Generosity and Wisdom
Few would dispute that the Bible and Christian faith teach us to feed the hungry, along with meeting other human needs.
I find it interesting how often when someone comes to church looking for food or assistance, they feel the need to tell some long tale of why they need it. The assumption appears to be that they will only get a Subway card (or whatever aid I might have to offer at the time) if they have an adequate justification for their need.
Jesus never put qualifications on the need of others. When he fed the 5,000, he didn’t ask why they were hungry, why they didn’t bring food or money. He saw hungry people and fed them.
I believe that this should be our starting point as well. As we are able, we help those in need. Not just the worthy, not just the means tested.
Yet, we also hear the words of Paul in his second letter to the church at Thessalonica: “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 . . . Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. (II Thess. 3:6, 10b; click here for the full passage)
I have also heard the phrase “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” used to justify not giving to others. But is this really what Paul is saying?
A few observations: The passage speaks of those “unwilling” to work, not those “unable.” Now it can get a little messy in the application, but the clear thrust of what Paul is saying is directed toward those who are simply lazy. This does not apply to those who are unable to work due to physical or mental disability, those temporarily unable to work due to economic circumstances, those unable to work because they are too old, or too young or the wrong sex. Paul speaks of able bodied people who simply choose to live in idleness.
Second, Paul is speaking here of those within the Christian community. There are higher standards placed on those who profess Christian faith. We are to work so that we may be of service to others. We are to take responsibility for ourselves, but we are to work so that we can care for those who cannot. We are to bear one another’s burdens in real and tangible ways.
Third, Paul was concerned more with combating idleness and people taking advantage of the community’s generosity than with being stingy in the food distribution. Paul assumes that those being told not to eat are well known to the community. One way that I apply this at church is that the first time I get a request from someone, I make every effort to help regardless of the situation. But as people become more familiar and I get requests from them more and more, I have to be a bit more judicious.
Finally, note that he does not say “Anyone unwilling to work should not be given food.” The one called upon to make the choice is the recipient: “Anyone unwilling to work should [choose not to] eat.”
Our bias as Christians should always be to serve, feed, clothe, visit, etc. those in need without questioning the worthiness of their need. Yet, we should strive to be wise — “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” — in how we serve others. But the most important thing is that we serve and we must always err on the side of generosity.
This column appeared in the November 17, 2019 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.