NO Work. NO Food?

I always listen with sadness as some Christians I have spoken to, cite passages such as we hear in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, specifically, 3: 7-12.

 In it Paul admonishes the fledgling “church” not to feed those who refuse to work. My fundamentalist friends have interpreted this to mean that God doesn’t intend there to be “government-run welfare, whether it be food, health care, or housing.

I am told that God means for his believers to engage in acts of charity to “worthy” needy as a means to fulfill their commitment to the Gospel–thus working out their individual salvations.

No amount of explaining that these passages refer to no such thing is heard. When one claims that one’s own personal interpretation is what God intends, then of course, we are free to interpret in a fashion that absolves us of guilt at our desire not to pay taxes for the necessities of others. Of course, no such Christian would claim that that is what they are doing, but of course it is, for we all are guided more by unconscious fears and desires that any of us care to admit.

Paul, of course, is speaking to something quite specific here. Read back to chapter two of the letter, and you discover that Thessalonica is plagued, as were many of the early communities, with differences of opinion. 

 Jesus, many claim, and certainly Paul and most of the Apostles, believed, that the End Times were close at hand. This is clear from most of his letters as well as parts of Acts. The assumption is that the Lord’s return would be occurring within the lifetime of most of the Apostles.

This proved not to be the case of course. But even for Paul, he did not think this meant that the community “communism” that existed in some of the earliest churches was a license to stop working and making a living. He was all too conscience that Jesus had been clear: even he did not know the day or the hour.

Paul is here telling the Thessalonians that if some in the community don’t feel that they need work because the end is coming any day, then they should not share in the common meals. They should be denied this when they deliberately failed to contribute, as others were, to the purchase of food, bread and wine.

This certainly is the explanation given by most experts in biblical studies. That it is the considered opinion of the Church is also clear. Why?

Because coupled with that reading in this thirty-third week in ordinary time, is that of Luke 21:5-19. Indeed, Jesus reminds them, that even where there appear to be signs of the coming of the end, “the end still will not come at once.”

This then informs us that Paul was indeed admonishing his community, not to refuse to take care of the needy, but rather not to allow their resources to be abused by others in the community who had decided that the end was upon them and further work was unnecessary.

They were like those groups throughout history that have given away all they own and gone to stand upon hill tops, awaiting the rapture, misled by preachers who assured them that the end was going to occur at midnight on some date. Only those whose faith was strong enough to give away their homes and belongings would find God’s grace upon them.

Those Christians who use passages such as Paul’s to ignore their responsibility to care for the poor for their own selfish needs, would do well to remember Matthew 25 wherein Christ reminded us that what we do for the least of his children, we do for and to him. He nowhere told us to personally examine the worthiness of anyone in need to determine whether they were truly helpless or only lazy.

This is surely the implication behind those who are against universal health care, and holding the government accountable to provide basic necessities to all its citizens. The implication is that some people aren’t worthy, they are simply lazy and willing to feed off others. That may be, and no doubt there are those who are perhaps willing to live very basic lives for free.

I submit, that common sense suggests there are few of these. I submit that Jesus calls us to be neighbor to each other, to love, to forgive, and to care for each other. It is a mis-use of scripture to claim otherwise.



11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Thomas Bryner
    Nov 14, 2010 @ 12:30:19

    A priest told me once that the worst thing anybody ever did was put numbers next to the sentences in the bible. He said the bible stories were meant to be told as stories and interpreted as stories, not dissected into tiny pieces.


    • Sherry
      Nov 15, 2010 @ 12:03:30

      Indeed, selective quote mining is the bane of good theology and good biblical interpretation. Sadly it is the weapon of choice of the right wing.


  2. Meg
    Nov 14, 2010 @ 21:55:49

    I’m quite astonished to think that anyone could possibly draw the meaning that we should not support the needy from that passage! I’ve never heard anyone in Australia interpret it that way.

    I’m just left shaking my head here…


    • Sherry
      Nov 15, 2010 @ 12:07:16

      Meg, it certainly threw me for a loop as well. There are so many places in the Gospels where Jesus makes it so clear that our duties are to each other and, certainly he embraced again and again the least fortunate, the outcasts among the country folk who were by definition ritually unclean to the Pharisees.

      Yet, I am told by right wing evangelicals here that we are not to subsidize government programs because “Jesus never said that Rome was responsible for the destitute.” So we are only to use private religious charity–how’s that been faring so far? And even worse, I get told that Jesus said…”The poor you will always have with you.” like there is supposed to be a constant supply of the poor so that good Christians will have someone to work their salvation out with. It’s horrifying isn’t it?


  3. Jon
    Nov 16, 2010 @ 18:22:22

    Meg I have sadly heard this in Australia. You must just move in better circles than me! Paul seems to make a clear distinction between those in need, who should be supported and helped, and those who are able to contribute but don’t. It’s easy to see how this translates into a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor ethos but that ignores both the generosity and love at the heart of the gospel, and the basic “communism” (in the original sense of the word) of the way the communities organised themselves.


  4. Snowbrush
    Nov 17, 2010 @ 14:42:16

    “God means for his believers to engage in acts of charity to “worthy” needy as a means to fulfill their commitment to the Gospel–thus working out their individual salvations.”

    YES! Christianity is the ultimate in selfishness, yet it masquerades as love. Sure, you bet.


    • Sherry
      Nov 17, 2010 @ 15:04:51

      You have missed the point here. Christianity is not the ultimate selfishness, but a perverted interpretation of it is. Christianity does not masquerade as love, it is love, properly understood. We are called to love and to thus lend a helping hand to anyone in need, without regards to our opinions of their worthiness. There are millions who live out that belief daily I can assure you.


  5. Snowbrush
    Nov 17, 2010 @ 18:39:22

    “Christianity does not masquerade as love, it is love, properly understood.”

    I’m quite amazed by the assuredness with which Christians speak of the gospel as a loving message. In fact, even Jesus could scarcely open his mouth without spewing venom. It has been my experience that Christians generally follow the hateful passages while giving lip service to the positive ones.


    • Sherry
      Nov 18, 2010 @ 13:27:39

      I think I read that you are an ex-believer. I don’t know if you were in a fundamentalist denomination, but I’m guessing from your blog and replies here, that you were. Your attacks are all based on fundamentalist “reading” of the scriptures. All I can say, is that MOST scholars decry these interpretations as being no where near the truth.

      You say that Christ could barely open his mouth without spewing venom. I find that ridiculous frankly. There are a few troubling passages, but properly understood, in context and in the 1st century Judaic mindset, they are much less than you think. I can think of only about 3-4 frankly. Most of Christ’s message is one of inclusion, forgiveness, equality, and loving care for each other.

      I guess you have a different take on the world than I. While I remain a staunch liberal/progressive and decry much of what passes as evangelical rhetoric is horrid. Yet I believe the polling suggests that these folks are a minority. Most Christians, like most atheists, buddhists, Hindus etc, are good people. That we are all flawed and miss the mark is a given. But we try, and then we try again.


  6. Stephanie
    Oct 13, 2011 @ 10:01:10

    This is a good thing for us to remember and not to expect our government
    to do this. Jesus is talking to US, Paul is talking to US…this is not intended to mean the government, nor does it say so. I really think most American are charitable. Just look at when we give to so many good causes, Christian or not. It’s a good thing to remember that God intends our government to protect us and uphold the law, not to support us.


    • Sherry
      Oct 13, 2011 @ 17:18:35

      It is unreasonable to make some claim that Jesus was talking to us and specifically not governments. There was no Jewish state at the time, and there was no point to expecting Rome to care for it’s conquered lands. To say that it was not “intended for government” is not to say the reverse by any means. Most people are charitable, yet over 2000 years individuals alone or through their churches have been singularly unable to solve the world’s poverty crisis. You have no right to claim what God “intends” regarding the government I think. Why would God object to a people forming a government that had as part of it’s responsibility the caring of it’s own people? While the Jews were ruled by Rome, “government” was in the hands of the Sanhedrin, and caring for the poor was always a requirement of Jewish law. I have no idea why some Christians object so much to this. I can only believe it is because they wish hold on to their money. It’s easy to say “we give” when of course it’s entirely up to you how much. As I said, so far, you haven’t made a dent in the problem. Forgive me if I think it’s part of the social contract we make when we create government.


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