Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12

The Limits of Charity

How do you give to others in need?

Popular Translation

7 Brothers and sisters, you know how you need to follow our example. We didn't do anything wrong when we were with you. 8 We didn't get free food from some of you. Instead we worked long, hard hours, both day and night, so we wouldn't be a burden on some of you. 9 We could have ordered you to do things for us. Instead, we offered you our efforts as an example to imitate.

10 When we lived with you, we gave you this order: if someone doesn't want to work, don't give them any free food. 11 We heard that some of the people who lived with you didn't work at all and wasted other people's time. 12 We urge and order these Christians to work quietly so they can earn money to buy their own food.

Literal Translation

7 For you know how it was necessary to imitate us, as we did not act out of order among you 8 and we did not eat meals as a gift from some, but, in hard work and hardship, working day and night, as not to be a burden on some of you. 9 (It is) not that we do not have the authority, but (rather) that we gave ourselves to you as an example for you to imitate. 10 For when we were with you, we ordered you thus: if someone does not want to work, do not let (him) eat. 11 For we hear some walking (as a lifestyle) among you, doing nothing in an out-of-order (fashion) and wasting work (in a frivolous fashion). 12 We order and encourage such (people) in our LORD JESUS CHRIST: they should eat their own bread (as the result of) working quietly.

3:7 "For you know how it was necessary to imitate us" The Greek word for "imitate" is "mimic."

3:8 "we did not eat meals as a gift from some" The word "meals" is actually "bread."

What do Christians do with "freeloaders?" What are the limits of Christian charity?

Unfortunately, there are some Christians who disrupt the tranquility of life with idle gossip and speculation, with unreasonable requests, or with duplicity. Some just do the bare minimum to get by, and depend on others to pick up the slack. Others don't even pretend to work; these lazy leeches use people to fulfill their needs through guilt trips, whining, and manipulation. I'll bet most of you have met people like these in life and at church.

Human nature hasn't changed in the last two millennia. The author (Paul?) addressed the problem of laziness in two ways. First, he gave himself as an example. He could have leaned on the hospitality of the community, even ordering help from groups. But, instead, he chose to work and be financially independent, so he wouldn't be a hardship on his hosts and he could claim the high moral ground.

Second, he dealt with the freeloaders in a straightforward fashion. Work or don't eat. Notice these instructions were to the community, not individuals. Early Christian communities were known for "agape" meals (a forerunner to "potluck" dinners) that were open to the poor and needy. Later, offerings were taken for the poor at worship; this sharing was distributed by deacons according to need. While these practices might not have been addressed directly in 2 Thessalonians, the author did address the limits of Christian charity. Charity was meant to help those in need, not the lazy in want. Those who can work should, those who cannot work should receive help.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between those in need and those in want. Obviously, decisions when and where to give charity require wisdom. Let us pray for this virtue when we place limits on Christian charity.

Do you pray for wisdom when you contribute your time, energy, and money in charitable work? How has that prayer helped you?