33rd Sunday in OT / C / 2019
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
As we come to the end of the Church’s liturgical year—next Sunday is Christ the King—our readings turn apocalyptic. The word apocalyptic usually has reference to "the end," the end of the world, the end of time. But its literal sense is something a little different. The Greek word means to "unveil," to "lift the veil," or to "uncover."
The Gospel today is "apocalyptic" in both senses of the word. It speaks of "the end times"—of wars and insurrections and earthquakes and famines and plagues. But the Gospel also reveals something, unveils something, bringing to the fore a mystery of our faith. And what is that mystery? That the power of Christ is stronger than any adversary, a power that not even death can overcome.
But having said all that . . . I’m not going to preach on today’s Gospel, which I have done for many years. Instead, that little reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians caught my eye and my interest—and I don’t believe I have ever preached on it. So, just for a change, let’s take a look.
St. Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonians—the Greek town of Thessalonica, a port city on the Aegean Sea and an important crossroads and trade center. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest Christian text, written in the early 50’s.
When we think about St. Paul, we usually think about his lofty theology, his dense spirituality. But St. Paul could also be very down to earth and practical, as he is in our reading today. His theme in our short passage we might call "honest work." St. Paul says that when he came to Thessalonica, he took care of himself, not even taking free food. Rather, he worked, "in toil and drudgery, night and day" so as not to burden anyone. And what was Paul’s work? He was a tent maker—an important and difficult trade in the ancient world.
I love the image of St. Paul, always independent, working next to the very people that he evangelizes!
In our brief reading, Paul relates work to survival itself: "We instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." And Paul even scolds the Thessalonians a bit: "We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others."
The vice of idleness. Remember the old phrase—I’m sure I heard it from the nuns in grade school: an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. When we are not busy, we drift in the direction of temptation and sin. St. Paul tells us to get busy! When the psychologist Freud was asked by someone what is the formula for happiness, he said "love and work" (liebe und arbeit). There is truth in that!
One of the great theologians on the value of work is Saint John Paul II. In 1981 he wrote an encyclical on work, Laborem exercens. He said that too often we relegate work to the secular world, or it is seen as a punishment, or a necessary evil, or just "toil and drudgery." Instead, Pope John Paul sees work as part of God’s plan for humanity, in a sense that we are "co-creators" with God, in whose image we are made.
From the Garden of Eden itself, St. John Paul says, we are stewards of creation, participating in God’s very purposes. Through work, we achieve our full potential, our full personhood; work gives us meaning; work draws us into social relationships.
And so our reading today. St. Paul speaks to the value of work, putting it into a spiritual context. Ora et labora, as the Benedictines say. Our daily labor, part of God’s plan, bringing us life and meaning—and order to the world.