Wednesday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time

One of the serious misunderstandings about the spiritual life is that it might somehow excuse from or substitute for real work.  While it is true that the preaching of the Gospel must not be neglected so that other (even charitable) work can be done, the dignity of of the preacher does not excuse him from the mundane and necessary work of the common man.  St. Paul made sure he continued working for his keep, lest we draw the conclusion that it is better not to work.  Hard work has value not only in that it allows us to provide for ourselves, our family, and the poor, but also because it contributes to true humility.  Not everyone has the same capacity for work, so we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but we should use our capital of life every day to the best of our ability.  Work becomes a problem for our spiritual life when it is motivated by greed or ambition, but when it is motivated by our own needs, the needs of our community, and the needs of the poor, it is our God given duty.

It is pretty obvious that the Pharisees didn’t care for real work.  Their pride and arrogance were exacerbated by their lack of any material contribution to the common good.  They are the “separated ones,” which also meant they would not get their hands dirty or probably do anything else that would have made them tired.  Some people see fancy liturgical vestments or formal liturgical celebrations and think of that as Clericalism.  I believe that the core of Clericalism really has to do with a sense of superiority, an expectation that menial jobs should be done by someone else, and spiritual exceptionalism.  To that, Saint Paul simply says, “If anyone would not work, they should not eat.”


I beg and implore you, therefore, to be content with the words of the saints and of the Lord himself. Desist from curious inquiry and unseemly controversies. Think on those things that are worthy of your heavenly calling. Live in a manner befitting the gospel of Christ, relying on the hope of eternal life and the heavenly kingdom prepared for all those who keep the commandments of God the Father, according to the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord in the Holy Spirit and in truth.1


He is concerned that they might again scorn his teaching as merely a human word, considering it of little importance. And so quite directly, like a well-skilled physician operating on infected limbs to which he could not apply the remedy of a mild treatment, Paul attempts to cure by an incision with a spiritual knife.… He bids them withdraw from those who will not make time for work and to cut them off like limbs tainted with the festering sores of leisure. This is so that the malady of idleness, like some deadly contagion, might not infect even the healthy portion of their limbs by the gradual advance of infection.2


Perhaps someone will dare to think or say that the apostle Paul did not attain the perfection of those who, leaving all behind, followed Christ. The reason for entertaining such a thought would be because Paul procured his own substance by his own hands in order that he might not burden anyone of those to whom he was preaching the gospel. Thus the words he says, “I have labored more than all of them,” have all been fulfilled, and he added, “Yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” We can only ascribe Paul’s ability both to preach and support himself financially to the grace of God at work in his mind and body. He neither ceased from preaching the gospel nor did he, as his detractors, support himself financially from the gospel.3


Paul does not seem to have imitated the birds of the air and lilies of the field. He has repeatedly said of himself that he was working with his own hands so as not to burden anyone, and it is written of him that he joined with Aquila because of the similarity of their handicraft, so that they might work together to maintain a livelihood. From these and other such passages of the Scripture it is clear enough that our Lord does not reprove a man for procuring these things in the usual manner.4


But why should we dwell upon the amount of evil there is in idleness, when the apostle clearly specifies that he who does not work should not eat. As daily sustenance is necessary for everyone, so labor in proportion to one’s strength is also essential. Solomon has written effectively in praise of hard work: “And she has not eaten her bread in idleness.” And again, the apostle says of himself, “neither did we eat any man’s bread for nothing, but in labor and in toil we worked night and day.” Yet, since he was preaching the gospel, he was entitled to receive his livelihood from the gospel.… We have reason to fear, therefore, lest, perchance, on the day of judgment this fault also may be alleged against us, since he who has endowed us with the ability to work demands that our labor be proportioned to our capacity. For the Lord says, “To whom they have committed much, of him they will demand much.”5


Once Abba Serapion finely mocked this sham humility. A man arrived at his cell, making a great show of lowliness in his dress and speech. Serapion, as is usual, asked him to offer a prayer. The visitor refused and said that he was guilty of such crimes that he did not deserve even to breathe the same air. Refusing the mat, he sat on the ground. Still less would he allow Serapion to wash his feet. After supper it is usual to have a religious conference. So Serapion began, with kindness and gentleness, to warn him against being an idle and haphazard wanderer, especially as he was young and strong. He told him that he ought to settle in a cell, subject himself to the rules of the elders and maintain himself by his own work instead of living on the hospitality of others. Since St. Paul was working for the spread of the gospel, he might reasonably have lived on others. Yet he preferred to work day and night to get daily bread for himself and those who were ministering to him and could not work themselves.… You must keep true humility of heart—and true humility comes not from affectation of posture or speech but from an interior humbling of the mind.6


Let everyone who comes in the name of the Lord be received, and then, when you have taken stock of him, you will know—for you will have insight—what is right and false. If the person who comes is just passing through, help him as much as you can, but he shall not stay with you more than two or three days—if that is necessary. If he wants to settle in with you, though, and he is a craftsman, let him work and eat. If he has no craft, take care in your insight: no Christian should live with you in idleness. If he is unwilling to do what that calls for, he is using Christ to make a living. Be on your guard against people like this.7


Let the young persons of the church endeavor to minister diligently in all essential matters. Mind your business with all suitable seriousness, that so you may always have enough to support yourselves and those who are needy, and not burden the church of God. For we ourselves, besides our attention to the word of the gospel, do not neglect our inferior vocations. For some of us are fishermen, some tentmakers, some farmers, that so we may never be idle. So says Solomon somewhere, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways diligently, and become wiser than she. For she, having neither field, overseer, nor ruler, prepares her food in the summer, and lays up a great store in the harvest. Or else go to the bee, and learn how laborious she is, and how valuable her work is, whose labors both kings and common men make use of for their health. The bee is desirable and glorious, though she be weak in strength, yet by honoring wisdom she is improved” … Labor therefore continually; for the blot of the slothful is not to be healed. But “if anyone among you does not work, let not such a one eat” among you. For the Lord our God hates the lazy. For no one of those who are dedicated to God ought to be idle.8


But while you learn the lesson of hard work from the ant, learn from the bee a lesson of neatness, industry and social concord! For the bee labors more for us than for herself, working every day. This is indeed a thing especially proper for a Christian, not to seek his own welfare, but the welfare of others. As, then, the bee travels across the meadows that she may prepare a banquet for another, so also O man, you do likewise. And if you have accumulated wealth, spend it on others. If you have the ability to teach, do not bury the talent, but bring it out publicly for the sake of those who need it! Or if you have any other advantage, become useful to those who reap the benefit of your labors.9


Perhaps someone says, “Who can always be thinking of God and eternal bliss, since all men must be concerned about food, clothing and the management of their household?” God does not ask us to be free from all anxiety over the present life, for he instructs us through his apostle, “If any man will not work, neither let him eat.” The same apostle repeats the idea with reference to himself when he says, “We worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you.” Since God especially advises reasonable concern for food and clothing, so long as avarice and ambition … are not linked with it, an ordinary action or thought can be most rightly considered holy. The only provision is that those preoccupations should not be so excessive that they do not allow us to have time for God, according to the words, “The burdens of the world have made them miserable.”10


Tell me, hypocrite, if it is so good to be good, why do you not strive to be truly what you only appear to be? And if it is so bad to be evil, then why do you allow yourself to be in truth what you would never want to appear to be? What appears to be ugly is even uglier in truth, but what is beautiful in appearance is much more beautiful in reality. Therefore either be what you appear to be or appear to be what you are.11


For any virtue is dead when it is not practiced for God but feigned on account of men. He who feigns righteousness can give the appearance of being righteous even though what he has is not righteousness at all but only a figment of righteousness, much like impersonators who can take on the appearance of another individual without thereby actually becoming the other person. The same is true concerning chastity. Because of this, men who do such things are appropriately compared with “whitewashed tombs which look beautiful from the outside,” for they give every external appearance of righteousness, even though they are full of “the bones of the dead” within.12


  1. CONCERNING FAITH. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (pp. 119–120). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Institutes 10.7. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 120). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. TRACTATES ON JOHN 122.3. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 121). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. SERMON ON THE MOUNT 2.17.57. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 121). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  5. THE LONG RULES, Q.37.R. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 121). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  6. CONFERENCES 18.11. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  7. THE DIDACHE 12.1–5. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 122). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  8. CONSTITUTIONS OF THE HOLY APOSTLES 2.6.3. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (pp. 122–123). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  9. HOMILIES CONCERNING THE STATUES 12.2. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 123). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  10. SERMONS 45.1. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 124). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  11. HOMILY 45. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 177). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  12. COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 24. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 177–178). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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