“If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat”

July 27, 2019 Length: 10:40

"If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." Have you ever heard someone use this verse (from 2 Thessalonians 3:10) as a justification to not give money or food to someone who appears to be poor and lazy? Was St. Paul writing this to those who sat around waiting for handouts? Is this verse directed to poor freeloaders? Listen to an explanation from Fr. Stephen De Young, host of The Whole Counsel of God podcast.

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Mr. Timm Wenger: Hey, everyone. This is Timm. Welcome back to The Second Liturgy. As you may have noticed, Thaniel and I have been taking a bit of a break this summer. We’re busy collecting interviews with people who are encountering Christ at the table of the poor. Among other topics, we’re working on a series of practical ideas related to Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats. God willing, we’ll be launching season two of The Second Liturgy in September.

In the meantime, here’s an episode featuring a bit of a twist on a common scriptural passage. One of our favorite Ancient Faith podcasts is The Whole Counsel of God. Fr. Stephen De Young leads a Bible study, verse by verse, with helpful explanations of the context of each. He also does a great job of connecting various passages. Recently, while discussing Acts 18 in the context of St. Paul making tents with Priscilla and Aquila, Fr. Stephen explained a verse in a way that caught my attention. As a kid, I was raised with a good Mennonite work ethic based in part on St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. He says in 3:10 that “if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” Have you ever heard someone use this verse as a justification to not give money or food to someone who appears to be poor and lazy? Was Paul writing this to those who sat around waiting for handouts? Is this verse directed to poor freeloaders? Let’s listen to Fr. Stephen’s explanation.

Fr. Stephen De Young: St. John Chrysostom is very suspicious of wealthy people who became wealthy without working or making things themselves, right. People who became wealthy by shifting money around. [Laughter] Making deals and these kind of things. He’s going to look on that a little shadily, but that comes from St. Paul. St. Paul has this emphasis of honest work, doing good, honest work and supporting yourself.

He encounters Priscilla and Aquila, meets them there, they have a tent-making operation which they’ve sort of taken with them out of Corinth. So, since this happens to be the trade that St. Paul knows, he works with them to sort of support himself and support his mission. He’s going to make a point of that as well in his epistles, that St. Paul never wanted to take money in exchange for the Gospel. He didn’t want to sort of show up in town to preach and then say, “So, who’s going to put me up and feed me?” because he didn’t want to even give the appearance that he was in this for the money and he was trying to run a racket. He wanted to be above reproach in that area, so he could do that. He did take collections, but he didn’t take those collections and keep them. When he took collections, he was taking collections primarily for the Church in Jerusalem, because it was mostly Palestinian Jewish peasants who were very poor. He would ask them to contribute, but we’re going to see he takes a very large collection that he’s taken from these new Gentile churches that are very wealthy. He takes it back to give it to these poorer Christians than these other churches. He doesn’t sort of use it to buy himself a private jet or anything else. [Laughter] Or some other things that we occasionally see clergymen in America do. [Laughter]

“And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.” So this is what he does when he first comes to Corinth. He says that he’s met these people, he has this opportunity to make some money through work to support himself and the missions, so he’s doing that six days, and then on the sabbath he’s going and preaching in the synagogue. Then on the Lord’s day they’re having the Christian meeting with the Eucharist. I bring this up because I’m going to digress for a moment, because this is one of my pet peeves in terms of very often misquoted Bible verses. This is in one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, so it pertains right here. That is his sentence: “He who does not work shall not eat.”

You may think, even based on what I just said, that this is part of St. Paul’s emphasis on working with your hands, but if you take it in context, St. Paul is talking about the Eucharist. What he says is that certain people are showing up very early on the Lord’s day, and they’re getting to—at this time, remember how we talked about how Christians are still going to the synagogue on the sabbath and hearing the Scriptures and that kind of thing, so, the first part of our liturgy, and then meeting on Sunday for the Eucharist, for the second part of our liturgy. The Eucharist was being celebrated within what was called an agape feast or an agape meal, a love feast or a love meal, which was meaning there was a full meal, in the same way that Christ originally ate a meal with his disciples and then at the end of it they had the Eucharist. It was a similar kind of thing, so there was more food there than just the Eucharist.

But what was happening was people were coming, were showing up early, and eating all the food. [Laughter] So that the people that came later, there was nothing left for them. The problem that St. Paul has with this is that the people who were showing up early are showing up early because they don’t work. But this is not, as we would assume in our culture, because they’re lazy and don’t have a job. [Laughter] That’s how we… It’s because they’re wealthy and they don’t have to. They’re wealthy, so they don’t have to work on Sunday. They don’t have to work on the first day of the week. They can get up, go over to the church, and start eating. The people who are showing up later are the people who had to go work, and they go and put in a day’s work and then come to the gathering afterwards and find nothing left for them.

So that verse actually means the exact opposite of the way it’s usually interpreted! Yeah, it’s the other way. See, part again, like I mentioned with St. John Chrysostom, part of St. Paul’s emphasis is there are people in the Roman empire, like Priscilla and Aquila, who are doing well, but they’re doing well because they’ve done well at a trade. They’ve worked, so they’re doing well. There are also people who’ve just sort of inherited money and live lives of leisure and who aren’t working. St. Paul’s answer to them is that they need to give up their wealth and live by the work of their hands. This is where that emphasis is going to come into monasticism, where we see St. Anthony the Great who inherits all this wealth: give it all away and go and live this humble life, supporting himself. This is where that idea comes from in monasticism, of monastic poverty. It’s from this understanding of being idly wealthy.

That kind of flies in the face of our American culture, because in our American culture the whole point is: I’m going to work for a certain period of time, and then I really want to get to the point where I don’t have to any more, and I can just sort of relax and coast and be comfortable. [Laughter] And that’s not how Christianity works, where our goal is to get to the point where I can just be totally comfortable and indulge myself. [Laughter] It’s quite the opposite. In fact, if I get to that point, I need to start getting rid of some of this stuff until I can’t any more. That’s asceticism and continuing to work on this, because it’s not good for us to become comfortable and sated and wealthy.

Mr. Wenger: I find it fascinating that St. Paul was writing to the rich and greedy Christians, those who had more than they needed and were not concerned with sharing with those who had less. They could have eaten at home, as St. Paul instructs in 1 Corinthians 11, and they could have brought extra food to give to those who worked hard all day, to eat then and to take home with them. It’s also interesting to see the connection with the Eucharist. I’m reminded of St. John Chrysostom’s paschal homily, in which he says:

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The calf is fatted; let none go away hungry.

There are multiple layers to this imagery. I think the two obvious ones are probably the Pascha feast itself, when we have the meat dishes and dairy that we’ve been fasting from, and then also the Eucharist itself. If every Sunday’s a celebration of the resurrection, let all partake of the Eucharist, and let none go away hungry, spiritually or physically—which sounds a bit like a reference to the liturgy after the liturgy.

We would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts about St. Paul’s and Fr. Stephen’s exhortations? What ideas do you have for upcoming episodes in season two in The Second Liturgy podcast? You can get in touch with us by using the contact form at our website, thesecondliturgy.com, where you can also sign up for our weekly inspirational emails and read our blog. We also invite you to follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Until next time, so long!