We rarely say this out loud, but functionally, most of us believe that our responsibility is to just take of ourselves and our family. And if we do that, it's all good. If we do that, we've responded rightly to God's plan for our work and resources. So, it doesn't really matter what's happening in our neighborhood. It doesn't really matter what's happening in our city. Unless, of course, the stuff going on beyond our fences starts affecting what's happening inside of them.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul presses on our understanding of what it means to live in community, especially as part of the local church. In Ephesians 4:25-32, he's laying out a picture of a healthy community for us: we've got truth-telling (v25), dealing with anger and bitterness (v25, v31), building each other up with kindness and forgiveness (v29, v32). That all makes sense.
But then in the midst of these seemingly universal principles, he drops this line: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (v28). It doesn't really fit. It feels like a throw-in, right?
Now as I've studied this passage, I've become convinced that Paul is talking about a specific person in the church at Ephesus. We get a sense from his first letter to Timothy, who was the pastor at Ephesus, that there was an issue with who was and wasn't receiving benevolence from the church. Now, up until about fifty, maybe a hundred years ago, nations did not do welfare. Either your family took care of you, or the church took care of you. And so there's this guy in the church that's taking benevolence when he shouldn't. He's sponging off the church.
And look at how Paul deals with guy. He doesn't just say “stop stealing and start working.” He doesn't just talk to this guy about providing for his family, although he should. He goes further than that. “Listen, it's not about you. Don't rip off the church. But don't think that you can simply take care of your own.” Work so that you may have something to share with anyone in need.
When you see that your resources are not just for you and your family, you tap into the very nature of God, who freely and generously gives of himself.