There is a classic Peanuts strip in which we find Snoopy sitting on the roof of his doghouse with a typewriter. But this time he is not writing another one of his stories that begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” No, this time he is writing a theology book. And in the last panel we see its title: Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?
Unfortunately, there is no such book on Amazon. Nor one called Bible Verses People Keep Getting Wrong. I'm sure there are books in which that is the basic argument but no one has had the courage to use either of those titles. But there certainly are verses that people continually misquote as well as sayings people think are in the Bible but which aren't. And there are certain verses that people keep misinterpreting. And today we have one that comes up in conversations on the poor distressingly often.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:10 Paul says of a group of people “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This is an oft quoted scripture that people bandy about whenever the subjects of the poor or the homeless come up. But as Dr. D. A. Carson quotes his minister father as saying, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” In other words, if you take a Bible verse out of its context, you can use it to prove nearly anything. So to interpret a quotation from the Bible, or any quote from any work actually, you need to know the context. You have to know what the author was discussing, who his audience was and the main point he was actually making.
So what was Paul discussing with the church in Thessalonica? He is not making a statement about the poor in general. In Romans 12:13, 2 Corinthians 9:6-13, and 1 Timothy 5:3, Paul says that those who are genuinely needy should be helped. The Bible itself has over 300 passages that deal with our duty to help and to neither neglect nor exploit the poor.
It is equally obvious that Paul is not talking about those who can't work because of disease or disability. He is speaking of those who can work but won't. Who might they be? It's possible they were people who took Paul's teaching of Jesus' imminent return in his last letter to mean it was so near that they could knock off work and just wait. Or they could be people who were following the lifestyle of the Cynics. Now the Cynics were philosophers who believed in living a virtuous life and rejecting all money and possessions and living in accord with nature. This sounds very noble and the most famous Cynic was Diogenes, who adopted a simple lifestyle, went barefoot in winter and lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Cynic means “dog-like” and they adopted the insult proudly, saying is was their duty to hound people about the errors of their ways.
Like most philosophies, it degenerated from its original ideals and gave birth to a bunch of so-called followers who begged throughout the Roman Empire. It could have been that some of these Cynics converted to Christianity but continued their lifestyle of begging rather than working. They thought they were living a pure and natural life. But they were apparently living off the generosity of other church members, who were trying to be charitable. So Paul was telling these people that if they were able-bodied and intentionally poor, they need to work to earn their bread. In other words, his admonition was aimed at a very specific group of people and lifting it out of context to apply to all folks who don't have jobs is to do violence to the context.
How prevalent is willful idleness among the poor? First of all there are 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, that is, single people who make $11,490 a year or less or a family of 4 making $23,550, which is less than $6000 per person. That's the official government poverty line derived from a methodology that hasn't changed in 40 years. Obviously such people are not merely poor; they are destitute. The poverty line is so low that even the government typically doubles it to determine who is actually poor. There is no way people making that little can afford a home.
It is not possible for people making the minimum wage, which gives you just $3590 a year more than the poverty line, to afford a home in any major city in America, with the possible exception of Omaha, Nebraska, the cheapest city in the U.S. Even so, unless you can afford to spend ½ of your income on rent, you're going to need a roommate or 2. That's what William Bonnie did. Right out of college he got a full-time job in Montana. Then one day he came home from his job to find all his possessions in a box in the garage because one of his roommates wrote rent checks that bounced. So he found himself employed but unable to afford a place to stay. Hotels cost 10 times what his rent was. Homeless shelters fill up early and he couldn't get off his job by 4:30 to get a place in line that would ensure he could get in. Because he had moved to the town for the job, he didn't have a lot of friends who would let him crash on the couch and use their showers. He found himself in the same situation as the 44% of homeless who have jobs. He ended up sleeping in his car—which made cooking and bathing difficult and required he drive out of the city at night to avoid being rousted or arrested and which cost him more gas money. And food stamps were only good on food you had to prepare. So he had to get a campstove and buy the fuel. (You can read his article on Cracked.com here.)
The fact is that the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old. That's because nearly half of all homeless people are women and children fleeing domestic violence. And many homeless children are runaways or throwaways. Children make up 20% of the homeless in this country.
22% of the homeless are veterans. Another 22% of single homeless persons suffer from severe and/or chronic mental illness. 1 in 4 are addicted. These 3 groups overlap a bit.
Only 6% of the homeless are voluntarily so, like the Cynics were. The children obviously aren't voluntarily homeless. The teenagers kicked out of their houses by their parents for being gay aren't. The women with children who made the difficult choice between being abused or being homeless aren't. Renters who were evicted because their landlords' properties were foreclosed on aren't. The folks who lost their jobs and then their homes in the Great Recession aren't. The 44% who work minimum wage jobs aren't. So Paul's admonition to the free riders rarely applies.
The sad fact is that you can do everything right and still lose your home. We do not live in a meritocracy. And God recognizes that. He said to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 15, “There should be no poor among you, for the Lord will surely bless you in the land he is giving you as an inheritance if you carefully obey him by keeping all these commandments I am giving you today.” Theoretically, the promised land should have had no poor. God gave them laws against charging interest on loans, on paying workmen promptly, on not taking the land of another Israelite, on not taking a person's cloak to secure a loan, on leaving the edges of fields unharvested for others to use, on collecting a special offering for widows and the fatherless and immigrants. But God knows they will not obey. So he says, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them....There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, the needy and poor, in your land.”
God would not have commanded us to help the poor if he judged most of them to be lazy folks who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they wanted. The overwhelming majority would not choose poverty or homelessness. The requirement that to eat you must work would only apply to those rare individuals who can work but choose not to, like those who did so for ideological reasons in Thessalonica.
William Bonnie, the writer who found himself homeless though employed, discovered that the common notion that drug abusers become homeless is wrong. It's backwards, or at least it was for him. Having no home, no friends, no family nearby, no TV, no internet (it didn't exist then), no life outside work, the long hours with nothing to do were driving him crazy. And he drifted into drug abuse, to fill the time and kill the pain. From my years as a psychiatric nurse and my time at the jail, I'm more and more convinced that substance abuse is usually a form of self-medication: for pain, for depression, for other mental illnesses, for loneliness and social awkwardness. The real question is not why an estimated half of the homeless abuse substances but why the other half don't? Especially when we know the vast majority hate being homeless and would change their situation if they could.
Actually, most do. 75% of the homeless are only that way for less than 2 months. Only 16% of those without a place to stay are chronically homeless. However, some of those who get off the streets are what are termed “the hidden homeless.” They crash on the couches of friends and family or, as Bonnie did, live in cars. So you don't see them sleeping in alleys, parks, or business doorways. They are somewhat better off than street people, although sleeping on the couches of friends can get old fast, for both host and guest. When I attended a presentation on human trafficking, I was shocked to find that such “couch surfing” can be an entry into prostitution. When you have worn out your welcome with close friends, you may find a friend of a friend who is only too willing to put you up for a while. Eventually he may ask a homeless girl to pay him back by “entertaining” some friends of his. Homeless runaways are a major target for pimps. After all, almost 39% of the homeless are under the age of 18.
And just because you are no longer homeless, that doesn't mean you are no longer poor. You might just have managed to get into some of this country's increasingly scarce affordable housing. And, of course, if you are poor, you are always at greater risk of becoming homeless.
It would be really easy to dismiss the problems of poverty and homelessness if it were all a matter of laziness. The Bible does not condone laziness. But as we've seen, most of it comes from other factors: criminally low-paying jobs, businesses which resort to layoffs to boost dividends, the dearth of community treatment centers for the mentally ill, our overwhelmed healthcare system for veterans, the high cost of even basic housing, the rise of single parent families, domestic abuse, child abuse, substance abuse, and other things, most beyond the control of the individuals affected.
The default setting for Christian ethics is loving others. Jesus told us that if we neglect to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the underdressed, welcome the stranger, visit those who are sick and in prison, where a lot of homeless people end up, we are neglecting him. And of course we need to do everything we can to try to eliminate the conditions that lead to homelessness. As it is, not every healthy person who wants a job can get one. Or get one that pays enough that one can afford housing.
This is not a “it would be nice if we could manage this” thought. Along with idolatry, the prophets again and again mention neglect and mistreatment of the poor as the main reasons why God judges nations. Amos tells the Israelites that their enjoyment of luxury while they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth'' (Amos 2:7) was the reason they were going into exile (Amos 6:4,7). Isaiah warned Judah of the same thing. “Woe to those who enact unjust decrees and those who write oppressive decisions to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the needy, so that widows can be their prey and they can rob the fatherless. What will you do on the day of punishment, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your wealth?” (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Jeremiah chimes in with, “They have become rich and powerful. They have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds know no bounds; they do not promote the cause of the fatherless; they do not defend the rights of the needy. Should I not punish them for this? declares the Lord. Should I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 5:27b-29)
Injustice, especially to those powerless to fight back, is the opposite of loving our neighbors. Oppression, exploitation, and neglect are also antithetical to loving others. Love is working for the well-being of those you love. That means helping out those who need help. It means changing your priorities. It means educating yourself on the causes and consequences of poverty and homelessness and working to alleviate those causes. It means not demonizing the many based on anecdotes or the bad behavior of a few. It means spreading the truth.
The first person to experience injustice, the Bible tells us, was Abel. And had not Abel's blood been crying out to him from the ground, God would have answered Cain's sarcastic “Am I my brother's keeper?” with “Yes. You are.” God created us to be stewards of his creation. We are also creatures. We are to care of one another. God never said, “Love only some people. Love only the worthy. Love only the lovable.” What if God did that? Loved only the worthy? Where would we be? Thank God he is gracious. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy.” Who does that leave out? Ask yourself, when Jesus encountered the poor, the hungry, the sick, what did he do? If you are a member of the Body of Christ, what would Jesus want you to do? Go, then, and do likewise.