Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 8, 1989, p. 1011. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We are even more driven than our predecessors by the demand for visible results and achievement.
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies. not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. My dear people, do not be weary in well-doing (II Thess. 3:11-13).
In both cases the gap between what faith affirms about God’s judgment and the possibilities for succeeding in everyday affairs leaves room for failure. Malachi does not presume that the arrogant will be converted. In fact, God’s true worshipers seem to be in the minority. They must be encouraged by the certainty that their names are in God’s "book of remembrance." On judgment day they will be God’s special heritage as beloved children. Since the idle are still members of the church, however, Paul may hope that they will reform their lives.
The apostle’s life becomes part of the tradition that is to govern Christian behavior. Paul had worked to earn his keep while he was preaching, and he expects Christians to live in quiet self-sufficiency. I Thessalonians 4:10-12 provides the rationale for such advice. First, it expresses the gospel’s call for love among fellow Christians. Second, it earns the respect of others. Third, it frees individuals from the web of dependency and patronage. All three factors were seen as necessary to establish and maintain the young church in suspicious and hostile Thessalonica.
Where Malachi pictured the certainty of God’s judgment in order to maintain the confidence of a righteous minority, both Paul and Luke speak to other distortions of belief in divine judgment, the temptation to "hurry the program." II Thessalonians does not provide enough information for us to know what led some people to claim that the judgment had come already. The letter responds by invoking an apocalyptic scenario of what must still happen before the end. However, that very delay may contribute to the "weariness in well-doing" against which Paul warns.
Jesus’ prophecies about Jerusalem in Luke represent another way in which people are tempted to escape the gap between effort and result, and to avoid the hard lessons of patience, endurance and even suffering that go with being a servant of God. Some may proclaim that the social and political turmoil is that of the "final days." Such prophets will always gain followers. Whatever the horrors of the days before judgment, its arrival promises to clear up worldly ambiguities. When Jerusalem was on the brink of destruction in 70 AD., some people did go about proclaiming visions of God’s heavenly armies waiting to defeat the Romans besieging the city.
What is Jesus’ message to the Christian community? Avoid such prophets and readings of the "signs of the times." The Christian’s place is to witness to the gospel even in the face of persecution by one’s own family. Christians will not save their lives by joining one or another faction in a revolution. Nor are they given the key to detect when God’s judgment will come. We have no more right to suppose that our age of threatened nuclear winter or ecological destruction is closer to the end than the first-century Christians had to follow false prophets during the Jewish revolt. Christians save their lives only by faithful witness before the rulers of the world.
We are even more driven than our predecessors by the demand for visible results and achievement. We buy books that detail stages of development and achievement for our children as soon as they are born. Many of us have to fill out annual statements on our performance that document accomplishments and establish objectives for the coming year. No such reports apply to serving God. The "book of rememberance" contains the names of those beloved by God, not their annual reports. Any demand for "results" undermines the true basis of salvation -- endurance in doing good.