Paul Did Not Want Us To Be Idle

Paul Did Not Want Us To Be Idle April 21, 2020

Mathias Grünewald / St Paul: Detail /Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, when told that God expects Christians to take care of the poor, someone will reply with an out-of-context quote from St Paul, saying, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” They think that with that one verse they can ignore the demands for social justice found in Scripture. If questioned about their lack of concern for their poor neighbor, they will blame any such poverty on the laziness of the poor, excusing themselves from their responsibility for the common good. This does not stop them from claiming to be faithful Christians, indeed, among the most faithful Christians in the world today. They are like the scribes which Jesus called out in his day::

And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mk. 12:38-40 RSV).

Not only does Scripture consistently promote social justice, it tells us to place the poor and needy at the forefront of our actions. Excuses which are used to ignore the plight of the poor, especially those which suggest the poor deserve whatever suffering they experience in life are not only rejected by Scripture, they are condemned by it. “He who gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse” (Prov. 28:27 RSV). The poor will be with us to the end of time. That means, we are also to take care of them until the end: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut. 15:11 RSV).

It is not by saying, “Lord, Lord” do we show our love Christ, but by what we do. If we love him, we will keep his commandments and take care of the poor and needy. Otherwise, our words prove meaningless. We will find ourselves distant from God because of our lack of love, as St. Hildegard warns:

He Who knows all things says: See to it that you do not love God in a den of thieves [cf. Matt 21.13] by calling on Him amid your vanities and by invoking Him with words but not with deeds. I will respond to the person who speaks to Me with earnest words, but I keep Myself distant from those who speak to Me in rote phrases. [1]

Even if we should follow some virtue, like celibacy, or remain virgins, such virtue is meaningless if we do not have the love of God in us.  Abstaining from what is permitted, acting like we are spiritually superior for doing, while ignoring our responsibility to others, demonstrates how far we are from the way of Christ. St. Salvian, commenting upon this, expressed horror at the way some have used the external appearance of religion for the sake of injustice:

This is certainly a new kind of conversion. They do not do what is lawful, and they commit acts against the law. They abstain from lawful sexual intercourse, but not from plunder. What are you doing in your foolish delusions? God forbade sin, not marriage. Your deeds do not agree with your inclinations. You should not be the friends of crime, you who call yourselves strivers after virtue. [2]

Portraying ourselves as Christians without listening to and following, the dictates of love shows us how far we really are from Christ. If we try to use Scripture against itself by decrying social justice, we show either we have failed to understand Scripture and the Christian faith, or we were not interested in it in the first place.

What, then, did Paul mean? What was the context of his words? Paul was critical of those who were needlessly idle, using their idleness to get in the way of his ministry:

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing (2 Thess. 3:6-13 RSV).

Notice, Paul himself said he had the right to be fed without the need to do further work than preaching the Gospel. This is in accord with what he said to the Corinthians:

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.  If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?  (1Cor. 9:3-11 RSV).

Paul, therefore, affirms that those who work for the Gospel can (and sometimes must) accept material support from those who have it. But on the other hand, Paul also did not want to remain idle. He thought it important for all of us to be active. That was his main intent: he knew inactivity, idleness, created a listless spirit which can and will get us in trouble. Sloth is spiritual idleness. We risk becoming slothful if we let ourselves become idle. This does not mean everyone needs to do the same kind of activity. Not everyone needs to do work in the sense that everyone must have a job in the labor market in order to eat. Clearly, if Paul meant that, women and children, as well as cripples and others devasted by the effects of plague and famine who had no such job, would be seen as those who should not eat. This wasn’t Paul’s desire. He wasn’t telling us to let innocent people starve to death. He was talking to a specific group of idle men who were causing problems in the community that they should find a better way of dealing with their idleness.

Once we understand that there was a context to Paul’s words, that he was being critical of those using idleness to be busybodies, then we must be astute and realize that the kind of work and labor market available in Paul’s time differed from what is available to us today. And, in the future, there will be an even greater difference between the two. Work was, in some ways, far easier to get, and so it was a way to avoid being idle and to avoid the temptations which came from such idleness. This is no longer the case. Those who are unable to get work should not be judged and condemned to die of hunger. This is especially important for us to realize now before the job market gets worse in the future. Technology is replacing labor. Not everyone will be able to get a job. Should they be forced to perish because there is no work for them? No. Nor do they have to sit around being idle. There are many things people can do, once they realize the labor market has been closed off to them. The Christian tradition has long recognized this. Recluses living in monasteries were not idle, though they certainly did not fit in with the labor market. Their life of penance and prayer was their work, and it was often far more excruciating than the labor which makes the rich, richer. Likewise, then, people can be productive, doing things in the community, helping people around them. They might not make money, but they certainly are being productive with their time. Likewise, people can take the time they have to study, to write, to produce art, to contemplate, to do all kinds of things which keeps them active. The point is not to be idle, not to force people into useless, soul-destroying labor.

The social-economic situation of Paul allowed for people to find simple labor jobs, because technology did not replace it, and so such work was a way to overcome idleness and the temptations which come out of being idle. That is why Paul wanted them to work, not because he glorified work and thought it was necessary that people labored long and hard in a job in order to be worthy of food, but because he thought people needed to be actively engaging something productive in their lives. Paul would not say people who cannot get work, people who cannot find a job, are lazy and should be condemned with hunger. Far from it, Paul affirmed social justice and Christian charity towards the needy, even if they are our enemy (cf. Rom. 12:20).

Christians, therefore, must be careful and not follow the dictates of avarice which suggest only those who have money deserve to live. For, even if people might now have the means of making money, over time, less and less will be given that opportunity. We need to find new activities for people to do so they do not remain idle while they also do not fit in the classical labor market. It’s possible. The resources not only are there to supply everyone what they need without problem, technological advances allow the creation of many secondary goods which likewise can be easily distributed without the need for most people to work.

We must be careful and not excuse idleness, but we must also not excuse burdening people with impossibilities. We must look at the time and place which we live in, see the changes taking place in society, and work to make sure those changes do not create more needless suffering. So long as the production of goods remains greater than the needs of the people who live, the universal distribution of good must not be frustrated by misapplying Paul’s words about work. Those who cannot find a job must be shown human dignity. It is time to make sure we take care of each other. For if we do not do so now, we will find a far more hellish future ahead for all because we have rejected the demands of justice and supported the tyranny of the ultra-rich who find all kinds of excuses to justify their wealth and the nihilistic destruction of those who do not have any.


[1] St. Hildegard of Bingen, “Letter 343” in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Volume III. Trans. Joseph L Baird and Radd K Ehrman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 134.

[2] Salvian the Presbyter, “The Governance of God” in The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter. Trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1962), 148.

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