Message Supplement for Sunday 17 November 2019: “Work for Food?”
Posted On October 23, 2019
Today’s message from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 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’s words seem to make an airtight case, one where a person + labor = food. But as with many life issues, reality isn’t that simplistic. In America’s current culture wars similar issues as 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.
Earning a living has not been easy. Two millennia ago in Paul’s era life was unspeakably harsh, especially with the entrenched system of slavery (which, sadly, Paul supported), indentured servitude, a barely-there rule of law, no worker protections, and overall ruinous working conditions. Yes, life was nasty, brutish and short. Self-employed persons like Paul who had a special and portable skill—in his case tentmaking—later coalesced into guild and apprenticeship models, paving the way for the rise of the middle-class, especially after the sixteenth-century’s Protestant Reformation.
Until the recent enlightenment of more sane working conditions, life was crushed under the choking rule of kings and demagogues. Not until the social transformations of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the rise of unions and humanitarian laws, did most workers experience material improvements in their working conditions. Much has been accomplished in the abolition of slavery, in environmental and protection laws, and via measures limiting working hours, outlawing child labor, and diverse improvements in workplace conditions (a situation almost unimaginable in the worldview of an ancient mind, even Paul’s).
Paul stated that people must work to earn the right to eat, a perspective whose larger social meaning is debated by modern liberals and conservatives. The church in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote his personal letter may have contained some “lazy” persons who, though able to do more, preferred that others wait upon them. Blatant, unexcused slothfulness of this variety isn’t optimal no matter what your politics. However, don’t be quick to point a finger against people who don’t share your work ethic. As with many other issues, it’s an abuse of scripture to resurrect Paul as a justification for condemning people who don’t embrace your convictions.
Something may have been amiss at the church in ancient Thessalonica and some peoples’ behavior was not certainly meeting Paul’s criteria. However, what a “busybody” meant to Paul might turn out to be better understood and contextualized, especially as informed by modern social and medical science. This is not an attempt to excuse lazy people, but it is an expression of love, of taking the trouble to know fellow human beings who deserve to be better understood.
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 cited specific circumstances not fully understood today. 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—lovingly—with an embrace that presents accountability in a life-enhancing rather than in a life-denigrating manner.
What about our contemporary struggles with work & welfare ethics? Consider that the rise of public assistance in America is primarily traced to government’s efforts to remedy the Great Depression, the closest this nation has ever come to economic collapse and social chaos since the Civil War. Social Security, Medicare, and many other safety nets have each attempted to fight hunger, poverty, and desperation. But this is where peoples’ emotions ignite. Social welfare and all its costs remain a volatile subject. Also, the United States is too vast 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 programs. Through it all, the role of government remains bitterly contested while we, people of faith, may be called upon to fill the gaps unaddressed by public assistance.
The tiny, persecuted Christian communities of the first century CE may or may not have had as much of a problem with social welfare because people may have known one another more closely and it may have been clearer who among them was acting irresponsibly. But be careful! It risks gross oversimplification when attempting to translate the idyllic vision of ancient, close-knit faith groups into the American heartland. The Currier & Ives or Norman Rockwell portrayal of small-town America, somehow functioning in the same way as those primeval faith communities, belies the fact that we can’t read peoples’ minds or fully appreciate how invisible disabilities impact peoples’ choices and perceptions.
Whether ancient or modern, outsiders seldom know the full story of why people think and act in the ways that they do. The dangers of quick judgement emerge in the context of mental illness, which in the ancient world was labeled as willful disobedience or, worse still, as demon possession. Biochemistry and other specialized areas of medical science didn’t much exist in the ancient world. But now, we have no excuse for ignoring the facts. Organic brain disorders are real, and yet even some people of faith remain reluctant to acknowledge problems associated with complex and unseen causes and diseases.
A challenge for modern people of faith is to not ignore the facts simply because it shatters a simplistic, black/white view of reality. You wouldn’t want someone to dismiss your problems, especially if you know that they are real. Neither does God want you to rush to judgement against someone who faces hurdles which, though opaque to you, are dire threats to the person who must carry them over life’s mountains.
A perpetual issue in the social welfare debate arises from the problem of how people who don’t seem to require assistance will take unjust advantage while the rest of us end-up paying for it through increased taxes. Folks are justifiably angry about this. Even where there are sincere motivations to help disadvantaged people, those of us who pay do not like being treated as suckers. Money is costly and resources are limited, hence fighting inefficiencies and corruption is a never-ending process upon which, for instance, both Republicans and Democrats can eventually agree.
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. Some suggest that if taxes must be raised to cover the costs of helping people then so be it. Yet as stated before, people from opposed ideologies can come together because accountability and making the system more fair and efficient can be relevant goals for both progressives and conservatives.
No wonder that there is growing controversy over who gets what and how much and under what circumstances. 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 in our country of late further highlights the dangers when extremism seeks to overthrow reason and humanitarianism.
What’s a remedy? As you might have guessed, there are no easy answers. 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 long adopted deep and wide social programs—but at much higher taxes than anything Americans pay. In whatever way our nation progresses, the challenge remains to love our neighbors more than simply judging them as unworthy.
God’s spirit calls you and me to a higher standard, inspiring true believers to extend compassion toward those who are less fortunate and who may endure struggles of which we can scarcely fathom. Though people will continue to disagree about a work and welfare ethic, and Paul certainly did not say the final words about such issues, we can nonetheless work toward God’s plan: a love ethic. As we receive and share compassion then other issues will be placed in a perspective that better helps us feed and nurture our neighbors, providing them the life-sustaining love all of us need and deserve.