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?