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No Work, No Food!

Sermons on the Second Readings
Series III, Cycle C
Whoever does not work should not eat!
-- 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (NLT)

Wow! Kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it? Not a lot of ambiguity in that rule. "You don't work, you don't eat." For a religion based on grace, it seems a bit unyielding.

You would expect that rule in our ever-productive society. After all, it seems that our worth is determined by how much we can produce. Therefore, we judge others on how much (or how little) they are contributing. But is this really the way we ought to proceed in our faith? Should productivity be the measure by which we decide whether or not a person is deserving of food?

I grew up in a family that could not stand idle time. They originated the saying, "Don't just sit there -- do something!" It was most apparent when one of us got the flu. When one of us got sick, we were handed a sleeve of saltine crackers and a liter of Seven-Up and sent to our rooms until we could become a productive member of society once again! (Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point. Thankfully, they still fed us during bed rest even if we did not work.) I understand a high work ethic.

When I read these strong words from Paul in 2 Thessalonians, I contrast it to the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 20:1-15 where day laborers went into the marketplace at dawn and the owners of the vineyards would go and hire as many workers as they needed. The going wage for one day of work was one denarius.

However, in the parable, one owner miscalculated the number of workers he needed. He returned to the marketplace four times: 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and again at 5 p.m. just one hour before the whistle blew. Those who were hired at 9 a.m. expected the one denarius as payment. However, for those hired later in the day, all the owner said was, "I will pay you whatever is right." No contract. Just a promise.

Of course, you know how the story ends. They all line up after work for their paychecks. Beginning with the 5 p.m. workers, the owner pays everyone the same amount -- one denarius. When those who were hired at the crack of dawn made it to the front of the line, they expected something more in their paychecks, but were disappointed to find out that their full-day work amounted to the same paycheck as those Johnny-come-latelys who only worked for one hour.

Jesus' parable reminds us that in the kingdom of God, all are seen as equals. From those who were baptized as infants to the thief on the cross who made it through the gates at the eleventh hour, all are treated equally. Does that mean that we can sleep in late, grab a late brunch with a Belgian waffle topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries, catch the afternoon show of Oprah, and then around 5 p.m. show up for an hour of work?

You can hear from those who bore the heat of the full day cry out, "Unfair!" You can't give everyone the same pay. You can't give everyone the same grade. The whole class cannot be valedictorians. The entire team cannot be the captain. The entire business cannot be owners. Life is full of comparisons, some are higher, some are lower. It just goes against everything we do and believe to make all the workers equal. They grumble, "He made the ones who worked only for a few hours equal to those who bore the burden of the entire day."

Here is where the confusion lies -- equality.

In the parable, Jesus is talking about our justification. Between the long time believer and the eleventh-hour-thief-on-the-cross, there is no distinction. There is no gradation in heaven. There is nothing extra in your paycheck when you pass through the pearly gates at the end of the day. Jesus is talking about how we are saved. In the end, it doesn't matter if we believed our whole lives or had a deathbed conversion. We are all beggars in need of God's grace. None is deserving of more. Ironically, Jesus puts the gospel in the words of the grumblers when they say, "He made the ones who worked for only a few hours equal to those who bore the burden of the entire day." Exactly! That is the grace found in the kingdom of God.

But in 2 Thessalonians, Paul is talking about how we ought to live. In theological jargon, Jesus spoke about justification and Paul spoke about sanctification. Just like we cannot read Paul to defend works righteousness, we cannot read Jesus to defend laziness.

However, underlining both of their teachings is the same point -- entitlement. Once we cross over that line from humility and gratitude to entitlement and demands, we miss seeing the surprise of the gospel at work in our lives.

To the longtime believer who approaches the throne of heaven with a laundry list of accomplishments from regular worship attendance to generous donations to volunteering at the soup kitchen, they are in for a surprise to find that many will cry out, "Lord, Lord" but he will not know them. Tradition has it that on his deathbed, after a lifetime of faithful service, Luther continued to preach grace by saying, "We are all beggars. This is most certainly true."

No one ought to have the arrogance of entitlement coming before the throne of God, demanding that to get exactly what you deserve -- nothing more or nothing less. Such a demand for justice would only bring with it exactly that -- damnation, judgment, and death. What Jesus taught in Matthew 20 was that entitlement does not enter into our ability to stand before God's throne.

Neither does entitlement factor into Paul's teaching in 2 Thessalonians.

Our church like many other congregations volunteers often at the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. We don't turn away people due to gender or race or religion. We don't even turn away people because of a sense of entitlement. But there are certainly those guests who come with gratitude in their heart, thankful for what can be provided. And there are others who come with a sense of entitlement, demanding more than we have and ungrateful for what we can offer. We haven't come to the point of enforcing Paul's command, but we certainly understand Paul's point -- if you don't work, you don't eat.

It comes down to entitlement. God does not have to forgive our sins, grant us mercy, and receive us into the kingdom. None of us are entitled. He does so out of love. In the same way, it is difficult to imagine that same entitlement thinking being appropriate at the soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, at the height of his career received large payments for even the shortest articles. Some struggling literature majors in England resented his success. After reading a report that Kipling had received a large sum for a short story, these students divided up the payment by the number of words in the essay and calculated that Kipling was paid fifty cents per word. With dripping sarcasm, the students mailed Kipling fifty cents and asked him to give them his best word. In a brief time, the students receive a letter from the author with only one word, "Thanks."

It is with such humility and gratitude that we approach both the throne of God as well as receive help from others -- thanks. Amen.
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