6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor 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. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “Anyone 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. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. (NIV)
At a time when many work too hard, it seems unfair of the Bible to urge us to keep working rather than stopping. But Paul isn’t having a go at people who are taking a well-earned break. He is warning those who are wasting their time and disrupting community life as they do so. We know that the problem with the Thessalonian Christians was their belief that the second coming of Jesus was very close. Some of them figured that if Jesus was coming soon why bother exerting oneself in earning a living. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they were meddling in others’ lives and making a nuisance of themselves.
Paul doesn’t just tell them they are mistaken. He points them to his own example. Wandering preachers in those days had a right to be fed and accommodated. Paul didn’t avail himself of that right. He chose to work to earn income so as not to be a burden on them. So it was a bit rich for these Thessalonians to lay down their tools and waste away their time wondering when Jesus was going to turn up to end it all.
Particularly since they would be relying on the goodwill of other believers who still worked for a living to support them. It is good and proper for Christians to support others in need, but it is another thing altogether to insist they support those who freely decide to become professional spongers. It is one thing to support those who through no fault of their own can’t find employment; quite another thing to prop up those who feel their vocation in life is idleness sustained by the naïve generosity of Christians.
This passage must never be used to lecture those who have lost their jobs and struggle to find another job. Such unemployment was unknown in those days. It is a warning to those who can’t be bothered to work, to those who have little else to do but poke their noses into others’ business, to those who live off the earnings of others when they refuse to earn a living themselves. It says nothing to those who are taking a welcome break from usual activity. We don’t always have to be busy, but we always have to be on our guard against being busybodies.