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.