Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; Ps. 98: 5-9; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 5-9. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111713.cfm
Today’s readings appear to centralize “the end of the world.” So you can expect your preacher this morning to focus on the after-life, pie-in-the-sky, and all the “Left Behind” nonsense that has become the staple of Christianity ever since the 4th century.
Expect them to point to natural disasters, “plagues” like the AIDs pandemic, and the wars of choice so near and dear to our politicians – as signs that the end is near, that God is pissed, and we’d better repent and accept Jesus as our personal Lord and savior.
And, Oh yes, there’s Paul’s dictum in today’s reading from Second Thessalonians “. . . if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” Expect that one to evoke anti-welfare themes of bootstrap self-sufficiency, references to God-helps-those-who-help-themselves, and easy references to “welfare queens.”
I’m not kidding, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10 is a favorite of the Christian right. North Dakota congressman, Kevin Cramer, used it recently to justify his vote to cut nearly $40 billion from the Food Stamp program that keeps the children of poor families from starvation, along with the elderly and disabled. Tea Part darling, Michelle Bachman, did the same thing. When trying to get her party’s nomination for president, she said, “Our nation needs to stop doing for people what they can and should do for themselves. Self-reliance means, if anyone will not work, neither should he eat.”
It’s all so tiresome and predictable.
The right loves embracing Paul’s out-of-context remark. Tea Baggers love ignoring Jesus’ feeding thousands free of charge. It’s as if Jesus’ parable about sheep and goats in Mt. 25 didn’t base everything on a practical recognition of his identification with the hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, and ill-clad. The right loves “tough love.” It loves apocalypse.
But, of course, there’s not a trace of “tough love” in Jesus’ treatment of the poor. And “apocalypse” is not about the end of the world. It’s about unsustainability. The word apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about “revelation” in that sense – making evident what’s hidden about the world and who’s in charge. Apocalypse affirms the unsustainability of empire. Radical change is inevitable.
Apocalypse emerged a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. To convey its message of impending radical change, it employed stock images of natural catastrophe, plagues, wars, earthquakes, and portents involving the sun, moon, and stars. The change would be cosmic.
The audience of this strange literary form was empire’s victims. It was meant to encourage the poor and dispossessed, the unemployed, sick, widowed and orphaned – not the rich and well-off. Apocalypse assured the poor that all systems of oppression end in flames whether they’re Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman. (Those are the global giants that oppressed Israel at one time or another in its history.) Where are they today? They’ve been swept away by the tide of history. And the apologists for “Eternal Rome” find themselves somewhere in antiquity’s dustbin.
So it’s ironic that apocalypse should be embraced by conservatives and their rich patrons – by those who want to keep things as they are. Things do not have to be that way. And “by God,” they won’t be! That’s the message of apocalypse. A new era is dawning, and you’d better be on the right side of history or you’ll lose out. Being “left behind” means supporting the old order that’s doomed.
The problem is that right from the beginning, believers took literally the cosmic and highly poetic symbolism of apocalypse. (We always get in trouble for being too literal.) That’s the attitude that caused Paul to tear his hair out in today’s second reading. Some in the early Christian community took the imminence of this expectation so seriously that they even stopped working.
What was the point of work, they reasoned? Everything was about to change profoundly by God’s intervention. That made human work meaningless. All believers had to do was sit back and wait for Jesus’ triumphant arrival. Eat, drink, be merry, and whistle past the graveyard in the meantime.
Those are the people Paul addresses in this morning’s excerpt from Second Thessalonians. He’s clearly exasperated. He says, “Look I’m working. And I’m the one responsible for your believing in Jesus’ Second Coming! Get real, people. Go back to work. Stop sponging off the community. Instead, be like me and do your part to bring about the new order we all expect. “
Paul’s words bring to mind the people who refuse to work today because they deem apocalyptic expectations divinely ordained or “natural.” And I’m certainly not referring to welfare queens.
Instead, I’m talking about people so committed to the old order that (with Margaret Thatcher) they’re convinced that “There is no alternative,” even though the “inevitable order” they support threatens the very survival of their own grandchildren. So they do what must be done to perpetuate what in God’s eyes is unsustainable.
Such “busy-bodies” refer to their endeavors as “work,” but in reality, their occupations represent a refusal to work. That is, if we identify that term with what contributes to life and the establishment of the Kingdom community Jesus proclaimed.
On this understanding, involvement in the military and the military-industrial complex is certainly not work. Neither is labor in financial market casinos or in the health-insurance and fossil fuel industries and their nuclear power counterparts. Advertising, fashion, professional sports, or much of what we refer to as “education” and journalism might also qualify as anti-work. Such occupations are not only highly questionable in terms of building up human community and protecting the planet. They are often positively destructive. Their purpose is to ward off or distract from the impending Big Change promised by the great unveiling.
Do I mean followers of Jesus should renounce such “work?” Yes I do. Or at least, we need to work to bring about a world where such occupations are not rewarded with pay – i.e. with a ticket to overconsumption even in terms of food and drink. And, to quote St. Paul, if arms manufacturers want to continue their anti-work as inevitable, let them starve! The world will be better off.
What about the unemployment caused by such radical change? It’s simple: share the remaining work. Make sure everyone is working – say for four hours each day, or three days a week, or six months each year. Get everyone to work building or rebuilding infrastructure, paving highways and covering rooftops with solar cells, and cleaning up the dump sites where all our toxic waste has been buried.
Think of the freedom such changes would create for building up God’s kingdom – to play, to garden, write, converse, make love, raise our children, and do all the things that make us human!
“Totally unrealistic” you say? Precisely! Apocalypse is by nature unrealistic. It calls us to work for an entirely different order we can hardly imagine. It calls us to reclaim our humanity from the insanity of destructive anti-work.
I’ll bet you won’t hear much of that from your preacher today!