Bread and Circuses
Read 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
“Bread and Circuses”
We begin with a brief history lesson that will orient us to the situation Paul addressed in this final section of 2 Thessalonians. “Bread and circuses” is an expression coined by the ancient Roman historian Juvenal to describe the programs of free food and entertainment provided by the Roman government to pacify the people, making them easier to control.
Juvenal wrote: “Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things – bread and circuses.”
By the time Claudius became emperor, the official Roman calendar had 159 holidays, 93 of which were devoted to games given at public expense. On the subject of these games, Historian Jerome Carcopino wrote, “[They] formed a barrier for the autocracy against revolution. In the city there were 150,000 complete idlers supported by the generosity of public assistance. The [circuses] occupied the time of these people, provided a safety valve for their passions, distorted their instincts and diverted their activity. A people that yawns is ripe for revolt.”
The circuses were spectacles of unrivaled pageantry and cruelty. Their purpose was to divert the attention of the people away from the corruption in their government.
Though the city of Thessalonica is far from Rome, it was part of Roman culture and dealt with the same problems exacerbated by the non-solution of bread and circuses. Even in the church, there were idlers – people who did not work. They had become such a problem Paul saved them for the last part of his letter.
Idleness is a sin that leads to other sins; let us be busy doing the work to which God has called us.
1. Do not be idle, but tirelessly do what is right (6-13).
In the Greek, the word translated as IDLE meant “disorderly.” (See 1 Timothy 5:14.) In the business writings of the day, it meant “truant.” When someone didn’t show up for work, they were written up as being ataktos.
We can glean some information about these idlers from the text. In verses six and ten we see that contrary to the specific instructions Paul gave them; these people were loafing. They ignored their daily responsibilities to the church, their family and themselves. In verse ten, to beef up his command, Paul quoted a saying that was familiar in his Jewish culture, “Those who don’t work don’t eat.” One commentator called this proverb “the Golden Rule of Work.”
In verses seven through nine, Paul condemned them for not following his example. As he made clear in 1 Timothy 1:6, Paul expected his people to follow his example as he followed the example of Jesus. Paul set an example of hard work. He was not an idler; just the opposite, he was ambitious and busy on behalf of the church. By rights, Paul had every reason to expect the church’s financial support, but Paul would constantly forgo such rights to bring the Gospel.
To a degree, this was a clash of cultures. Paul’s Jewish culture prized work, especially physical labor. Greek culture saw physical labor as something to be avoided; handed down to slaves or servants.
Verse eleven tells us that instead of being busy, they were BUSYBODIES. Gossip is an aspect of being a busybody. It is one of many sins of the tongue identified in the Bible. It is a particular temptation to those who are idle; they have nothing better to do with their time than tantalize themselves and others by sticking their nose in where it’s not appropriate. Worse than gossiping, however, BUSYBODIES are people who meddle in the lives of others.
They were unsettled and did not earn their keep (v. 12). Paul urged them to return to Christ and to the orderly life of faith. The local church should not be kept in an unsettled state by anyone, let alone people who don’t earn their keep. The tense of the verb implies that they were to work steadily, not occasionally.
In verse thirteen they were condemned for not doing what is right. They tired of doing right or never really attempted it. Either way, their ambition was no longer for godliness.
Paul explained that idleness a sin and it leads to other sins. Paul begins with IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST to stress the seriousness of the situation.
One possible excuse given for idleness may have been the false teaching about Jesus’ Second Coming. Some might’ve said that since the Second Coming could happen any minute they were to sit around and wait for it to happen. There is no excuse to justify this kind of misconduct and so Paul recommended discipline instead. Being prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming requires more activity, not less and more godly activity not more sin.
There’s a difference between leisure and laziness. Leisure is earned; it is a rest from work. It is needed to maintain balance. Laziness is a flight from responsibility; leisure is a respite from it.
2. Do not fail to discipline to try to restore a brother (6, 14-15).
In verses six and fourteen Paul commanded “shunning” as a means of discipling those who refuse to repent. Hunger and loneliness can motivate IDLE people in ways that intellectual or emotional appeals cannot. Since these people are already operating on their base instincts, it will be more effective to appeal to them on the basis of those instincts.
Unrepentant sinners need to be dealt with firmly but with charity; they may need to be put entirely out of the church or suffer a milder form of discipline. The severity of the discipline is determined by their stubbornness and the degree to which their sin has brought shame on the local church. We cannot condone sin or appear to condone sin. To do so dilutes the authenticity of our witness.
Verse fifteen reminds us that discipline is to always be done out of love for a BROTHER. To treat them as an ENEMY would imply complete excommunication, but Paul did not put that option on the table. Lines of communication should be left open against the possibility of repentance, to facilitate their restoration.
“Tough Love” would cause us to starve and freeze them out of their idleness. Like a surgeon who cuts to heal, you hurt to help. From a very early time, the Church practiced denying food to the lazy as a means of disciplining them. In Galatians 6:1 Paul commanded that restoration be our goal in these circumstances. If we aren’t careful and gentle as we carry it out, even well-intentioned discipline can produce resentment instead of restoration.
3. Practice the grace and peace of Christ. (16-18).
Verse sixteen is a blessing of PEACE. Peace is to be an ambition of Jesus’ followers. PEACE is the first thing threatened by the IDLERS Paul is dealt with. THE LORD BE WITH ALL OF YOU reminds us that PEACE comes with the presence of Jesus Christ. When we are aware of His presence in our midst, PEACE is the result.
Verse eighteen pronounces a blessing of GRACE. This is the way Paul ended all his letters. His desire was that everyone in the church, including troublemakers, should experience first-hand the GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. There is no doubt that if we all lived in that GRACE, we would behave properly.
Part of Paul’s intent getting the church to follow Jesus’ example of peacemaking and graciousness was to keep them busy doing good. If you’re busy being like Jesus, you’re not going to be idle or making trouble.
In verse seventeen we find a personal mark attesting to Paul’s authorship. Paul used a secretary to write his letters for him. If the entirety of his various letters were written by different hands (see Romans 16:22; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Colossians 4:18), how would anyone tell the difference between Paul’s genuine letters and fakes?
The solution was for Paul to write the closing himself. The presence of his distinctive style of handwriting would alert the reader to the fact that this was the genuine article. It was a common practice in ancient circles.
Idleness is a sin that leads to other sins; let us be busy doing the work to which God has called us.
Bread and circuses is not just an ancient Roman practice. In our own culture, the “bread” part takes the form of UBI or Universal Basic Income payments. UBI is unconditional income; it is the government giving monthly or annual checks to every citizen, regardless of whether they work or not. It is estimated that providing a monthly UBI payment of $1,000 would cost $3.1 trillion dollars annually, about half the federal budget in 2021.
As of July last year, the following state making UBI Payments were Alaska, Arizona, and Georgia. Just last week, California announced it was going to take up the practice. This is not just a half-baked economic experiment, it is being promoted as part of a global agenda to make the rich richer by inflating the size of government.
The “circuses” is the inordinate amount of time and money Americans spend on leisure/entertainment. On average, it was $3,568 in 2021.
Well? What’s the Christian response?
- As regards our BREAD, two things.
-- One, recognize God as our gracious provider; pray for our “daily bread.” Don’t let pride or self-sufficiency enter into your heart.
-- Two, advocate for work as a virtue all the time, and, where necessary, confront idleness as a sin.
- As regards CIRCUSES, we must remind ourselves and others of Paul’s rule about all the things of this world: 1 Corinthians 7:31 = Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.
-- We can have such a fear of boredom we never know quietness, are never mindful of our situation.
-- We can be so obsessed about our hobbies they begin to take over the other, more important, parts of our lives.
If, in all this, we keep our focus on God and direct the attention of others to Him, we will be able to have a well-ordered and godly life.
Juvenal quotation from https://medium.com/@lindaellisphd/a-brief-look-at-the-juvenals-bread-circuses-a5ffe5770dba#:~:text=Already%20long%20ago%2C%20from%20when,two%20things%3A%20bread%20and%20circuses, retrieved on 13 April 23.
Carcapino quote found at https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2011-06-02/the-danger-of-living-on-bread-and-circuses-alice-schroeder#xj4y7vzkg, 13 April 23