That got me thinking about 2 Thess. 3:10, which says: "While we were with you, we gave you the order: 'Whoever doesn't want to work shouldn't be allowed to eat.'" (GWT) This has become a popular verse among conservatives opposed to government-funded social service programs. It's been cropping up in the health insurance debate.
But what does that verse mean? What did it mean when 2 Thessalonians was written?
I've been reading through The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Borg and Crossan argue that Christian communities in Paul's day were "share communities," that is, "communities in which there was a sharing of material as well as spiritual resources" (Kindle loc. 2756-58). The author of 2 Thessalonians, according to Borg and Crosssan, was addressing the problem of freeloaders. They write that freeloaders are a problem that "often occurs in share communities" because such people think it's a good deal - "hey I don't have to do much and I'll get taken care of." (Kindle loc. 2773-76.)
Read in context, the statement "whoever doesn't work, shouldn't eat" makes more sense:
[W]e worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
2 Thess. 3:8b-13 (NIV) (emphasis mine). The author is saying, "Dude, some among you are taking unfair advantage of the rest of you. They're perfectly capable of working but they're too darn lazy. They need to get off their duffs and help contribute to the good of the community." But listen to what he's NOT saying. He's NOT saying, "Dude, there are some people who don't have it as good as you because they can't work or their jobs aren't as good as yours. You don't have an obligation to help those guys out 'cuz they're no better than the free-lunch crowd."
Elsewhere in the letters traditionally attributed to Paul, there are references to the community being charged with helping those who can't do for themselves. E.g., 1 Tim. 5:3, 5, 9-10. So 2 Thess. 3:10 really shouldn't be read to say that those who can't earn their keep, shouldn't be supported by the community.
There are plenty of people who work hard, work long hours, but can't get ahead because their pay is low and their benefits are negligible or non-existent. There are plenty of other people who can't find a decent job in the current economy. Should society refuse to help these people just because, for whatever reason, they're not working at a high-paying job with great benefits? Should society punish their children because the parents aren't riding the gravy train? How is it consistent with Jesus' word to say, "I got mine, you best work harder to get yours, if you don't it's your own damn fault, and I have no obligation to help you out"?