“He who will not work shall not eat”: An explanation

This quotation from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is often trotted out to make the case against government benefits for the poor. What I’d like to do in this post is to clarify the context of this quotation to show that it cannot be construed to contradict the overriding biblical theme of concern for the poor.

Scholars believe that Paul came to Thessalonica fleeing persecution and fell in with a group of laborers (most likely leatherworkers, which is presented as Paul’s profession elsewhere in the New Testament). They formed a close bond, and Paul was able to win them over for the gospel. The occasion for the first letter to the Thessalonians arose when one of the leatherworkers apparently died. The remaining members were concerned that this person would miss out on the Second Coming because he had died slightly too soon — but Paul clarifies in the letter that actually the dead will be raised first, and then “we” will be taken up to join them. Obviously the situation envisioned here is that the End will be coming sooner rather than later, certainly within the readers’ lifetime. This letter is one of Paul’s most deeply felt writings — it is palpable that he really loves these guys and doesn’t want them worrying.

Shifting the scene to 2 Thessalonians, the tone has shifted dramatically. Instead of the tender consoler, Paul here is playing the role of the taskmaster. This shift, along with apparent contradictions in content, has led some scholars to conclude that this letter is actually a pseudonymous “correction” of the first letter, attempting to tone down some of the apocalyptic enthusiasm. I agree with this assessment, but for the purposes of this post it doesn’t really matter whether it was the real Paul who wrote 2 Thessalonians or not. Apparently some of the laborers have decided to quit their jobs in anticipation of the End, and the author clarifies that the End is not coming quite that soon — in the meantime, everyone should continue contributing to the community.

Two points stand out to me. First, this letter is almost certainly addressing a community of able-bodied men with a set profession. Second, it is responding to a scenario where people are voluntarily refraining from work out of what the author (whether Paul or someone else) believes to be a misguided apocalyptic enthusiasm. Given these facts, it seems deeply questionable to extract this verse as a general principle for public policy, much less to cite it as somehow overriding the clear priority of helping the poor that is pervasively attested throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

13 thoughts on ““He who will not work shall not eat”: An explanation

  1. Well said, but perhaps a little too sophisticated for people who are unable to make a distinction between “will not” and “cannot”.

  2. I’ve always read that verse as addressing the same kind of folks who were, from the perspective of Paul and his co-workers, corrupting the community at Corinth (and elsewhere and who, really, very rapidly took over the Jesus movement and coopted it, along with the memory and name of Paul). Specifically these people are those from a slightly higher socioeconomic category who wanted to function as patrons within the growing Jesus Movement in order to boost their own status and increase the number of clients and the extent of their influence (while also, to the horror of Paul and his coworkers, transforming the Jesus Movement’s sibling-based economics of mutuality into more imperial and hierarchical models of charity). Hence, those who are called to work in order to eat, might actually be the wealthier patron-types who live off of the labour of others, and who sneer at those who engaged in manual labour. These, I reckon, are the true parasites within the community, not the members of the lower socioeconomic categories. If they don’t work, like Paul and his co-workers worked — with their bodies, with their hands, in ways that “respectable” members of society considered shameful and degrading — then don’t let ’em eat.

  3. “The socialist principle, “He who does not work shall not eat”[2 Thes. 3:10], is already realized; the other socialist principle, “An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor”, is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish “bourgeois law”, which gives unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.”

    — V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution

  4. What about the anointing of Jesus, when Jesus says that there will always be poor people; doesn’t it fit perfectly in a right wing ideology? Instead of wondering about class antagonism, Jesus posits poverty as a natural part of society. Such a perspective generates the two false attitudes of charity and contempt for the laziness of the poor which you have criticized.

  5. That’s one plausible interpretation, but I think there are other ways of looking at the passage — certainly it’s not a “trump card” that overrides the biblical theme of care for the poor.

  6. Yes but I wanted to raise the question: what kind of care for the poor does the Bible prescribe? If it doesn’t go beyond the kind of charitable care that is designed to keep the poor in their proper place, isn’t it just as bad as the contemptuous common-sense reading of “He who will not work shall not eat”?

  7. I think there’s an ambivalence here in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There’s a place in the Torah where two contradictory ideas appear in close succession (sorry I don’t know the reference off-hand): “You should have no poor among you” and “You will always have the poor among you.” And then there’s the fact that the most important event in the Hebrew Bible is the freeing of a nation of slaves, something that oppressed populations have always embraced with enthusiasm (African-American and Korean Christians, for instance). Now you have to counterpose this to the fact that establishing this new nation seems to require victimizing the pre-existing population of the land — again, it’s ambivalent.

    If Jesus is claiming that poverty is an inherent part of the world as it stands, you have to contextualize that within his broader claim that he is part of a movement that will result in the radical overthrow of that world. (And you could also contextualize it within the immediate scene — he’s responding to Judas’s hypocritical concern and saying implicitly, “With assholes like you around, there will always be plenty of poor people….”)

    There has been plenty of work done to uncover the resonances of the Bible with class struggle — Jose Porfirio Miranda’s Marx and the Bible is perhaps the most thorough and powerful. There is conservative stuff there, but there’s also something else. Concern for the poor (in the form of liberation or charity) is a common denominator for both strains — neither strain, I think, can be plausibly used to support contempt for the poor.

  8. “(sorry I don’t know the reference off-hand)”

    The reference you want is Deuteronomy 15:4 and 15:7: “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy… If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”

  9. “What about the anointing of Jesus, when Jesus says that there will always be poor people; doesn’t it fit perfectly in a right wing ideology? Instead of wondering about class antagonism, Jesus posits poverty as a natural part of society. Such a perspective generates the two false attitudes of charity and contempt for the laziness of the poor which you have criticized.”

    I read an excellent analysis of this as a reference to the section of Deuteronomy mentioned above; during the whole discussion of Jubilee years and debt forgiveness, it’s mentioned that if Israel obeys the commandments and god, they will never have those in need or poor among them; then there’s a long list of things to do to assist the poor. The view of the article I read was that “The poor you will have with you always” should be read with an implied “because you don’t obey god, assholes.”

    Ah, found the verse in question: Deut. 15:4-5 – ” However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”

    That precedes the list of commands to generosity, forgiveness, freeing slaves, etc.

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