Morality Ch. 30: Work, Even in Retirement

Our modern concept of retirement can make people feel useless. Paul encouraged the elderly to do useful work for their family or church.

“Idle hands” is the shorthand for an aphorism that was commonplace in my childhood: “The devil finds work for idle hands.” The idea is that if you aren’t doing any productive work, you are likely to fall into bad ways. This was so ingrained into me that even now I can’t sit doing nothing without the question going through my head: What work should I be doing right now? It makes the idea of sitting on a beach quite unbearable, so the retirement I look forward to doesn’t include much relaxation.

Others who struggle with burdensome and difficult work long to retire and loaf around. So they sit back – for a few months – and then they tend to look for something to do. Not necessarily “work,” but something productive or helpful, or perhaps just more interesting than passively watching a screen.

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Find something good to do

I think Paul would have muttered something like “idle hands” when he saw people with nothing to do. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he advises his young church: “You should … work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess 4:11-12). Apparently, some people didn’t do as he hoped, so in his second letter he is rather more blunt: “When we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And … never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thess 3:10-13).

Notice that Paul is not just criticizing freeloaders who rely on others to feed them when they could have worked. He also encourages those who aren’t needy to “never tire of doing what is good.” That is, find something good and worthwhile to do – such as feeding those who have little and can’t work. One of the first programs the early church set up was a lunch club for widows. That’s why the earliest church leaders were called “deacons,” which is Greek for “waiters.”1 So Paul didn’t mean that we should work until we drop – the church did cater for the elderly – but we should work while God gives us strength – that is, beware of “idle hands”! OK, he didn’t actually say that, but that’s the way he thought.

Part of Paul’s motivation was, as he said, “that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” Roman men were expected to do useful work even if they were rich. Rich men were encouraged to take on onerous administrative workloads by two devious schemes: first, you could only get a grand title such as “proconsul” if you accepted the work that came with it; and second, you could only apply for this title if you were rich enough. This meant that a social-climbing man would work really hard to earn enough money to qualify for a title, and then he would work hard for the state in the role that went with that title without getting any wages. A clever system!

A Roman woman was also expected to work even if she owned enough slaves to do all the work of the house. Tombstones sometimes show women with a distaff – a cone-shaped object used for spinning a lump of sheep’s wool into thread for weaving – and an actual distaff was often buried with a woman. This indicated that she was a respectable and industrious member of the household who continued to make or decorate clothing for her family, even if she had enough slaves to manicure her toenails while she weaved.

We see this mentality when Tabitha (aka Dorcas) died. Her life had been full of “doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36), but when people appeal for Peter to pray for her, they don’t tell him about her social work. Instead, they show him “the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made” (Acts 9:39). These garments were the customary proof that she was a respectable, hardworking woman – though Peter doesn’t comment about which aspect of her life impressed him the most.

Women too

Paul also expected women to work. He complained that some women – especially the younger widows – “get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house … busybodies who talk nonsense” (1 Tim 5:13). We wouldn’t be surprised, after this apparently demeaning assessment of women, that he’d tell them to spend their time making clothing. But he had a far more important task for them. (Not that he would have regarded weaving as a waste of time because, after all, his trade was making tents.) In the next verse he reminds these women of their most important role: they were expected to “manage their homes” (oikodespoteō1 Tim 5:14). That is, they had the role of “master of the house” (oikodespotēs) – a term that is used for men when they manage their business (e.g., Matt 13:27; 20:1; 21:33) and used for women with regard to practical matters inside the home.

We see from this that Paul, like Romans of his time, regarded the woman of the house as its center and in some senses the boss. The distaff was her symbol, not only because she used it to spin wool, but because everything spun around her, and the household would fall apart if she didn’t take charge. Paul extends her charge to the whole family – not just the children but also older dependents: “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (1 Tim 5:16).

Some women could follow careers outside the home in a surprising variety of fields. They were needed for midwifery and baby care, but they were also able to do most of the things that men did. They commonly worked in farming, in craftwork, running market stalls, in laundry, in baking, or in making tents like Priscilla (Acts 18:1-3). Some women even succeeded in the “male” domains of oratory, writing poetry, and athletics; and there were even a few female gladiators.2 The ideal woman of the Old Testament – the ideal presented in Proverbs 31—was an entrepreneur who traded and developed land, making enough money to support her husband in public office (Prov 31:14-24), as well as using the distaff (v. 19).

And the rich

If rich people didn’t hold any public office, they were at least expected to use their money for public good. As any philanthropist will tell you, managing financial support is time-consuming and sometimes tedious work. A rich Roman could be a patron of the arts by supporting a poet or a historian; or a patron of the city by designing and financing public offices or water supplies; or she could be a patron of the poor by paying for the corn dole, for which she might expect a public inscription in gratitude (which is how we know about this). Rich Christians had a different and arguably much more important way to be patrons: they could support apostles and evangelists.

One patron who supported Paul was Phoebe, and she was rich enough to support many others too (Rom 16:1-2). We don’t know whether she had inherited wealth, but perhaps she worked as an exporter to Rome: she lived in Cenchreae – the port area of Corinth – and she apparently carried Paul’s letter to Rome, perhaps while on a business trip (Rom 16:27 in some manuscripts, followed by the KJV). Another church patron, Lydia, was probably a luxury cloth dealer (Acts 16:14-15, 40). Sadly, no names of male patrons survive. I like to think that they were so common that they weren’t noteworthy, though I fear that the early church had few patrons.

Neither the Old or New Testament had a concept of retirement, so although both of them show people working into their old age, this may not be an intentional message. It merely reflected the culture they were in. However, both Testaments suggest that those who were rich enough to be idle found useful work to do. This can’t be regarded as a command, but it is certainly a moral message, since support is commanded for the poor, elderly, and sick.

Today, many of us have the privilege of planning for retirement. This means we can decide how to spend our resources of time, finances, and goods. We can regard them as our reward for working hard or as a gift from God to be used wisely. The most valuable asset is time – which perhaps we had very little of before we retired. In retirement from full-time work, we might not have the energy to do everything that we’d like, but we can support others through mentoring, giving, encouraging, and prayer. Time is something that can be wasted or spent – and during retirement we have absolute freedom to do either.

1^ See Acts 6:1-2: “wait [diakoneō] on tables.”
2^ See the chapter “Women’s Work” in Lynn Cohick’s Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). For the Jewish world, see Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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