Message Supplement for 13 November 2016–“Food for Thought”

Today’s selection from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 is the closest the author Paul comes to a work & welfare ethic. Paul said that “with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thess. 3:8b) and also “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10b). Paul also wrote that people should not be busybodies but that they should earn a living (2 Thess. 3:11-12).
Careless interpretations of Paul’s verses can feed the culture wars. The people in Thessalonica who upset Paul may have been lazy, in which case there’s no defending their behavior. Paul uses the word “willing,” which implies a person’s attitude or desire. Therefore, Paul isn’t stating that someone willing but unable to work shouldn’t eat. Many Christians read Paul as being harsh against anyone who doesn’t work. People cherish this conclusion because they have an entrenched opinion. But as always, it’s not that simple. Instead, God wants us to do the right thing rather than A) allow Paul or anyone else make up our minds for us or B) to give servile obedience to political ideology.
Paul’s letters were written to individual Christians and to churches as a whole, each of which had specific issues and challenges that we can’t fully judge because we weren’t there. We suspect something was amiss at the church in Thessalonika because people were not meeting Paul’s expectations. Yet we are cautioned that hastily-drawn opinions on either side miss the point.
Work isn’t easy, and in ancient times it was far worse. Life was precarious at an unprecedented level, and the slavery, indentured servitude, and extreme wealth inequality were far worse than now. Self-employed situations through guilds and apprenticeships saw some improvement, as did the rise of the middleclass after the Reformation, but life was brutal under the usual rule of kings and demagogues. Work wasn’t transformed until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the rise of unions and employee rights. Abolishing slavery and new laws for workplace safety and against child labor transformed society.
Now for the bridge from the past to the present. The rise of public assistance in America is traced to government’s efforts to remedy the Great Depression, the closest we’ve ever come to collapse and chaos. Social Security and other safety nets have each attempted to fight hunger and poverty. But this is where people diverge. The United States is too vast for even a massive government to police peoples’ needs. State governments have made this easier, but there are also many cities and townships that can’t fund all programs. There’s rancor about who deserves help and to what extent (also about who’s playing lazy).
The tiny, early Christian communities of the first century CE may or may not have had as much of a problem with social welfare because people knew one another and it may have been clearer who was or was not acting responsibly. There’s an idyllic vision of small-town American functioning in the same way but close-knit contact in either ancient or modern times doesn’t translate into knowing people’s hidden disabilities. We never know the full, fair story of why people think and act the ways that they do. The dangers of quick judgement emerge against the backdrop of, for instance, mental illness, which in the ancient world might be labeled laziness or, worse, as demon possession. Organic brain disorders are real, and there is still resistance as people dismiss and deny diseases and disorders with which they disagree.
One side of the social welfare debate cites how people who don’t need assistance take advantage as the rest of us pay for it through increased taxes. Even where there are dire needs, there are problems with distributing money and goods. Also, fighting government inefficiencies and corruption is a never-ending process no matter which political party is in charge.
On the other side of the social welfare debate are arguments that governments exist not just to create and enforce laws or to fight foreign enemies but also to meet peoples’ needs for food, housing, and medical care. The argument here is that there should be fair access to whatever helps people attain a meaningful life. If taxes must be raised to cover the costs then so be it. Accountability and making the distribution better are still concerns but the benefits are perceived as outweighing all risks and costs.
One thing is certain: We’ll need to work hard for a solution. It’s tempting to say that all we need is a simple middle position between the two extremes. In many ways, compromise is how America functions. Many European nations have long adopted deep and wide social programs—but at much higher cost than anything Americans pay. Which route we follow depends on many factors. Further debate and the polarization between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, threatens our willingness and ability to work together. Even Christians can’t get along, yet God’s Spirit calls us to set the standard for how people think and act. If we are willing to work for better understanding then we may avoid ruination. Only then can each of us become freer to do our part to assist ourselves and others for life’s necessities. What are you willing to work for? –Reverend Larry Hoxey.