It happens sometimes. A conservative friend will read something by someone like me – someone who suggests being more generous towards people living in poverty or someone who advocates for a universal basic income – and they’ll cite this fragment of a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians:
He who does not work, neither shall he eat.
It’s a popular bit of conservative ethics. Unfortunately, it’s also torn from its context and repeated without any reflection.
In this post, I’m going to look at this phrase and a few of the reasons why it’s wrong to use it to imply that government programs or charitable organizations should require people to work in order to receive help.
No One Means It
The most basic problem with how people use this verse is that no one actually means it. Everyone makes exceptions in the name of compassion. Nobody says that children must work. Or elderly people. Or sick people. Or disabled people. Everyone intuitively understands that work can’t be used as a criterion for help without considering the context.
At first, it might seem like there’s a simple solution: returning to something closer to the meaning of the original Greek, as seen in the New Revised Standard Version. The NRSV translates the adage this way: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This changes the criterion to something more compassionate. It’s no longer that a person must actually work in order to have what they need to meet their most basic needs; she must only be willing to work.
But that interpretation has its own problem in the form of another exception. It’s an exception that gets made without thinking. No one applies this rule to the wealthy.
While people will cite this verse endlessly when talking about people who are receiving welfare or charitable aid, it is never used on the rare occasion when people talk about the idle rich. For example, if Jared Kushner quit his job today – such as it is – and chose to spend his life sitting around playing video games, no one would suggest that he should be denied food or kicked out of his home or lose any of the other things to which he has grown accustomed.
And that’s because what people seem to mean when they say, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is something closer to “he who does not pay, neither shall he eat.”
This is an important distinction. And use of this verse tends to obscure it.
On the one hand, when people use the phrase, they tend to mean that only people who can pay should eat. And they tend not to care about where the money came from. That money could come from good and honest work or from building supply chains that sacrifice children for profit. That money could come from a massive inheritance. That money could come from cheating and swindling. As long as the money is there, the specifics don’t matter.
On the other hand, by saying, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” people imply that work is the only source of money. The honest laborer, the trust fund child, and the swindler are all collapsed into the image of the person who works for a living. The use of the phrase ends up hiding what people seem to really mean by it.
The Other Side of the Work Requirement
But let’s suppose that people really do mean something like “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” or “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Let’s imagine that, outside of a few cases where people really truly cannot work, the people who use this phrase want to apply it to the poor and the rich alike.
There’s still a problem: if people have to work in order to eat, then there also have to be jobs for those people to do. It’s intuitively unfair to require people to work if there’s no opportunity.
Now, it’s easy to think that there is work available for anyone who wants it.
And, on a pure numbers game, that might be true. But the realities of employment and unemployment are complicated. People may be limited to the jobs for which they are qualified, to which they have reliable transportation, around which they can arrange other commitments, that are in their geographic area, and so on. And, of course, someone can be rejected from a job for any number of reasons: a criminal record, racism, sexism, and so on.
Someone looking for work can’t always just ‘find a job’. He has to find an employer that will hire him. And, in a market economy like ours, he has to find someone who will hire him at a wage that will let him buy the things he needs.
This is the core of the problem with work requirements generally, and with the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” in particular. Adding a work requirement to welfare or charity without also adding a robust employment program – not just job training, but actual employment opportunities – is nothing more than a way to refuse help to people in need.
Setting and Context
Of course, the actual letter to the Thessalonians wasn’t written in a market context where most people were privately employed and a few were relying on some form of welfare. It was written in the context of an early Christian sharing community. This was a community where people could have a reasonable expectation that they would not go hungry precisely because of the Christian emphasis on charity.
We can understand this better if we turn to another letter: 1 Timothy.
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the author tells the community about caring for “widows who are really widows.” The assumption is that women are financially dependent on men – their fathers, their husbands, their sons – and that women who do not have a man to rely on are particularly vulnerable. It is therefore the responsibility of the Christian community to care for those widows who do not have anyone to support them. The letter to Timothy notes that some people, particularly younger widows who might remarry, might take advantage of this sharing community. Therefore, the author believed, specific rules had to be created.
But 1 Timothy doesn’t just have rules for the poor or the widowed. It also has rules for the rich. Specifically, it directs them “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God,” and to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” The poor can rely on the sharing community precisely because the rich have a moral obligation to share their wealth with them.
2 Thessalonians assumes the same sharing economy and the same demands placed on the rich. And, like 1 Timothy, the author imagines – in fact, has heard that – some people are taking advantage of that fact. The author also points to the reason that some people might be taking advantage: some people are expecting that Christ’s return is imminent. After all, what would be the point in working if Jesus is about to return?
In my interpretation, the problem being addressed by 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 is that some people are taking advantage of the sharing community, and that at least some of those people are taking advantage because they are expecting the world to end at any moment. The passage – including the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” – isn’t about people who are in need of assistance because of personal misfortune or systematic exclusion. It’s about people who are part of a sharing community but who are not contributing to it.
“He who does not work, neither shall he eat” is not about our society. It’s not about a society where people are free – perhaps even expected – to make as much money as possible and use it for their own power, privilege, and prestige. It’s about a sharing community where the wealthy are expected to give and the poor have a right to their help. It’s about a society where work is available; where people have the real opportunity to contribute to their community. It’s about the church.
And that makes applying it to the world very difficult. To do that, we would have to use it when we talk about the idle rich as well as the unemployed poor. We would have to use it to justify why opportunities to work are so readily available. We would have to give the wealthy and powerful serious responsibilities to care for the least among us.
For those reasons, and more, people need to stop using the phrase “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” to foist work requirements on people in need.