|Autumn afternoon in Mt. Hope Cemetery|
In fact, when we were with you,we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,neither should that one eat.We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in adisorderly way,by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11
The first verse in this quotation from Paul has, from time to time, been used to foster a political position in the United States about "welfare." In fact, some translations use the term "freeloaders" which further encourages this. Sometimes this expression gets reduced to "If you don't work, you don't eat." Unfortunately it is a short step to excoriating groups of people who are "welfare recipients," food stamp users, "welfare mothers" and others who are seen as freeloading on the hard work of the rest of us. This verse has been used to support government action to deny or reduce financial support to those who do not work as an expression of God's will as discovered in the Christian scriptures.
Understanding this verse shows how important it is to look at the context of the quotation. First and perhaps most important, we need to look at the global context. Early Christianity as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles was clearly an egalitarian if not socialist society. We know that at least in Jerusalem Christian community, the one closest in space and time to Jesus and his ministry, property was held in common and used for the good of all members of the community. Whether one was rich or poor, working or not, did not seem to make any difference. It is fair to note that the Jerusalem community expected the imminent return of Jesus and the conclusion of the world. This belief changed the way they looked at everything including possessions and wealth. Still, there is a principle embedded in that belief.
And that principle is certainly consistent with the life and teaching of Jesus. He described a way of life that included all, rich and poor, working or not. He extended healing to all. His Sermon on the Mount in Luke clearly focuses on those who have been left out and excluded. They are the ones who will be enriched by faith in the Divine One. His consistent message opposed the unequal social and economic arrangements in Jerusalem and was probably the reason for his public murder and disgrace.
With all this, how are we to understand these lines from Paul? "If you don't work, you don't eat" just does seem consistent with that global context. There are two things to remember. First, the Greek word translated above as "unwilling" actually more properly means "did not desire." Frankly our modern usage in the United States tends to use "unwilling" as suggesting that there is work but one is unwilling to do that work. "Not desiring to work" suggests a more general notion that regardless of the work available, one is just not interested in it. Perhaps in that case there is reason to suggest such a person not be supported by the work of others.
Second and more important, Paul is addressing issues within the church in Thessalonica and in this case the issue is the amount of gossip generated by busybodies who spend their time sticking their noses into other people's business instead of working. His suggestion is simply to make clear to those people that choosing not to work in order to devote your time to disrupting the community will not be tolerated. It is a very pragmatic solution to a real problem.
It is always dangerous to "cherry pick" verses from scripture and then apply them to contemporary life. It is important to understand both the global and more particular context before we try to apply them to our life. In this case, the relevant application is that I should focus on my work and avoid useless and destructive gossip about others. It has nothing to do with assisting those who cannot provide for themselves and their families