If You Don’t Work, You Don’t Eat

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Several years ago, while hosting a youth group doing service in the inner city of Winnipeg, one of the elderly group leaders expressed concern about volunteering at a local soup kitchen.  When I asked him why, he said he felt it was enabling the poor in their idleness, quoting:

“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

That loaded sentence is found in 2 Thessalonians 3:10.  To his understanding (and thus to the youth he was charged with providing leadership and discipleship for), this meant that people who are able to work, but are not, should not be given food.  I was taken aback by such an interpretation, but thought it was anomalous.  However, in the past several years, this same scenario plays out again and again, most often in my own Mennonite tradition.

Like many Scriptural texts that are popularly quoted, the failure to include it in its fuller context robs of us its intentions.  When we read verses 6-13, it becomes more clear:

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you,  nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.  We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”  We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.  And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

What the youth leader took as a criteria for how we dispense service and charity to the poor is, rather, a challenge to those already within the context of Christian community.  The principle is sound as a guideline to affirm that every member of the Body is a servant of our Lord Jesus, committed to obedient service.  However, to make it a rule, especially one so unqualified and expressed to those outside the community of faith is not only absurd, but an abuse of Scripture.

It is not, however, the misuse of this text that has my interest of late.  Today, as I considered the implications of this text, something occurred to me.  In our western culture, most of us live at a level of wealth and privilege far exceeding that of most of the rest of the world.  Yet, the comparative level of that privilege is not usually consistent with how hard one works.  In other words, I don’t work as hard as many of the world’s poorest people in the global south, yet I “eat” (both literally and figuratively with respect to economic consumption) vastly more than they do.

In this light, the principle in the text above takes on a whole new light.  When individualism informs our primary worldview, it is easy to read the text as only indicting lazy individuals who won’t work- and surely that is part of it. However, when we consider the big picture- the systemic connection between every person, our choices, the societal and cultural influences, the move of history and so much more- suddenly the text exposes how many of us feast upon wealth that we did not, in fact work for.  The level of our consumption, wealth and privilege far surpasses our capacity to work for it, especially in light of the systems of injustice abuse against others (most often the poorest of the poor) that make such a lifestyle possible.

A verse that is all too often used to accuse the poor for their laziness suddenly exposes the accusers of our own excesses.  The implications are astonishing.  The Western church is known for its generosity of money, resources and people to the work of the kingdom, yet in this light, perhaps we have less to be proud of than we thought.  After all, t is not charity to give to the poor out of an abundance acquired through inequality and injustice.  It is not godly or noble to bless the poor with the money we, for all intents and purposes, stole from them to begin with.

In this light, perhaps the call of Jesus to be a people who fast has never been more critical.  To trust God to provide for us our bread, one day at a time.  Giving to others any and all excess that is beyond what is necessary for us to keep.  Perhaps, in the end, it is us who should not eat.

What do you think?


  1. RobS

    Thanks for blogging this, far deeper than a Tweet.

    I see an overwhelming response is just one that we need to develop an attitude of giving. But for those of us (often in the West) that have opportunity to gain more by a similar amount of work effort (to take nothing away from a hard-working farmer in Central America or Africa for example), we should continue to have a spirit of giving to be able to touch that person with the truth of Christ primarily in the Gospel message. But, we can also reach and impact that person in amazing ways with tangible tools that can better his quality of life.

    We hope that “abundance” is created by ethical work in a ethical environment that does not purposely harm people. There is always some element of sin in global systems (attitudes, business, governments, people) so I’m slow to point a finger at someone who has been given some kind of abundance for the world they (have to) operate within. But if as an individual, they earn an abundance by ethical means and then have the spirit and attitude to give to further the Kingdom of Christ then I think God would bless that.

    I’m not sure I understand how a relatively smart person, educated in North America, seeking to become employed to support their family and goes to college…etc… I’m not sure how they steal from the poor by using their God-given gifts and aptitudes. That person could be amazingly selfish and nasty and an enemy of God or it could be a God-fearing person seeking to bless God with his/her talents & money and sharing the Gospel at their work in their community, etc.

    It’s just seems that two people could have dramatically different “takes” on life, and it mostly comes down to how they align themselves to give glory to God. Do they both ‘steal’ from the poor…? I’m missing that.

    But good thoughts. Thanks.

  2. Rob, I know that what I posit here is difficult. Many times, living it well will mean choosing the lesser of evils, as the ideal is often unattainable. I think the problem with what you are saying is that you are looking at it too much through an individualistic perspective. While there are individual responsibilities within this, these are questions that must be engaged as communities. Further, we need to view our contexts through systemic lenses- that is, working to see the interconnection between systems- economic, social, environmental, etc.

    For example, where we shop for what we need is a significant one. Most often, in seeking to be good stewards, we will look for places where we can get what we need for the lowest possible prices. This seems simple & logical. However, we must also do the work to discover how those prices are able to be so much lower than their competitors. If we discover unjust means, then we can choose to shop elsewhere. Yes, it will cost more & may require us to live more simply, but it is a very accessible, practical and significant way people can make choices that are more just.

    If we knowingly participate in economic systems that exploit the poor (which most of our Western economy is based on), then we are complicit in that theft. As you say, we cannot completely step out of our Western system (though the Amish & Hutterites do it), but we can minimize the level of participation.

  3. In my lifetime I have lived with poverty and with wealth and I struggle a lot more with what to do with wealth than with relative poverty. I know that I have worked hard at my career but I also know that I have been very adequately paid for what I do as well. It just happens that our culture is willing to pay dearly for what I am able to do. I know that most people work as hard as I do but in less remunerative jobs.

    So, what is a Christian supposed to do? I have come to accept the fact that my income is a blessing from God. Yes I work hard and all but all my abilities are gifts. Therefore, since I have been so blessed I have the responsibility and privilege of practicing joyful generosity towards others. I don’t think that guilt about my wealth is the response God wants from me, rather God requires me to use my money wisely. At the same time I need to strive for freedom from dependance on it remembering my need to depend on God.

    I agree that we need to choose wisely what products we purchase, striving not to contribute to anyone’s suffering by our choices. I am also concerned that my privilege as a relatively wealthy person gives me way more freedom to do this than someone just barely making it who is forced to buy the cheapest products by their limited resources. Keeping a balance between being economical and ethical is sometimes very hard. I wonder if the poor have the energy, will or power to change their choices? Sometimes I think they work harder at just surviving than I have ever had to do.

  4. Well said, Linea.

  5. Norm Voth

    Good thoughts Jamie.

    I remember working alongside an African American man in Atlanta GA in the mid 1970’s. I was on a 1 year volunteer assignment with Mennonite Central Committee and felt pretty generous living on my $25.00 monthly allowance, plus room and board. As our relationship grew he helped me see my own pride and challenged my paternalistic attitude. He told me that in spite of my choice to live on $25.00 a month I would never know poverty like he knew it because I was of the most privileged class in the world, white, educated, North American male. The world is biased in favour of those characteristics. He pointed out that opportunity was my privilege. No matter how much I wanted to identify with him, I had opportunities he would never have. From my decision to volunteer to the work I was offered as a volunteer, to my choice to live on less, were all decisions I made, and not forced on me. At any time I could step out of that role and “go back home” to my life of wealth and privilege.

    That experience helped me see the privilege of opportunity and challenges me to find ways to use it to address issues of injustice and need, not simply by volunteering at a soup kitchen, but by working at the systemic issues that underlie the access to opportunity that so many people live with as daily experience.

  6. Norm, thanks for your story. It illustrates well the reality of what we live with.

  7. RobS

    Thanks for the expansion and additional ideas. Certainly a catch-22 of sorts… in that a job “outsourced” out of North America (for example) to Bangladesh (for example) to make clothes for a North American company. So job loss in North America stings that guy, and then the guy that’s hired is often hired at some amazingly lousy sub-par wage which nearly defeats the purpose of him working in the new job in the first place.

    In some roles and some places we see acceleration of wealth amongst those that are hired (an educated person in India for example might fit into that category) but the seamstress in Bangladesh is often very poorly paid in relative sense when the potential production they give back is so amazingly high.

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