A new study has found that American Christians are, by a ratio of 2:1, more likely than other Americans to believe that poverty is the result of laziness rather than a host of factors, many of which are systemic and beyond the individual’s control. According to the article accompanying the study, many theologians (whatever that means in this context) cite 2 Thessalonians 3:10 as the scriptural underpinning for believing that poverty comes from laziness: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
I have heard this verse used many times to suggest not only that the poor deserve what they get but that we as Christians have no obligation to help them. There is something peculiar in the American psyche that seems to make us believe that both poverty and wealth are moral states rather than simply economic realities. Far too many of us mistakenly believe that poverty means you have not worked hard enough to pull yourself up out of it, while wealth means you have worked very hard and made something of yourself.
Even a quick glance at the breadth of what the Bible says about poverty ought to convince us that this is not so. “God is a refuge for the poor,” says Isaiah 25:4-5, and Jesus stated that his entire mission is to proclaim good news “to the poor and the oppressed” (Luke 4:16-21). Nowhere does Scripture suggest that the mission Jesus speaks of involves simply telling the poor to buck up and stop being such lazy bums. If any moral value is assigned to economic well-being at all, it is the strong assertion that the wealthy are further from the kingdom of God than the poor. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
But just for the sake of argument, let us pretend for a moment that 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is the only thing the Bible says on the subject of poverty versus wealth. Would that really reinforce the narrative that the poor are poor because they are lazy and the rich are rich because they have worked tirelessly for their wealth?
Paul’ admonishes the Thessalonians to imitate him and the members of his party by resisting idleness:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thess. 3:7-13)
There is no suggestion here that idleness means poverty. In fact, quite the opposite. Paul says he only eats bread that he has paid for by means of what he has earned and suggests that the Thessalonians ought to do the same. The implication is that there are some among them who eat bread they did not earn and do not deserve. This could just as easily be the idle rich, those who have allowed their status or other inherited goods to be the source of their living, rather than using their own two hands. Given this admonition, it is hard to imagine Paul looking too kindly on things like speculative markets.
Whether rich or poor, no Christians have a right in Paul’s eyes to the resources of the gathered community if they are not willing to work. The difference between rich and poor here is not that the rich deserve their bread and the poor do not deserve theirs. The difference is that the rich have more bread than they need while the poor have no bread at all.
Many wealthy people in our society have worked hard to earn what they have, and some poor people avoid working hard and therefore remain stuck at the bottom. The point is, however, that it is just as easy for those people to be in the opposite position, with someone working very hard who is unable to escape poverty, while someone else barely lifts a finger and receives every opportunity on a silver platter. One’s economic status is no indicator of morality.
Bishop Phillip North recently gave a talk in which he accused the Church of forgetting the poor. “If we abandon the poor, we abandon God,” he said. “If we fail to proclaim the good news to the poor, we lose the right and the authority to proclaim the good news to anyone, anywhere.” The bishop is quite right about that. His sentiment echoes that of St. John Chrysostom: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
For American Christians truly to see the presence of Christ in the poor, we will need to stop thinking of poverty and wealth as moral states. What the poor and wealthy alike need is to be broken open to the love of Jesus. For Christians, that begins with casting off prejudices and seeing each person as someone made in the image and likeness of God.