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Message Supplement for 13 November 2022: “Work for Food?”

The scripture passage for today’s message is 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13.

Today’s message reveals Paul the Apostle’s work & welfare ethic. Paul wrote that “with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8b) and also “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b). Paul also warned that people should not be busybodies but that they should earn a living (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12).

Paul stated that people must be at least willing to work or they should not eat. On the surface this opinion appears reasonable. Paul’s words seem to make an airtight case about a proper work ethic. But as with many life issues, reality isn’t that simplistic.

Sure, Paul is correct about someone who is healthy but too proud to work, or simply too lazy. A person who has the ability to work but who refuses is not thinking or behaving properly.  However, some folks may not be working because of an impediment, disability or condition that may not be obvious. The church in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote his letter apparently had people who, though able to do more, were expecting instead to be waited upon.

In America’s current culture wars similar issues as what Paul raised are hotly debated. Yet it must be understood that solving social problems involves much more than quoting Bible verses, citing tradition, or relying upon one writer’s opinion.

A basic issue about work is that earning a living has seldom been easy. Two millennia ago in Paul’s era life was especially harsh amid the entrenched system of slavery, indentured servitude, a barely-there rule of law, and ruinous working conditions. The gist was that life was nasty, brutish and short.

Self-employed persons like Paul who had a specialized, portable skill—in his case tentmaking—faired better than unskilled laborers. Paul and similar raftsmen and skilled artisans in later centuries promoted the guild and apprenticeship models, paving the way for the rise of the middle-class, notably after the sixteenth-century’s Protestant Reformation.

Work life has been improved in many modern nations with the abolition of slavery, via safety and protection laws, by limiting working hours, outlawing child labor, and through other diverse improvements in workplace conditions, all of which were unimaginable in Paul’s day.

Until the improved working conditions of recent history, employment was fa more difficult than nowadays. Not until the social transformations of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the rise of unions and humanitarian laws, did most workers experience significant improvements in labor conditions. The struggle of workers continues given the age-old struggle against exploitation.

Certainly there are lazy people but don’t be quick to point a finger against those who don’t share your work ethic. As we’ll soon see, some folks have legitimate excuses for how they feel. As with many other issues, it’s an abuse of scripture to resurrect Paul as a justification for condemning people who don’t comfortably fit in the labor force.

Something may have been amiss at the church in ancient Thessalonica and some peoples’ behavior was not meeting Paul’s approval. However, what a misbehaving “busybody” meant to Paul might turn out to be in modern terms someone struggling against physical or mental challenges. Exploring peoples’ hidden struggles is not an attempt to excuse bad behavior, but it is an expression of love, of taking the trouble to know fellow human beings who deserve to be better understood rather than being despised.

It is neither fair nor helpful to force an interpretation from Paul’s writing that declares only people who work in a certain way deserve to eat. Paul’s letters addressed specific circumstances whose details will never be fully known to us. No modern reader is therefore justified in using Paul’s words as a club to bludgeon someone who doesn’t meet a shopping list of cultural, religious, or economic expectations. God loves everyone. Period. And as we seek to represent Jesus’ message of love, we will hold people in a loving, life-enhancing manner.

Present debates about work & welfare are traced to past economic crises. Consider that the rise of public assistance in America has its origins in the 1930s amid the Great Depression, the closest this nation has come to economic collapse and social chaos. Since then, programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and many other safety nets have each attempted to fight hunger, poverty, and desperation.

The United States is so vast that it remains challenging for even a massive government to comprehensively meet peoples’ needs. State governments have made this easier, but there are also many cities and townships that simply can’t fund or properly manage safety net or social welfare programs. Meanwhile, the role of government remains bitterly contested while we, people of faith, may be called upon to fill the gaps not filled by public assistance programs.

Communities of the first century CE faced a different version of the public assistance problem because people then lived in insular settlements, where folks knew one another more closely and it may have been clearer who among them was acting irresponsibly. Close-knit families and groups of families living in stable, geographic settings meant less privacy but also that help was more readily available. But be careful! It risks gross oversimplification when attempting to translate ancient faith settings into modern America. The Currier & Ives and Norman Rockwell artistic portrayal of small-town America is not necessarily reality, especially for disadvantaged persons who lack both the wealth and social ties depictured in stereotyped imagery.

Whether ancient or modern, outsiders seldom know the full story of why people think and act in the ways that they do. Hence, quick judgement about a person’s work ethic can ignore issues such as mental illness, which in the ancient world was labeled as simple disobedience or, worse still, as demon possession. Biochemistry and other specialized areas of medical science didn’t exist in the ancient world. Now, science reveals much about physical and mental health that give a bigger picture about peoples’ attitudes and behaviors.

In modern times there is less excuse for ignoring the facts. Organic brain disorders, for example, are real, and they can impact a person’s ability to function in a typical work environment. Unfortunately, even some people of faith remain reluctant to acknowledge problems associated with complex, unseen causes and diseases such as autism. The gist is that if someone doesn’t function in a way you expect them to then don’t dismiss them as pathetic and underserving. They may have very good reasons for the way they act and your task is to get to know them better before denying them food or other assistance.

It is easy to condemn people who appear healthy outwardly but who have profound invisible impediments. Compassion toward fellow human beings requires that we look deeper and not make shallow decisions. Consider how you wouldn’t want someone to dismiss your problems. Neither does God want you to make demeaning accusations against someone who faces hurdles which, though opaque to you, are momentous burdens for the person who must carry them over life’s mountains.

A perpetual issue in the social welfare debate concerns people who don’t seem to require assistance but who will take unjust advantage while the rest of us end-up paying for it through increased taxes. Folks are justifiably upset about abuses of the social welfare system. Even where there are sincere motivations to help disadvantaged people, taxpayers do not like paying for abuses of the system.

Money and other resources are limited, hence overcoming social welfare inefficiencies and corruption is a never-ending process upon which, for instance, both conservatives and progressives can agree. People of diverse political viewpoints can cooperate to make the system better, to increase accountability for making aid programs fair and effective.

Many people champion the view that governments exist not simply 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 equitable, widespread access to whatever people require to live a meaningful and healthy life. Therefore, if taxes must be raised to cover the costs of helping people and demonstrating compassion then so be it. Ultimately, it is a superior investment for a nation to strengthen and support its citizenry.

No wonder that there is growing controversy over the economics of work, welfare and public assistance. Trillions of dollars in government deficits and rising taxes stoke the fires of the Left and Right, the so-called big-government and small-government partisans who each vie for control of America. The peril is that without a way to work together, unprecedented levels of fear, ignorance and anger will continue to erode our nation. The alarming polarization of America highlights the dangers when authoritarian extremists seek to overthrow reason and humanitarianism.

What’s a remedy? At first glance it’s tempting to leverage a middle position between opposed political ideologies. In many ways, that’s how American politics used to function. But also notice that many European nations have for decades adopted deep and wide social programs—but at much higher taxes than anything Americans have paid. In whatever way our nation progresses, the challenge remains to love our neighbors by helping them obtain what they need.

God’s spirit calls us to a high standard, one that extends compassion to those who are less fortunate and who may endure struggles of which we can scarcely fathom. Though people will continue to disagree about politics and economics, we can all work toward God’s plan: a love ethic, one that trumps dollar signs, careless indifference, and vitriolic anger.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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