SJF • Proper 25a • Tobias S Haller BSGWe continue this week with our exploration of the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, picking up with chapter 2. Last week we heard about how proud of this congregation Paul was, for they knew that God had chosen them even as they had chosen to follow God, turning away from empty idols to embrace the living message of the gospel.
Saint Paul wrote the Thessalonians, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed.”
Saint Paul continues the theme of his love for this congregation in the second chapter. Here he describes himself as being like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her children, dealing gently with them and providing for them, and most definitely — to get to my theme for today — not taking advantage of them but rather dealing with them fairly and generously.
It might seem odd that Paul would even have to mention such matters as fairness, and go further in appearing to offer a defense for his actions. The sad fact is that some things never change. There is nothing new under the sun, and that includes fraudulent evangelists bilking people of their money, and snake oil salesmen promising miracles but doing nothing but instantaneously emptying their victims’ pockets and purses: now you see it; now you don’t! And the scam artist is gone in a flash.
The modern world has put a new spin on some of this extortion through our wonderful world of telemarketing, Internet fraud, and identity theft. How many of us get several emails a day purporting to come from the widow or lawyer of some Nigerian or Saudi businessman, asking for help delivering them of the uncomfortable millions of dollars they have stashed away somewhere, and if you help you will get ten percent or more, because you are such a wonderful Christian soul. Before these frauds became so common as to be laughable, I know of a bishop in another diocese who fell for one of these scams and handed over his bank access numbers to effect the transfer — and was rescued from disaster just in time by a well-informed member of his diocesan board! I don’t know about you, but I find these hoaxes particularly offensive because they cloak themselves in the language of “Calvary greetings in the Lord” and the effort toportray the hoaxer as a poor suffering widow with cancer — who just happens to have ten million dollars!
As I say, there is nothing new in all of this. There was plenty of monkey business going on back in the days of Saint Paul — and then as now believers were often the victims of slick operators who played on their faith, and on the call that we hear in the Book of Exodus: to care for orphans and widows. The idea of wolves in sheep’s clothing — or scam artists in widows weeds — is nothing new, and as Saint Paul points out there were those who made use of flattery to worm their way into position to take advantage of believers.
One example of this that we know from the Acts of the Apostles is that of Simon the Magician — who tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles so he could go into the apostle business for himself. And there were other shady evangelists roaming the Mediterranean with words of flattery and trickery — Saint Paul would elsewhere call them “the super-apostles!” — and their greedy outstretched hands were ready to take advantage of anyone swept up by their message.
As our Old Testament reading shows us such chicanery and selfishness were abroad in the world long before Saint Paul was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Moses had to enforce God’s law against pawnshops and loan sharks taking the shirt off someone’s back or charging them interest such as only a modern credit card company could dream of. Oh, yes indeed, what’s old is new! People have been taking advantage of other people for just about as long as there have been people on this earth.
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So Saint Paul is anxious to remind the Thessalonians of his plain dealing with them, his working with them with gentleness and care, and his determination to share with them, not only the gospel of God’s salvation, but even himself, to give himself to them. This is what I might call a “fair trade alliance” — Saint Paul gives the Thessalonians the gospel, with love and care, and the people of that congregation offer affection and respect in return. This is why Paul uses the imagery of a nursing mother with her children: what more intimate and gentle image can there be for actually giving of yourself? And all the mother expects in return is the love of her children — she isn’t nursing her children for ulterior motives, but just because theyare hers.
In this, of course, Paul is following not only the commandant of our Lord Jesus Christ, but his example. For Christ not only taught, as we see in the gospel today, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but he gave himself up as a ransom for many, for the salvation of the world. The trade, you see, is fair, but it is not completely balanced, at least not according to the scales of human commerce. A mother gives life to her child, and a nursing mother continues that gift. How can a child possibly repay that? What can you give in return for your life? The most the child can do is to love and respect and care for the parent — but the gift of life only flows in one direction, from the parent to the child.
The same is true in our relationship to God: God gives us life and is the source of our being. What we are called to return to God is our love — with all our heart and soul and mind. We are called to dedicate ourselves to God, who not only gives us life at our birth, but who gives us new life in Jesus Christ — so we owe a double thanks. And the only way even to approach a balance in this fair trade alliance is to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a holy and reasonable sacrifice to God, dedicating ourselves to his service, and walking before him in righteousness all our days.
And as Christ has taught us, and as Saint Paul so well understood, the highest righteousness we can follow is not punctilious observation of the fine points of the Law of Moses, but living in the life-giving Spirit of Christ: to follow in the path Christ laid out for us, loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to follow the way that Saint Paul commended in his life with the people of Thessalonica, dealing with each other fairly and gently, not seeking advantage and certainly not with greedy intention or trickery, but being as fair and generous as we possibly can with each other. We sang to God in our opening hymn, “Thou dost give thyself to me, help me give myself to thee.” There is no better way to give ourselves to God than by loving and honoring him, and by loving each other as much as we love ourselves. That, my friends, is a fair trade.
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Let me close with a parable about such a fair trade. Once there were two brothers who lived at opposite sides of a field their father had left to them when he died. In the center of the wheatfield stood the threshing floor they also shared. Each day at the end of the harvest they would separate the wheat from the chaff at the threshing floor, and then evenly divide the grain. One of the brothers was single, the other married with many children. One evening, as he was heading back to his home at the far side of the field, the single brother thought to himself, “This division of the wheat isn’t fair to my brother. I live alone, and only need to feed myself, but he has a family to care for.” So he turned around, and beginning that night and each night thereafter he stealthily crossed the field to his brother’s house, and put a large portion of his share of the grain into his brother’s granary.
That same night, as the married brother too was heading home, he thought to himself, “This equal division of the grain isn’t right. I have children who will provide for me in my old age, but my brother has none. I should return some of the grain to him, so he can sell the surplus and have resources to hire servants when he is too old to work in the fields.” So he too turned back and crossed the field stealthily, and unloaded a large portion of his grain.
This went on for some time, and each brother wondered why his grain supply never seemed to be more or less than it had been before. Then it happened one moon-bright night that the brothers stumbled into each other near the threshing floor, and when they realized what each had done, they embraced and then burst into tears, and then to laughter. And it is said that the place they met, and that threshing floor, in latter years became known as a holy place, and as the town grew to take up the fields and surround that spot, a great church was built that stands to this day.
May we, my brothers and sisters in Christ, be as generous with each other as these two brothers were, loving our neighbors as ourselves, as gracious as was Saint Paul to the people to whom he proclaimed the gospel, and give thanks and glory to our loving God, who has given us life and salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+
The story of the two brothers is adapted from Donald J. Shelby.