“But there’s also, you know, in the Scripture, tells us in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10 he says, uh, ‘For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ And then he goes on to say ‘We hear that some among you are idle' ... I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements.” —Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.), March 28, 2017
It was a moment like this, 20 years ago, that turned me into a biblical scholar. In the lead up to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, I heard political and religious leaders quoting Scripture to justify shutting down food programs and kicking mothers and their babies off of public assistance. These leaders, many of them self-described Christians, ignored the majority of passages from the Bible and instead put forward ahistorical, non-contextual, and unethical (mis)interpretations and (mis)appropriations of biblical texts like 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and Matthew 26:11 — “The poor will be with you always.”
Such interpretations of biblical texts were extremely damaging to the lives of everyone, but especially the poor. I learned about the battle over theology and biblical interpretation that was central in the abolitionist movement. In the 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon, and Pauline texts like “Slaves, obey your masters,” to claim that God was blessing them with the prosperity of owning many slaves and making hoards of wealth on the backs of the poor. But abolitionists insisted that the God of the Bible was the God of the Exodus, a God of liberation who sent Jesus to preach good news to the poor and let the slaves go free.
We are living in another moment when such a battle of theology and biblical interpretation is necessary. In the past few weeks, politicians and religious leaders have quotes these same texts from 2 Thessalonians and Matthew 26 to justify cutting people off of healthcare and food assistance. They misuse these passages to blame the impoverished for their poverty, rather than accuse the rich who have stolen wages, poisoned the water, and enriched and engorged themselves by denying people healthcare.
An especially galling example came when Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) quoted 2 Thessalonians to justify increasing work requirements for people qualifying for SNAP, a low-income food assistance program. He did this to rebut a Jewish activist who referenced a commandment to feed the hungry in Leviticus. Before Arrington, the same passage was used by Reps. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.) to justify cutting food stamps during the debate over the 2013 Farm Bill.
It is anathema to use this verse from 2 Thessalonians against the poor. It is the rich whom Paul is criticizing.
The vast majority of the earliest Christians were poor, but by the time of the writing of 2 Thessalonians, some people with wealth were joining the movement. When Paul castigates some for not working but benefiting from the work of others, it is not an instruction against caring for the poor or organizing society around the needs of the poor. It is a judgment against rich people exploiting the poor. This resonates with another New Testament text from James 5: “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
Thessalonians isn’t the only text being heinously abused. In early March, Rep. Marshall (R-Kan.) used Matthew 26:11 to justify cutting millions off from healthcare:
Just like Jesus said, 'The poor will always be with us…There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.' Pressed on that point, Marshall shrugged: 'Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, [some people] just don’t want health care. . . . And I’m not judging, I’m just saying socially that’s where they are.'
Poverty is not inevitable. It is a systemic sin, and all Christians have a responsibility to partner with the poor to end poverty once and for all. My book Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor focuses on this famous passage — “The poor you will always have with you” — to show that it is actually one of the strongest biblical mandates to end poverty.
Matthew 26:11 quotes Deuteronomy 15, one of the most liberating Sabbath prescriptions in the Bible, and an instruction on how to follow God’s commandments to end poverty, forgive debts, and release slaves.
In this week of the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech from The Riverside Church of New York, we must read Matthew 26:11 alongside Dr. King’s statement on true compassion:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Jesus Christ, the one whom I follow, came to restructure edifices that produce beggars — and billionaires. Shouldn’t we?