The sermon below is what I preached this morning – based on the Epistle reading in toddy’s Principal Service Lectionary, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I preached it with some trepidation, but the feedback I got was uniformly positive, including two people who separately said they were very glad I’d preached it, even though they disagreed with some of what I said. Here it is …
Today’s Epistle passage is very dangerous:
When we read Paul’s phrase “anyone unwilling to work should not eat”, we have to be very, very careful not to hear it the wrong way round. If we are not careful, we might slip into thinking that if someone can’t eat, it’s because they are unwilling to work.
And that’s especially dangerous in our present social and political climate, because Paul’s phrase “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” sounds as if it could have come straight out of the manifesto of a right-wing political party.
And if not explicitly stated in the manifesto of the current coalition government, it is at least implicit in many of their policies. The relentless downward pressure on benefits for the unemployed and those with physical or mental conditions meaning they are unable to work pretty much says “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
The equally relentless demonization of those same people by government rhetoric of “strivers versus scroungers”, dutifully, even gleefully, echoed by large sections of the media drives home the message that “if anyone can’t eat, it’s because they’re unwilling to work”.
A government which is “for hardworking people” is, we might be forgiven for thinking, against anyone who is unable to work, however good the reasons might be.
Amid all of that, me might hear Paul’s words, and get them the wrong way round. We might hear “anyone unwilling to work should not eat”, and find ourselves nodding, but it would be wrong and unchristian.
One prominent Christian said, “So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.” – that was John Wesley, In 1753. Even more prominent was the person who “looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
So why did Paul write those dangerous words?
Of course, Paul was writing in a time and place where there was no such thing as unemployment benefit. In Paul’s time, the options were very stark – it was work or starve unless one was prepared to steal or able to find someone willing to give alms.
In his letter, Paul was writing to a group of Christians in Thessalonica who had become confused about the end of the world. There were evidently some who thought the end was going to come so soon that there was no point doing anything normal – they were just waiting in excited anticipation. In the meantime, though, they needed to eat, and it was falling to those who were still getting on with life and earning money to feed those who weren’t.
Paul is pointing out to all of them that Christians must always be prepared to work for their living, just as he himself had modelled.
He didn’t need to tell them to look after the poor, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, because they took that for granted. It’s abundantly clear from the Acts of the Apostles that the early church did these things as a matter of course.
So when Paul writes “do not be weary in doing right” he means all of that. There is absolutely no room in Christian thought for allowing someone to starve when they are unable to work, or when work cannot be found.
In our own time, however, we find benefits being removed from the poor while taxes are cut for the rich. We find the minimum wage, designed to ensure that those in work are treated fairly, is being steadily reduced in real terms, so that the proportion of working families who need extra help from benefits is large and growing. We hear the claim that we’re all in it together, while MPs have publicly-funded second homes, but the poor are not allowed a spare bedroom.
There are many lies circulating in the media about unemployment:
Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the present government, claimed in 2009 that “often three generations of the same family have never worked”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – a charity specializing in poverty issues – did some research.
They concluded in these words “Despite dogged searching, the researchers were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked. … Recent surveys suggest that under 1 per cent of workless households might have two generations who have never worked. Families with three such generations will therefore be even fewer.”
In other words, there are no such families, let alone them being found “often” as Iain Duncan Smith claimed.
The lie that drink or drug addiction causes most poverty needs to be overturned – fewer than 4% of benefit claimants are so affected according to a recent church report. The same report also dispels the myths that the poor are simply careless with their money, or that living on benefits is a comfortable life. People in poverty are the least able to be careless – they must make every penny count – and the amount of benefits is well below any comfortable level, as evidenced by the huge numbers of people having to resort to food banks.
Even the idea that unemployed people are unwilling to work is almost completely false – for most, work is simply not available.
There is no room in Christian thought for labeling someone as a shirker, taking away their dignity, forcing them to move to a smaller home, depriving them of income for missing an appointment, requiring them to work for no pay, subjecting them to repeated intrusive medical examination, or any of the other ways that unemployed and disabled people are being treated, in your name, under our present government.
Jesus had many things to say to those who came to listen or ask questions, and some of those things were very difficult and personally challenging. But Jesus never told anyone to “get a job”. Jesus never imposed conditions on his healing or his forgiveness.
Jesus always looks at us with love and compassion. The only thing he asks us to attend to regularly so that our benefits may continue – the benefits of forgiveness and eternal life – is the love of God and neighbour.
In the face of that, let us be confident to challenge the distortions and lies, to see in every human being someone for whom Jesus died, and to reach out with practical compassion to restore dignity and hope.
Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.