They are words that strike terror into the hearts of the unemployed, the underemployed, the working poor, the uninsured. They are words that form a hard and heavy stone in the stomachs of too many people, even in these enlightened times, even in this generous and civilized nation:
“Those who will not work should not eat.”
Think back just a few weeks, to the partial government shutdown, when federal workers were furloughed and stories started spilling out of our radios and newspapers, our facebook feeds about families who were cutting back, tightening their belts and anticipating hungry times ahead. Thank goodness sanity was restored after only a couple of weeks – but for people hanging on by a thread, seeing strands of their support system snap one by one, those words struck home horribly:
“Those who do not work should not eat.”
I met a woman the other day whose life had spun on a dime, who had found herself suddenly in a strange place, too sick to work, utterly dependent on the work and goodwill of others.
“Those who cannot work shall not eat.”
That, I have no doubt, is not the original intent of the letter to the Thessalonians.
There are several nuances to that seemingly harsh sentence that we miss when we reduce it to a slogan.
The world that the Thessalonians inhabited was quite different, to say the least, from the one we know now. At a time when a sudden reduction in food stamps assistance has affected the ability of some of our own neighbours to eat, and to feed their families,* we should probably be very cautious of applying uncritically the mantra of “no work, no bread” to a very different context to the one in which it was written.
First of all, work can mean many different things in different contexts. In the course of this short paragraph the author of the letter himself uses three different words to describe his own work, effort, exertion and labour.
We use the same words to talk of things as different as brain surgery and ballet, public works and works of art; we number the music of the classical composers by their opus, their work order. The workhouse depicted in Dickensian novels portrays work as grinding, soul-destroying, a necessary evil to keep otherwise undesirable characters under control and certainly, those who would not work would not eat. Even animals work: workhorses, police horses, sniffer dogs and sheep dogs, laboratory rats.
We use the word labour to describe things as polar opposite one to another as the work assigned to prisoners: hard labour, labour camps; and the work of bringing new life into the world through childbirth.
In the gospel stories, two sisters, Mary and Martha choose very different forms of work: one a labour that we readily recognize as one that brings forth bread to eat, serving in the kitchen, at the table, busy and exhausting. The other sits quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening and working to understand what new thing God is doing here, who Jesus is, what he might mean. Jesus refuses to discount her work for the sake of the other kind.
Those who are criticized in the letter are described not only as idle but as busybodies. How can you be idle and busy at the same time? I think that one way is to neglect one’s own work in order to prod and poke at someone else’s, to involve oneself in every affair except the one at hand; to create busy work to avoid the real issues of the day.
“Judge not,” says Jesus, “Lest you be judged.” Do not be a busybody, but do your own work, quietly.
“Do not weary of doing good,” the writer concludes. Keep up the will to work for the good of the community.
In a beautiful book about work and vocation, David Whyte writes:
“It is very hard to say no to work. We may courageously resign, take a sabbatical, or retire to a simpler, more rustic experience, but then we are engaged in inner work, or working on ourselves, or just chopping wood. Work means application, explication, expectation. There is almost no life a human being can construct for themselves where they are not wrestling with something difficult, something that takes a modicum of work. The only possibility seems to be the ability of human beings to choose good work. At its simplest, good work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it.”
There used to be, centuries ago, a tradition of anchorites, those who had withdrawn themselves from the world and lived alone to do the work of prayer and meditation. A few of their cells still exist in ancient churches; cells with no doors, but only a window. The work of the anchorite was simply to pray, and they received their food through the window hatch, through which, also, they could pass messages to the outside world to describe their prayer life, their experiences of God, to feed the imaginations and the hopes of their communities. Julian of Norwich is one famous example. The communities that housed such saints would never have dreamt that their inactivity meant that they should not be fed, and honoured, even, for their spiritual work, for they never tired of doing good; they never gave up their work. There are many different ways to work, to persevere in doing what is right.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray, and we feed one another with the work that we do, whatever kind of work that we do, if we are doing our own work, quietly and without becoming weary of doing what is right.
Isaiah describes the blessings of good work in his description of the promised land, the promised kingdom: “my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”
We live in an interconnected world, where the work of many supports the ability of any of us to eat. Without those who work the land, those who build the roads, those who bake the bread, those who stock the shelves, those who count the money, those who engineer the electric elements, those who field the factory parts, none of us would have toast for breakfast. And what of the communication systems that tell the different parts of the network of humanity that feeds us our toast what to send where, how demand fluctuates? I could go on, but I think that it is clear: Without the work of others, none of us would eat.
And how ironic it is, in the light of such seemingly hard words, that we are about to be fed with the most tremendous free gift of bread and wine that there could be, the body and blood of Christ himself, the work not of our own hands, but the gift of the work of God, the creating, saving and sustaining work that never wearies, that never fails, that never runs out, good news for the poor and food for the hungry.
And this is our work, the liturgy of the church, liturgy: the urging, the effort, the work of the people of God, to proclaim the gospel, to feed the world with the hope that is ours, and never weary of doing it. This is our work, and we are richly fed by it, and we are thankful.
 David Whyte, Crossing the UnknownSea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 13