07 October 2021

“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

2 Thessalonians 3.10.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this verse quoted by people who don’t wanna give to the needy:

2 Thessalonians 3.10 KJV
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

Years ago, beggars used to sit at the entrance to every grocery store parking lot, with a sign saying “Help me” or “Looking for work” or some sad story which might get people to give ’em their spare change. That’s not hyperbole: Every grocery store parking lot. They were everywhere. So the city council passed an ordinance: Can’t beg within 40 feet of a driveway or intersection.

Not every beggar knows this, of course. A few weeks ago I walked past a woman begging at the edge of a driveway. I tried to warn her what she was doing was illegal, but she didn’t listen. Pretty sure she listened to the cops which later came by and ticketed her. I’ve seen ’em do it to other beggars.

I don’t know how much they get from sitting there. I know someone who tried to do the math: “If five people give them five dollars every hour, that’s $25 an hour, so $200 a day…” Assuming they’re willing to sit there eight full hours, and assuming people give ’em any more than spare change or a dollar. I once watched a beggar outside a church parking lot, and only two people gave her anything; and one gave her blankets not money.

Regardless, their existence really irritates people. Not because these people are outraged by the plight of the poor in this country. They’re really not. They’ve swallowed the party line that if you’re poor, it’s somehow your own fault. Time and chance didn’t happen to you; you merit your poverty by being lazy, or not fighting off your addictions, or refusing every legitimate agency’s efforts to help you. If you appear to be able-bodied, it really bugs ’em. God forbid you carry an iPhone (even if somebody gave it to you): “What’re they doing with an iPhone? Don’t give to them. They’re just scamming you.”

The general consensus is if you don’t have a job, it’s only because you refused to get one. Or refused to be a reliable employee, so you were fired; or you’re mentally ill but refused your meds. You’ve no excuse for your poverty, and your poverty is simply an obvious display of karmic justice. You’re poor because you’re not worthy. If you were worthy, you’d go get help!

Plus isn’t this principle in the bible somewhere? “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Because the LORD God did declare back in Genesis,

Genesis 3.19 KJV
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Work is mandatory. It’s part of the curse upon Adam and all humanity for sin. These beggars clearly weren’t sweating for their bread. (Although to be fair, neither are those of us with white-collar jobs.) So how dare we interfere with God’s decree? We sweat for our bread; they should sweat for their bread. And if you’re one of those bleeding-hearts who give to beggars, you realize you’re just undermining God’s decree. You think you’re being kind and generous, but you’re encouraging laziness and dependency. Bad Christian.

These are just two of the many passages of the bible, misappropriated so we can justify our lack of compassion.

Poverty is complicated. So’s wealth.

True, there are lazy people in the world who could work, and don’t. Like billionaires and retirees.

Yep, I’m going there.

Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, worked like crazy to turn his five ’n dime store into a billion-dollar company. (Today it’s worth half a trillion.) Like the old TV ad put it, he made his money the old-fashioned way: He earned it. I have no problem with people turning a billion-dollar idea into a billion-dollar business. I don’t believe the scriptures do either. Hard work and clever thinking should pay off. It doesn’t always, and that’s a pity.

Walton died in 1992, his kids inherited Walmart, and now they’re some of the richest people in the United States. What’d they do to earn their billions? Not a thing. It’s a gift from their dad, who gave it to them instead of to charity. Or to his employees. Or make a smaller profit and pass the savings on to his customers. All stuff he could’ve done, ’cause it was his money, and up to him. To paraphrase Jesus, should we be envious because he’s generous? Mt 20.13 He wanted to provide for his kids. He overdid it a bit, but that was his prerogative.

Still, do the Walton heirs sweat for their bread? Some of them do; they have jobs. And some of them don’t bother. But none of them have to. They’re crazy rich.

They’re not wealthy by their own efforts. They’re wealthy because, again, time and chance happens to us all. Ec 9.11 Much as we Americans like to imagine otherwise—the myth of the self-made billionaire is always popular—the fact is most of the wealthy in most nations, ours included, inherited it. Somebody in that family originally made the billions. Not always by honest, ethical, nor legal means. The rest of the family has been riding on those coat-tails ever since.

What do the scriptures say about this sort of thing?

Ecclesiastes 2.21 KJV
For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.

No, this isn’t just Qoheleth’s point of view; this is God-inspired bible. Other translations try to avoid rendering רַע/ra as “evil,” but that’s exactly what it means. As we’ve seen time and again with lottery winners and basketball players, if money comes to us way too easily, we don’t always know how to handle it. Sometimes we fritter it away like a prodigal son; but sometimes we hoard it like a mythological dragon, and let Mammon become our new god.

Along with this new god comes warped theology. Stuff about how the rich deserve their wealth, and the poor deserve their poverty. Social Darwinism, where the “fittest” rise to the top. When really none of it’s true; time and chance, remember? Thieves get rich too. Hard-working people regularly get bankrupted by bad ventures, Ec 5.13-17 or unexpected medical debt. True, sometimes God intervenes and makes sure people get what they deserve. But not always. Not till the End.

Many a Christian has bought into these Mammonist ideas, and figure we do deserve our wealth. We do deserve lives of ease and satisfaction, ’cause we worked so hard. (Or not.) So we retire. Our culture tells us we can. Doesn’t matter if there’s nowhere in the scriptures which states once we’ve stockpiled enough wealth, the curse of toil is lifted. But our culture tries its darnedest to relabel laziness as rest, relabel luxury as comfort, and justify inactivity. Jesus once told a parable about a retiree who stockpiled his wealth, who in this case died having enjoyed none of it. Lk 12.16-21

Okay, enough about lazy rich people. I’m not preaching class warfare here; we find evil traits in every class. There are plenty of lazy poor people. There are con artists who game the system instead of contributing to it, who likewise don’t deserve to eat and drink and be merry. I agree they’re the sort of “needy people” who don’t deserve help. But they’re not the majority, no matter how much certain politicians would like us to think so—and get us to penalize all the needy for the selfishness of the few.

Some poor people do in fact deserve help. There are those who can’t work. Those who are sick or injured. Those who are mentally unstable or incompetent. Those who are too old or too young, and need care. Or the economy isn’t growing, so no one will hire them. Or they’re ex-convicts, so no one wants to hire them. Or they have a job (often more than one) but their minimum-wage incomes won’t support their family’s expenses, and something has to make up the difference. Charity help, government help, something… and sometimes that something is getting a sign, sitting on a street corner, and begging for help.

Poverty isn’t a simple thing. Sometimes it’s very complicated. But I find wealthy or middle-class people, unless they’ve experienced it for themselves, only know of the simple situations. Their own kids, fr’instance: The boy won’t get a job, and keeps borrowing the car without filling the gas tank. The girl graduated from college, but she keeps taking rotten-paying jobs because really she’s looking for a husband, not a career. The other boy keeps trying various get-rich-quick schemes, and none of them are getting anywhere, and you’re getting really tired of buying Herbalife from him. The kids are bums, so they assume every person without money or work is a bum. But they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. They don’t know any poor people.

Yeah, poor people go to their churches and bible studies. Still doesn’t mean they know them.

I grew up middle class, and heard all these knee-jerk assumptions about poor people. Had ’em myself for a while. Then I got involved in ministry and met poor people. Nearly all their stories are complicated. And then I became poor myself. I’m not now, but it looks very different when you’re trying your darnedest to stay afloat, but everyone around you, instead of throwing you a lifeline, simply shouts, “Swim harder!”

Well, enough about why the well-off don’t understand the problem. Time to finally get to the context of today’s scripture.

It’s about Paul’s ministry team. Not every Christian.

The letters to Thessaloniki were written by Paul, Silas, and Timothy to instruct the Christians of that city about the End Times, among other things. As in all apostolic letters, there’s also practical information and advice. Including this bit about undisciplined Christians.

2 Thessalonians 3.6-15 KJV
6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. 7 For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; 8 neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: 9 not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. 10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 13 But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing. 14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

People who only quote “If a person doesn’t want to work, they don’t eat,” tend to utterly miss the line from verse 9: “Not that we have not power.”

Power to what? Power to “be chargeable to any of you.” 1Th 3.8 When Christian ministers work for a church, they deserve to get paid. And if you can’t pay ’em in money, they should at least be able to get the fringe benefits of the ministry, like the Hebrew priests who got to eat part of the sacrifices people brought to temple. 1Co 9.13-14 Paul and his team totally deserved to get paid—and the only reason they weren’t was because they voluntarily donated their time.

But if they hadn’t donated their time, they still deserved compensation!

1 Corinthians 9.4-12 KJV
4 Have we not power to eat and to drink? 5 Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? 7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? 8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Dt 25.4 Doth God take care for oxen? 10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. 11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? 12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.

So if you minister in a food closet, you should be able to get some free food. If you pick up people with the church van, people shouldn’t object when you use it to drive yourself home at night. If you put full-time work into a church, you should get a full-time salary. Churches shouldn’t deprive their leaders, or make them work for nothing. Christianity is about grace, and grace includes generosity. And generosity should especially be given to the people who serve us and others.

Paul taught as much, to both the Corinthians and to Timothy. 1Ti 5.17-18 He entirely deserved to be paid for his work. But—as is any minister’s prerogative—he chose not to be compensated. He wanted to be generous, because he felt it important to demonstrate a life of generosity. 2Th 3.9 He didn’t want his upkeep to get in the way of spreading the gospel as far as he could. 1Co 9.18-19

So this was Paul’s rule. But it’s only Paul’s rule.

And though Paul, Silas, and Timothy asked the Thessalonians to hold them to it, it wasn’t the Thessalonians’ rule either. Or any Christians’ rule. As Paul taught in his other letters, it’s wrong to deprive Christian workers of their pay and benefits. Just as it’s wrong to muzzle oxen when they’re used for threshing, which is why Moses commanded against it. Dt 25.4

Paul’s team wanted their behavior to demonstrate their generosity. In using it to deny beggars, we’ve taken its intent, and turned it a full 180 degrees in the other direction. You know, like Satan does.

Christians and beggars.

What’d Jesus say about beggars? This.

Luke 6.30-38 KWL
30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. 32 For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. 33 And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. 34 And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. 36 Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: 38 Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

Are those folks who want to starve out the beggars, figuring their “tough love” will force these folks to be independent, obeying Jesus’s instructions? Nah. They’ve invented their own new command by misquoting the apostles. They like it much better. Doesn’t cost ’em a dime—“get a job” is free advice. Doesn’t require any love, patience, kindness, or grace of them—you know, fruit.

I had a commenter who objected on the grounds of 1 John 3.17, which speaks specifically about brothers in need. That’s a popular loophole; Jesus objects to those who do nothing for “one of the least of these my brethren,” Mt 25.40 KJV so Christians figure he only wants us to do for fellow Christians, and to hell with pagans. Besides, pagans might spend the money we gave ’em on liquor and weed, and good Christians would never

(I got news for you on what Christians would never. But that’s another discussion altogether.)

When Jesus orders us to give to everybody who asks us, Lk 6.30 he didn’t say “every Christian who asks,” but everybody. When pagans ask him for salvation—same as we did—he doesn’t make ’em jump through hoops first. That’s not how grace works. God has untold riches to draw from… and while we Christians are much more limited about our own riches, let’s face it: The 10 bucks you were gonna blow on a Jamba Juice could feed a beggar for two days. Maybe a week, if he’s smart; ramen is cheap.

Should lazy people be exhorted to stop being lazy? Of course. But should needy people who ask for help, be turned away because we don’t believe they’re all that needy? Jesus never discriminated between “not needy enough” and “really needy.” When he and his students fed the 4,000 and the 5,000, I’m sure there were many among them who could totally afford bread. Heck, at least one of the kids there had brought lunch; it’s why he had it to donate. Jn 6.9 But God gives grace to everyone. Not just those who need it more. And some of us really do need it more. Yet God gives it to everyone, needy and wealthy alike.

Sad to say, as Jesus pointed out to Simon the leper, if we’ve not been the obvious recipients of grace, we’re not gonna show a whole lot of grace back. Lk 7.47 Those who like to misquote “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” reveal their own deficiencies every time they reject the needy. Have they experienced God’s grace? Are they even saved? Time will tell.