Why no one should ever cite “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) to justify neglect of the needy.

A student in my 1-2 Thessalonians class just pointed out that Congressman Stephen Fincher recently used 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” NRSV) as a justification for cutting food stamps. This text does seem to be a favorite of those who argue that the hungry should simply feed themselves.

Here are a few reasons why I think this is a misguided use of 2 Thess 3:10. The list begins with general observations and gradually works down to specific arguments from 2 Thessalonians.

1. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that the Christian Bible has something to say about how to live. If this is the case, one wonders why this particular verse should be given so much weight when there are so many other passages enjoining liberality. For example,

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:42) [Note: give to everyone, not simply those who seem sufficiently industrious to us]

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. (Luke 6:30)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

There are many, many more similar examples. Why should 2 Thessalonians 3:10 do away with all this?

2. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that Paul in particular has something to say about how they should live their lives. If this is the case, then it might be helpful to check one’s interpretation by what Paul says about the poor on other occasions. To take one particularly vivid example, see 2 Corinthians 9:13:

Through the testing of this ministry [i.e. the collection to aid Christians in Jerusalem] you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others

For Paul, generosity to all people brings glory to God (more anon on this. It is the topic of my current book project).

3. If I refuse to give to someone who asks of me because of 2 Thess 3:10, I am acting on the supposition that the person asking for help is in need because he or she is lazy. Most of the time, however, we don’t have the slightest idea what led a person to the point of asking others for help.

The late fourth-century bishop John Chrysostom unmasks the lack of charity in the assumption that a beggar isn’t really in need (apologies for the old translation – I don’t have time to make a fresh one):

But what say they? He is an impostor. What sayest thou, O man? Callest thou him an impostor, for the sake of a single loaf or of a garment? But (you say) he will sell it immediately. And dost thou manage all thy affairs well? But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties? If however we hear any one bewailing such evils, and crying out aloud, and looking up naked toward heaven, and with long hair, and clad in rags, at once we call him, The impostor! The deceiver! The swindler! Art thou not ashamed? Whom dost thou call impostor? (In epistulam ad Hebraeos, Schaff)

The point is this: chances are you don’t know why the person is in need, and it is cruel to assume the worst. Moreover, we waste money on ourselves all the time. Why not waste it on someone else for a change?

Chrysostom frequently speaks against those who are over-curious about the goodness of those to whom they give. This is to “take away the greater part of almsgiving, and will in time destroy the thing itself. And yet that is almsgiving: it is for the sinners, it is for the guilty. For this is almsgiving, not to have mercy on the successful, but on those who have done wrong!” (In epistulam ad Hebraeos 63.88). Dorothy Day is reputed to have said something similar: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor” (can anyone verify this quotation?)

4. When μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω is translated “let him not eat” (ESV) it almost sounds as if Paul is saying that the Thessalonians should block the lazy from getting food: “Don’t let him eat!” The sense of the third person imperative is rendered more adequately by the NRSV: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This leads to point #5:

5. Paul’s command (assuming he is the author) to work in 2 Thess 3:10 is directed primarily toward Christians in Thessalonica who are refusing to work, not to hardworking people who need to stop giving to beggars.

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (3:6-12)

These are able-bodied Christians who appear to be living off the generosity of others. Paul wants them to get to work. He is not saying that aid should be withheld from beggars or any other anonymous have-nots. This point bears repeating: Paul is not saying what most people today seem to think he is saying. The best interpretation of verse 10 is Paul’s restatement of the point in verse 12: hey lazy people, start working!

It is interesting to note that ancient readers of Paul frequently applied these words to themselves as a reminder to work hard so as to not burden others (e.g., Athanasius, Vit. Ant. 3; Chrysostom, De stat. 12.5; Jerome, Epist. 17.2, 24.4; Augustine Op. Mon. 1.1; John Cassian, De Instit. Ceonob. 1.5). Those who pass judgment on the industriousness of people they don’t know miss the point.

6. There are a number of competing theories attempting to explain why certain people weren’t working. Without going in to all the details here (time permitting, I’ll update the post with the specifics of the argument later), it should be noted that there is some reason to believe that the laziness in Thessalonica was due to the mutual support of the Christians there. Paradoxically, then, the favorite verse of those who oppose charity actually attests to the early Christian habit of sharing possessions.

7. Chrysostom notes that after Paul tells the lazy to work, he adds that everyone should continue to “do good”: “Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. 3:13.)” Chrysostom returns to 2 Thessalonians 3:13 repeatedly in his homilies and commentaries because he understands it to be a command to continue to give charity:

Let us not therefore fall away into cruelty, but let us listen to Paul, saying, “Be not weary in well doing;” (2 Thess 3:13) let us listen to the Lord, who saith, “Give to every man that asketh of thee,” and, “Be ye merciful as your Father.” And though He hath spoken of many things, He hath nowhere used this expression, but with regard to our deeds of mercy only. For nothing so equals us with God, as doing good (On Matthew, Schaff)

I was skeptical when I first encountered this interpretation, but I have since become persuaded. The language of “doing good” carried the connotations of generosity. For instance, In 1 Timothy widows are to be known for their good works (ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς) and to devote themselves to good works (εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ), specifically, nourishing children, hospitality, washing feet, and helping the afflicted (5:10). The rich are to “do good and be rich in good works (ἀγαθοεργεῖν, πλουτεῖν ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς), generous and sharing” (6:18). The phrase “he does whatever good he can” (ποιεῖν ὅτι δύναται ἀγαθόν) appears frequently in inscriptions honoring benefactors, who are called the “noble and good man” (ἄνδρα καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν), one who “does the good.” See also Galatians 6:9.

It appears that Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, was on to something. I think we can agree with him that Paul was hoping that the lazy person “will soon be rid of his idleness, and you of your cruelty” (ibid.).