It had to happen. On the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, my sermon focussed on Isaiah 65 and Luke 21. You know them: God promising through Isaiah there would be a new heaven and earth with a new Jerusalem, and all would be in peaceful harmony –– then in Luke the troubling news that it would not be soon. In the meantime life would get pretty rough.
At coffee, a parishioner wanted to know why I didn’t preach on Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians because there it was in plain sight: you don’t work, you don’t eat. We’ve got an entire bible of God’s commandments to feed the hungry. We’ve spent six months probing Luke to discover how Jesus loves us, often by feeding the hungry, even 5,000 at a time, with no concern over who or how deserving they were. He poured out healing grace frequently on those deemed by others to be far outside the realm of God’s or society’s grace. But here, in Paul’s own words, the singular lesson some people want to impose on lazy, good for nothing hungry people: you don’t work, you don’t eat.
He went on. “Oh, I know there’s mental illness and disabilities that keep people from working, but a lot of those people are just lazy, and a lot of them are faking it. They’re just leeches off of society, and it’s right there in the bible. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. If they can work, they should work, and if they can’t, or won’t, get a job, then we should put them to work. No one has to starve, but if you don’t work, you don’t eat. It’s in the bible.”
There isn’t a lot of time during coffee to get into educational exegesis, but I did observe that these were Paul’s words not Jesus’. Moreover, Paul was writing to a specific congregation about a specific problem that arose when a few of them decided that since the end of the world was imminent, there wasn’t any point in sowing crops, tending sheep, or whatever it was they did. Frankly, it was Paul’s own fault. He’s the one who led them to believe the end was near.
I don’t think it helped much. It’s not the first time my coffee questioner has brought this up. He wasn’t interested in Paul’s problems with the Thessalonians. It’s all about sifting scripture to find support for a contemporary take on the community of today. It’s a search of evidence that Scrooge was right when he demanded, “Are there no Prisons? Are there no Workhouses?” Curiously, unlike Scrooge, he’s a man of considerable generosity. He treats his employees as a genuinely benevolent patriarch. He’s as good a steward of creation as any I’ve met. But he’s also convinced that all these social programs are just pandering to the unwilling and undeserving, of whom there are many, while the legitimately deserving for whom we must care are few. Rigorous means testing is what we need. Workhouses, Poorhouses, or something like them for the 21st century, may be what we need. How about required national service?
It should be accomplished in Christian charity of course, but there it is, right in the bible. You don’t work, you don’t eat.
There’s something to be said for the Protestant Work Ethic and the American myth of self reliance. It’s a good thing to place a high value on taking responsibility for one’s self and family, the value of work itself, the value of doing as well as one can at whatever one does, and the value of helping those who show determined effort. They are values to be taught, revered, and passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps in fear of being too patronizing, we’ve not taught and rewarded them as well as we should. Perhaps it’s especially true on the reward side where we’ve allowed government policy to impede fair pay for fair work.
It’s not a good thing when society is structured to prevent whole classes of people from access to the fruits of living into those values. It’s not a good thing to be blind to the advantages society has given to some, enabling them to make the most of the resources at hand in ways not available to others. It’s not a good thing when classes of others are assumed to be irresponsible, lazy or entitled for no better reason than they’re a different race, better or worse educated, richer or poorer, or live in a big city or rural town.
The common belief that we don’t need government handouts, we just need to instill the value of hard work and self reliance (Like we used to?) ignores the history of government handouts that rewarded some while excluding others. It chooses to not understand government programs as the investment by the people in the future of the nation living more fully into the values of work and self reliance. If allowed dominance for too long, it leads to economic and social degradation, exactly the opposite of its intent.