In a church I used to attend, a sermon series through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church landed us one Sunday morning in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat’” (NIV). Our pastor took this verse at face value, using it to encourage the congregation toward a good old fashioned Protestant work ethic.
I couldn’t quite believe my ears. At the very least, I thought, this seems complicated. Maybe some communities at some times have needed to be told to work harder. But does ours, today? I feel like we err more on the side of not being generous enough when people around us don’t have what they need.
Questions like these surface whenever communities—from churches to cities to state legislatures to national governments—consider what measures they are (or are not) willing to take to address issues of food insecurity. Christians in these spaces find themselves asking: What social and religious obligation do we have to those who do not have enough to eat? What does justice look like when it comes to food? Given his harsh-sounding words in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, would the apostle Paul have been opposed to provisions like free school lunches (as begun by the state of California this school year). I would suggest that there is more to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 than meets the eye. We can see this when we take a closer look at the verse itself, its surrounding context of 2 Thessalonians, and its broader context of the Christian scriptures as a whole.
First, the verse itself. When I tried to recall Paul’s words, I realized that in my memory they had become something like “if someone does not work, they shall not eat.” In reality, though, it is not “if someone does not work” but “if someone is not willing to work.” This is a significant difference. There are those who want to work but have a hard time finding a job that lines up with their skills and desires. There are those who have a disability, or have done prison time, or do not interview well, or live in an area where there are few jobs to be found. Nothing in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 suggests that these people should not be provided for.
On top of this, I find the translation “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” deeply misleading. The implication seems to be that the community, or its leaders, should keep some people from eating. This prevention may be direct, or it may be indirect—akin to the U.S. government recently deciding to end COVID-era provisions for free school lunches for all children in the new school year. But in the original Greek, Paul’s command is not directed at the community or its leaders. The command is directed, instead, toward people who are not willing to work. An alternate translation might read: “if someone does not wish to work, he should choose not to eat.” If there is a communal meal to be had, but someone is not participating sincerely in the community, perhaps that person should choose not to partake. Paul is asking people to consider their impact and not unnecessarily drain community resources; he is not asking the community to prevent people from accessing these resources.
Looking at 2 Thessalonians as a whole, then, we see that what Paul really wants is for the community’s love to grow (1:3). He wants God to provide relief for those who are troubled or afflicted (1:7)—and surely food insecurity counts as a significant source of affliction. He wants people to be comforted and strengthened (2:17)—and what better source of comfort and strength than a good meal? Paul’s deep desire is for people to be directed into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance (3:5). Surely none of these things looks like withholding food from people.
Paul also wants to help the church guard against those who are not so communally-minded. He’s concerned that some people are being idle and disruptive (3:6, 11), being a burden (3:8), and being busybodies (3:11). None of this is the same as being unemployed. Paul’s concern is not that people go get a job to pay the bills, but that people consider the needs of those around them. He wants people who are going around carelessly breaking trust, poisoning relationships, and causing dysfunction in community life to “settle down” (3:12) and stop doing these things. He wants peace, real peace, at all times and in every way (3:16). Whatever 3:10 means, it cannot be at odds with these goals. The goal is that everyone’s needs are taken care of.
The Christian scriptures consistently identify God as a God who feeds people. God provides manna and quail in the wilderness (Exodus 16) and sends ravens to bring bread and meat to Elijah (1 Kings 17:2-6). Jesus blesses and multiplies small offerings of food to feed more than five thousand people in one setting (Matt. 13:14-21), and more than four thousand in another (Matt. 15:29-39). The earliest Christian communities were marked by the way they shared resources to ensure that everyone had enough (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). Filled with the Holy Spirit, they held possessions in common (Acts 2:44), sold and gave money (Acts 2:45), and broke bread together (Acts 2:42, 46). No one was kept from sharing in the common meal.
In our world today, food insecurity is real, and it is devastating. Families feel this reality particularly harshly as the new school year begins. COVID-19 relief measures were good and necessary, but they were never sufficient. Educator Liz Hauck writes, “People ask me what education policy reform I would suggest investing time and money in, if I had to pick only one…as a place to start, I say free breakfast and lunch…Imagine what would happen if, across our communities, people had enough to feel fed.” Imagine if everyone had enough. This was Jesus’ vision throughout the gospel stories. It was the reality of the earliest church. And it is consistent with Paul’s vision of love and peace for the Thessalonian community.
People are coming together today in creative ways to address food insecurity—coming together to say, we are here to care for one another. We are here to ensure that everyone has enough. We aren’t here to judge or withhold, but to give and receive and learn how to survive and thrive together. Roxanna Pardo Garcia is one local community leader doing just this as she leads Alimentando Al Pueblo, an organization promoting healing through community, food, and celebration. Their weekly food distribution provides culturally specific foods for Mexican and Central American families in an atmosphere of dignity and joy. Let them eat, indeed.
In the context of the scriptures and our world, there is no way in which 2 Thessalonians 3:10 justifies withholding resources from people. God always moves—and always moves us—toward wholeness, provision, radical inclusion. God is love, and love often looks like food. If a person doesn’t work, for goodness’ sake, let them eat anyway.
Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, chaplain, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She has a BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. She regularly posts justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com; she can also be found on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj). Her sermon on Ruth and Boaz was included in Sojourners’ collection of immigration sermons, El Camino.