“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Our misbegotten biblical justification to only help out the deserving needy—as we define deserving.

2 Thessalonians 3.10

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.

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

Till recently if you went to any of the grocery stores in my town, you’d find a beggar, holding a sign which generally said, “Help me,” sitting on the sidewalk at the edge of the parking lot, right where the customers drive in and out. I’m serious; any of the stores. They were everywhere. So the city council passed an ordinance moving the beggars 15 feet way. Last week I caught a cop ticketing a beggar who hadn’t been notified.

I don’t know how much money they got from sitting there, but their existence really irritated people. Not because those people are outraged by the plight of the poor in this country. It’s solely because they were begging. As far as the irritated folks are concerned, nobody should beg. Especially when they appear to be able-bodied. If it were them, they’d never beg. People should work for their money.

It’s in the bible, after all. “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Because God declared “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Ge 3.19 KJV 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’re violating the scriptures. 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.

Yeah, there are lazy people in the world who could work, and don’t. Billionaires, for example. Yep, I’m going there.

Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, worked like crazy to turn his single five ’n dime into a major multi-billion-dollar company. Like the old TV ad goes, he made his money the old-fashioned way: He earned it. I have no problem with people developing 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. Pity it doesn’t always.

Walton’s dead now, and his kids inherited Walmart from him. They’re the billionaires now; some of the richest people in the United States. What’d they do to earn those 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’ve got jobs. And some of them don’t bother. None of them have to. They’re crazy rich.

But they’re not wealthy by their own efforts. They’re wealthy because 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 our nation, in most nations, inherited it. Somebody in that family originally made the billions, but the rest of the family has been riding on those coat-tails ever since.

What’s the scriptures say about this sort of thing?

Ecclesiastes 2.21 KWL
For there’s a person of toil—and he’s wise, clever, and successful.
He gives this as inheritance to a person who didn’t work for it.
This is useless—and greatly destructive.

No, this isn’t just Qoheleth’s point of view; this is God-inspired bible. Ra’a rabba/“greatly destructive.” The King James Version simply translates ra’a as “evil.” ’Cause as we’ve seen time and again with lottery winners, if we didn’t earn our money, we don’t always know how to handle it… and sometimes we fritter it away, and sometimes we hoard it and let Mammon become our new god.

Along with that new god comes some pretty warped theology. Stuff about how the rich deserve their riches, 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. Hard-working people get bankrupted in a bad venture. Ec 5.13-17 And yeah, sometimes God intervenes and makes sure people get what they deserve. But not always. Not till the End.

Others of us have bought some of those Mammonist ideas, and figure we do deserve our wealth—and 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. The reward of hard work is rest, not laziness. But our culture tries its darnedest to relabel laziness as rest, relabel luxury as comfort, and justify inactivity. Jesus 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; you’ll 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 I’d consider them 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.

Because 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 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 hearing 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.

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

The context.

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. And as in all apostolic letters, there’s also practical information and advice, including this bit about undisciplined Christians.

2 Thessalonians 3.6-15 KWL
6 Fellow Christians, we order you in the name of Christ Jesus our master:
Keep yourselves away from any Christians who have an undisciplined walk,
which isn’t consistent with the tradition they got from us.
7 You know the way they have to act: Like us.
We weren’t undisciplined around you.
8 We never took free bread from anyone.
Instead, night and day, in hard work and hardship,
we were working so we wouldn’t be a burden to any of you.
9 Not that we didn’t have the right,
but we ourselves wanted to give you a good example, so you’d act like us.
10 So when we were with you, we ordered you,
“If he doesn’t want to work, he doesn’t eat.”
11 We hear some of you have an undisciplined walk:
You never work, but waste your time on trivia.
12 We command and urge such people, in the name of Christ Jesus the master,
so that they can eat bread—while quietly working on their own thing.
13 As for you, fellow Christians, don’t give up on doing good.
14 If those people won’t heed our message in this letter, mark them,
and stay away from them, so they’ll be ashamed.
15 But don’t treat them like enemies: Correct them like family.

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

Which right was this? The right of any Christian minister to get the fringe benefits of their ministry. If you’re working in a food closet ministry, you should be able to get some free food. If you’re driving around 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. You don’t deprive your leaders because you’re trying to save a buck. Christianity is about grace, grace includes generosity, and generosity should especially be given to those people who serve us and serve others.

Paul taught as much, to both the Corinthians 1Co 9.3-14 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 take his pay. He wanted to be generous, because he felt it important to demonstrate that life of generosity to others. 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 were 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.

Christians and beggars.

What did Jesus say about beggars? This.

Luke 6.30-38 KWL
30 “Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you wish people would do for you, do likewise for them.
32 If you love your lovers, how’s this an act of grace from you?—sinners love their lovers.
33 When you benefact your benefactors, how’s this grace from you?—sinners do so themselves.
34 When you lend from one from whom you hope to receive back, how’s this grace from you?
Sinners lend to sinners so they can receive an equal payback.
35 In contrast: Love your enemies. Do good. Lend, never expecting payback.
Your reward will be great, and you’ll be the Most High’s children:
He’s kind to the ungrateful and evil.
36 Be compassionate like your Father is compassionate.
37 Don’t criticize, and you won’t be criticized.
Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged.
Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.
38 Give, and it’ll be given you:
They’ll pour a good measurement, packed in, shaken, overflowing, into your apron.
The measurement you measure with, will measure 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 the 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 five bucks you were gonna blow on a Jamba Juice could feed a beggar for a whole day. Maybe two, 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 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.