whose behaviour we deplore and perhaps even attack. Whole groups of such people have been appearing in recent years, people who claim to know the Church better than the Pope, who deplore the “heresies” of the Second Vatican Council, who close themselves off into elitist groups afraid of being contaminated not only by the “world” but even by other Catholics!*

The Irish Jesuits

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