The Lone Tenement, painting by George Bellows

Greed, Sloth, and Welfare

Welfare is a common controversial topic in the modern age. It’s noble to sympathize with the downtrodden, to accommodate those who cannot provide for themselves. Charity is a universally loved virtue for good reason: a voluntary act of benevolence warrants merit. Mandated charity (in this case, welfare), on the other hand, tends to discomfort the prudent of our generation. How effective are handouts? Can people be grateful for what they were entitled to receive? The argument is that unmitigated welfare doesn’t incentivize the recipient to improve their status, that they will forever cling to this benevolence, taking it for granted and demanding more. I’d like to dissect this theory using case studies from the Bible.

Manna is the most readily apparent example. As was typical, the sons of Israel longed for Egypt and complained to Moses, this time over hunger. God solved this with bread from heaven, meant to be collected and consumed in daily portions: daily bread. Interestingly, God promised bread to Moses (Exodus 16:4), but Moses then promised the Israelites meat atop that (16:8), which God affirmed (16:12). Regardless of effort, each got enough to eat: “each according to his eating” (16:18, YLT). 

According to our above argument, the Hebrews would take this manna for granted. The story might have (hypothetically) continued that nothing was accomplished in the Israelite camp, that the tribesmen grew complacent in their blessing. Quite to the contrary, the Hebrews stored it until it rotted. When combined with Exodus 16:18, this implies that they starved themselves of their rightful portion in the hope of material gain. They didn’t take their bounty for granted but instead tried to use their bounty to push themselves forward in standing. Indeed, they tried to gather on the Sabbath against God’s wishes. The moral of the story (if one can be gleaned from it) is not that welfare induces laziness but that free stuff induces greed.

I wanted to contrast this with the Parable of the Talents, despite it not being an exact model of welfare. This tale was prefaced with the Parable of the Ten Virgins, an explicit warning to remain vigilant for Christ’s return. The Parable of the Talents keeps similar beats: to remain vigilant, to never stop working under Christ’s domain even in His physical absence. It’s noteworthy that the five, two, and one talents were bestowed “to each according to his several ability” (Matthew 25:15, YLT), similar language to that of the manna. Even when uneven, this could be considered a just distribution. The evil, lazy servant claimed to have hid the talent out of fear. The talent was not his, nor was he instructed to increase his wealth. However, the servant didn’t pursue any venues, even low effort options like banks. The matter was concluded almost as soon as the amount was handed to him.

The through line I find in this contrast is that we as mortal humans are industrious once a clear path to our own success is realized. We follow instructions during an emergency. Get rich quick schemes attract millions. Prospectors flock to the next gold rush. The terminally online push hard to increase their social media presence. More pettily, certain cultures and personalities abuse the free samples at local markets. Vigilance decreases when guidance isn’t clear, especially when we don’t work towards our own benefit. Those earning unemployment often don’t exert hard enough to obtain new employment. Employees of mega corporations drop their productivity. Empires and large governments often cannot fix the fundamental underlying problems within their own populace.

All benefit of labor is by God’s divine providence. Realization of that is the first and foremost step towards gratitude. It runs contrary to human nature, which makes it a continuous struggle. Through this can the benefits of welfare be converted from a mundane, abuse-ridden lifeline into a foundation for further glory. As it is said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever you will, and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:7, ASV). Under no other mindset can we truly obtain salvation from our hardships.

Footnotes from my research:

It is important to note that welfare systems as we’d recognize them were never implemented in ancient Israel. The great feats of the kings as detailed in Second Chronicles deal more with broader matters of state (constructing fortifications, damming rivers, etc.) than with attending to the needy. Jewish law placed the responsibility of assuaging the poor to family and those who lived nearby. I intended not to cover all the philosophical issues with mortal welfare, such as the appropriation of assets from well-to-do individuals to pay for administration and distribution. Rather, I wanted to analyze the effect of receiving food, money, or similar support without an obligation to return the favor.

It was common (but not universal) practice in ancient Israel to divide the spoils of war among not only those who fought but also those who didn’t, or couldn’t (Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 30, possibly Joshua 22). The example in Numbers was dictated by God Himself, though the military at the time suffered disciplinary actions for previous mistakes. It was through David in 1 Samuel that this process was enshrined in law: that those who guarded the baggage would share with those who went into battle. We never see the beneficiaries’ reactions. However, those who complained that the beneficiaries didn’t go with them into battle were described as “bad and worthless” (1 Samuel 30:22, YLT). Further, 1 Chronicles 12 details that “their brethren” prepared for them to eat and drink (1 Chronicles 12:39, YLT). If these are the beneficiaries, either they worked for their portion of the reward or they were grateful for the recognition. In both cases, it is acceptable that those who couldn’t contribute directly to the gains receive part of the benefit.

There are plenty of examples of sloth in the Bible. Laziness was one downfall of the pre-flood civilization; Noah himself was a boon to his father Lamech because he would “comfort us concerning our work, and concerning the labor of our hands” (Genesis 5:29, YLT): alleviating their need for work. Proverbs is replete with warnings against laziness. My favorite comes from Proverbs 24:33-34: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to lie down, and thy poverty hath come [as] a traveler, and thy want as an armed man!” (YLT).

Image is The Lone Tenement by George Bellows, a 1909 oil on canvas.


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