It’s almost an American cliche now: A long-faced, disheveled person standing on a street corner with a “PLEASE HELP” cardboard sign. In Martinsville, IN (where I live and preach), most of the “cardboard people” (for lack of a better term) line up on the street corners outside of the hub of civilized society: Wal-Mart. They’ll line up with cardboard signs like “WILL WORK FOR FOOD,” “HOMELESS” or “HOPE FOR CHANGE” and knock on your car windows while the stoplight turns red. I’m noticing that an increasing number of these people are women with small children. You’ll mutter under your breath, hoping that the light quickly turns green while trying to avoid eye contact. When your small child in the backseat annoyingly asks why that person is begging outside in the cold, you insist that your child just ignore them. Drive on in a cloud of dust and a flash of taillights.
Recently, I had the following awkward conversation with another Christian about a “cardboard person” while idling in my car:
Other Person: “That person has too many words on their sign.”
Me: “Hunh … So what?”
Other Person: “That means that they’re far too educated to be standing on a street corner begging. It’s probably a scam. I judge whether a person is genuinely poor by the number of words on their sign and whether the words are spelled correctly.”
I’ve discovered that the usual Christian response to the “cardboard people” is to tell some fantastical over-embellished fish tale of how their friend’s neighbor’s hairdresser’s minister one time brought a beggar food or bought them a meal instead of giving them cash. Or complain about how that beggar will probably want to buy cigarettes, hard liquor and copious amounts of Columbian cocaine instead of food. And then quickly peel out like the Delorian from Back To The Future without offering that “cardboard person” any assistance at all.
Increasingly, I’ve also noticed Christians have started quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in relationship to the poor: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” And it’s used as a nice, semi-polite way of saying: “Get a job. God told you so.” So here’s the question: Is it correct to apply 2 Thessalonians 3:10 as a general rule to the poor? Let’s back up and explore the context of this verse.
In both of the letters to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul addresses a group of open “idlers” (read: lazy people) in the church body that are capable of working but refuse to work. The reason why the “idlers” refuse to work remains unstated. Many commentators will argue that the “idlers” refuse to work because they feel that the return of Christ is imminent, but there is no solid textual evidence to fully support that claim. Maybe they just decided it was easier to play PlayStation all day in their mom’s basement. We simply don’t know. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, Paul first commands all capable church members to engage in work:
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (ESV)
In the ensuing time between Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the problem with the “idlers” must have festered within the church, since Paul’s second address to the problem in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 is far harsher:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 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. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 ESV
In both passages, the principal reason why Paul desires to restrict the “idlers” is a “brotherly” concern. The “idlers” were eating the bread that others had earned and were becoming a unnecessary financial burden upon the working believers in the church (2 Thessalonians 3:8, 12). And the burden of the “idlers” hurting the entire group. Essentially, the “idlers” were created a disorder within the church by placing their needs above the needs of the entire church body. Paul and his crew worked for their food while in Thessalonica, and he expected that the entire church would imitate that example. In addition, the “idlers” were becoming “busybodies” instead of being legitimately “busy,” getting overly obsessed with the household affairs of other believers. In his first letter, Paul expected that the functioning community where everyone supported each other would earn the respect of non-believers (1 Thessalonians 4:12). Their work ethic and mutual concern for one another was a witness to the testimony of Christ. To Paul, the problem with the “idlers” is no small matter. The problem is so serious that Paul considers the matter to warrant church discipline, calling for the “idlers” to be expelled from the community (2 Thessalonians 3:14).
So how do we apply that passage to the modern church? Essentially, believers should not be an unnecessary burden on their church. When a believer is able to work but sponges off the church, that decision impacts the resources of the entire church. Funds and resources should not be used to help the unwilling while forsaking the unable. Paul isn’t talking about communalism or forsaking private property here … He’s establishing that “love your neighbor as yourself” has real financial consequences. If you truly love your neighbor, you will not become an unwanted, uninvited houseguest for an unlimited timeframe … You will work and provide for one another. Be a hard-working Clark Griswold … Not a freeloading Cousin Eddie. Unfortunately, the church leadership may be put in a position to discipline members that are unwilling to work. Again, the reason for this discipline is ensure that all able believers are working and – therefore – able to financially support one another.
On the other hand, there is a presumption within the passage – as well as throughout Scripture – that God’s people will care for those that are legitimately poor, hurting or marginalized. The Old Testament Law is filled with commandments regarding how the Israelites must care for the poor. God commands His people to freely give to the poor and considers failure to give to the poor as a sin (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). God commands a portion of each harvest be left for the poor, which Ruth and Naomi will later take advantage (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22). Special provisions were provided for sojourners, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 24:17-22). God commands that anyone enslaved due to poverty be treated like a hired hand (Leviticus 25:39-43). One of the reasons that God brought judgment upon Judah and Israel was their ill treatment of the poor – particularly orphans and widows (Amos 2:6-8, 4:1-3, 5:10-13, 8:4-5; Ezekiel 16:46-50; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Micah 2:9; Malachi 3:9). Similarly, the early church was well known for systematically caring for its widows and orphans. Deacons were established to ensure equitable treatment of all widows, whose care was carried out throughout all the early churches (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). And James states that the measure of true religion is care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). Repeatedly, Scripture presents an image of God as caretaker of the poor and His followers will imitate that gracious character.
The main problem with the modern Christian’s use of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is not interpretation … It is the way that many Christians stereotype all of the poor with a broad brush as a bunch of lazy scam artists. You hear that tone in the way that many Christians condescendingly presume that every “cardboard person” will go out and buy hard liquor with any financial donation. The horrible thought process runs that the poor are just lazy and the lazy just need to drop their cardboard signs and enter the Wal-Mart to fill out a job application. The problem is the assumption that most of the poor simply refuse to work.
In my many interactions with Martinsville’s homeless population, I have anecdotally found that most of the people that I meet don’t fit the “lazy” stereotype:
- The young mother whose husband walked out on the entire family for another woman and refuses to pay child support, leaving them financially destitute.
- The family who was illegally evicted because the landlord didn’t want to fix the rental property where they used to live.
- The couple who husband lost his job in the last recession and seems to be under- or over-qualified for every job position.
- The family whose medical bills crippled them into spiraling debt and homelessness.
- The reformed older man who spent hard time in jail but few legitimate workplaces will offer viable long-term employment to someone with a felony record.
In addition, there are the “working poor,” who work entry-level minimum wage jobs that are struggling to meet the rent and are just one large medical bill away from losing everything. And let’s not forget some of our seniors whose budgets are so tight they practically squeak louder than their hip replacements. Many of our seniors are so poor that they’ll turn down the household heat to dangerously cold levels in the winter just to avoid high electric bills. And so many people are without any savings whatsoever and are one emergency situation or one high utility bill away from being out of the street.
Yes, it should go without saying, but there are a myriad of reasons why people are poor. Duh. When we encounter someone in need, the first thought that pops into our head should not be “lazy,” “scam artist” or any number of awful stereotypes. I have met a few impoverished people whose full time profession seems to be playing Wii, shoplifting, partying with Oxycontin and making babies. I’ve also met families that are Einstein-level brilliant at finding new methods of stealing their children’s government assistance and minimizing their work hours to keep their food stamps. I have met wacked-out pill-heads so perpetually high that they can’t remember the last lie they told you or the last thing they stole from you. But not every poor person is lazy or a scam artist. Not even close. We are far to quick to presume that the poor are unwilling to work and – therefore – they should not eat.
Instead, our first thought should be to imitate Christ and have compassion upon the lost and the broken. In most cases of lack of generosity, the issue is not the person in need … It is the crooked heart of the person clinging to his cash. Lack of generosity is a heart condition. The apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Unfortunately, many will give only out of a sense of obligation or acclimation, which is not the type of giving that God desires. Gimmicks of adulation abound in our churches, where givers get their names engraved on everything from the pews to the front doors. Many Christians find it more important to advance their own legacy at the expense of Christ’s mission. In addition, Deuteronomy 15:9-10 states that God’s people must not be “grudging” or “show ill” in their giving to the poor. Our giving to the poor must also be removed from a sense of condescension or ill will towards the poor. The beauty of the Gospel must penetrate the believer’s heart and compels us to give richly as Christ has given richly to us. The believer’s motivation for giving must be an unquenchable desire to be gracious that comes from a radical change of our heart by Christ.
And as we give greatly, God lavishly gives to us. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, the apostle Paul tells somewhat of a parable regarding a farmer. If a farmer plants a couple of kernels of seed, then the harvest will be small. If the same farmer scatters a large amount of seed across an entire field, then the harvest will be far greater. So the same principle applies to our giving: Those that give much will be rewarded much. 2 Corinthians 9:11 states: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” What a principle! God generously provides to believers so that believers can generously provide to others, and – in the end – God will glorified. In an age saturated with prosperity-centered drivel, the modern church is probably most out-of-touch with this truth from Scripture. Wealth, surplus income and social status are not signs of the blessing of God. We must not become like the dragon Smaug from The Hobbit, unswervingly hoarding over our treasure and labeling all guests as thieves. When the believer gives cheerfully and willingly, then God will continue to provide for them so that they can continue to do give.
Here’s what we should do when we encounter a “cardboard person”: Give them some money. Or – at minimum – give them something to help. And here’s where the protests begin: What if they buy cigarettes and porn? What if they buy liquor and weed? What if they buy non-nutritious Cheetos instead of broccoli (yes … I have heard this argument)? What if they hire a terrorist Marxist prostitute on acid? What if they buy a Red Rider BB gun and shoot their eye out? What if … What if … What if? And here’s my big, fat response to your protest: So what? (Add giant raspberry sound effect here.) My heart is to be generous as Christ was generous with me. And for that matter, why not pray with them? Why not actually bother to give them food or buy them lunch? Why not invite them to your church … And offer them a ride to boot? Why tell the fish tale of that one time that pastor bought food for a “cardboard person” if you’re perfectly unwilling to do the same? Call me naive but I’d rather be labeled as a sheep than a goat by my Father in Heaven (Matthew 25:31-45). We may not be able to earn or give our way into Heaven, but generosity should be the mark of person who has been given riches in Christ.
My prayer is that Christians would give so generously, lavishly and extravagantly that the world would call it complete foolishness. As John Bunyan once said: “A man there was and they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.”