by Mark DeVine
“Let Him Not Eat!” --The Apostle Paul
Is it just me or has fasting fallen on hard times across the fruited plain? Oh, I see—fasting never flourished here in the first place, at least not voluntary fasting. Not that folks haven’t gone hungry, sometimes even on a large scale. Depression era photographs don’t lie. As a child, more than once I made my way to bed hungry rather than consume turnips and peas and any number of indecipherable and frightening casseroles served to me. I soon learned to “acquire” tastes rather than slink off from the table with an empty stomach.
Voluntary fasting is not the American way, not the tradition, not by a long shot. We eat the food available and instinctively find the notion of depriving ourselves or others of food abhorrent. Food is plentiful here and we consume it. Inhabitants of lands where food is scarce and expensive notice this and a goodly number make their way over deserts and oceans in hopes of taking their own big bite out of the American dream.
One Indian immigrant to America recounted the troubles he’d faced in the good ole US of A. But his attempt to dissuade his relative back in India from making the difficult and expensive move to the States failed: “I want to live where the poor people are fat!” Surely every person created in the image of the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills should be provided what all recognize as necessary for life itself—food.
Yet in his letter to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul calls for the withholding of food in keeping with what he calls “the tradition you received from us.” There are those, insists Paul, who ought not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).
And this is not even the Old Testament with its commands to destroy whole populations, careful not to leave so much as a kitty-cat still breathing or its musings on the dashing of baby’s heads against rocks. We’ve grown somewhat adept at finding hermeneutical strategies for domesticating troublesome passages from that “Old” Bible of the Jews. But here we are in the New Testament— you know, where we meet the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood fame who talks to birds, speaks like a misty-eyed poet, and stares gently into space.
Can this be the same apostle who penned the famous “love chapter” to the church at Corinth that so frequently adorns our wedding feasts? Is this the same “sent one of God” who admonishes believers to “remember the poor,” and “count others better than yourselves”? Can he now also chide believers for failing to banish from their tables a few idlers in search of a piece of bread? Can he really now commend the withholding of food! “Let him not eat!”?
How can this be? Surely every divine image-bearing human being has an inherent, unassailable birthright to food. For the untimely-born apostle, apparently not. One wonders if, for Paul, any inherent human rights can place a claim upon others if food itself does not make the list. What about shelter? Clothing? Health care? Unemployment benefits? Whose up for plumbing the depths and mapping the contours of non-rights according to one who is prepared to see food withheld among followers of Christ?
Yet Paul does identify a universal human right of sorts. He does identify what every person ought to expect from a follower of the one who didn't mind working miracles in order to see folks fed:
Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10).
Excursion into Paul’s rhapsodic affirmation of the “law of love” is crucial, indeed decisive for our comprehension of his harsh, alien-sounding admonitions to the Thessalonians. Indeed, immediately before taking up the matter of idleness in Thessalonica Paul prays, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
Paul cedes to his would-be naysayers not one inch of the high ground of LOVE with his “let him not eat.” Just the opposite. Love shapes the Apostles’ construal of the situation and prompts his guidance regarding food.
But how so? Unloving consequences (intended or not; recognized or not) result from aiding and abetting those who “will not work.” This blog has previously noted that productive work belongs to the good life God intended for human beings from creation. But, Paul’s concern here is not that the slothful deprive themselves of the divinely intended blessings work brings. Rather Paul hones in on the harm the eating idler inflicts upon others, harm Paul himself was meticulously careful to avoid at Thessalonica—eating idlers are “a burden” to others, and an unnecessary burden at that.
Paul addresses the whole community of believers, giving disproportionate attention to those who prop-up the idlers: “we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” But his last word on the subject targets the idlers themselves. His command seems to fit nicely with a fundamental feature of free-market economics, namely that whoever is capable of doing so should strive to produce more wealth than he consumes. Here are the apostle’s words to the eating idlers: “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”