Matthew 25.org: On "The Least of These"
I started a series a couple of weeks back on a website called “Matthew25.org”, a “community of Christians” that has come out in support of Barack Obama for president. Here’s the next installment:
“Caring for the least of these” is next on Matthew25.org’s list of values. Again, the value is one upon which we all ought to be able to agree. The question, as is true with so many of these, is, “what policies are likely to result in the protection of “the least of these”? But there’s another question that is intertwined with this one, it seems to me, and that involves the question of whose role is it to tend to “the least of these”? Liberals tend to believe that it is the role of government to perform this function, and thus tend to support all sorts of government programs that they believe will accomplish this purpose. My questions, and the topic of this blog post, are three:
1. Is it the province of the government in general, and the federal government in particular, to try to help the poor?
2. Do the government programs that purport to do this actually accomplish what they set out to do?
3. Do the particular candidates demonstrate that they are themselves concerned with the poor by virtue of their own willingness to give of themselves to help them?
I find this last question to be quite a telling one. See, it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly virtuous thing to try to do good with other people’s money; I’m more impressed by the willingness of an individual to care for “the least of these” voluntarily with his own money, his own efforts, his own time. Fortunately, we are able to find out how committed the candidates are to “the least of these” in their own personal finances…and the answers are telling.
Barack Obama is a stingy individual. Joe Biden, his running mate, is an astonishingly stingy individual.
I’ve written before on this blog about the stinginess of Barack Obama. This is a bit dated article on the Obamas’ charitable giving, and since it came out, we’ve learned that the Obamas made over $4 million in 2007, mostly due to book sales. Giving $240K sounds pretty good until you put it alongside $4 million-plus in income, and then it sounds, particularly for a professing Christian, unimpressive to say the least. I’m not tooting my own horn when I say this, but I’d like to think that I speak for most committed Christians when I say that, if I were to suddenly earn $4 million-plus next year, I’d be deciding how much of the second million, and maybe the third, to give to charity, to help “the least of these” in some way. Is that even a hard call? Was for Obama the Stingy.
But he’s a regular free-hearted individual compared to his Veep candidate. Here’s what Joe Biden gave to charity for the last ten years:
Joe Biden and American Charity
Both of these men would profess some allegiance to Christian faith. While Biden (with good reason!) hasn’t attempted to wear his Catholic faith on his sleeve, Obama has spoken openly of his relationship with Jesus Christ. But the proof is in the pudding, and followers of Christ are called, not first to the enacting of laws and legislation that abscond money from others to help “least of these”, but to personal involvement. Biden fails this test spectacularly, and Obama fails it by a wide margin.
The fact of the matter is that higher taxes—ostensibly to fund programs to “help the poor”—have the effect of preventing sincere Christians from doing all that they otherwise might to personally obey the call of Christ, not even to speak of the fact that the government’s unwillingness to hold people accountable for their actions means that much of the money going to help the poor is going to help undeserving poor people (yes, you read me right: not all the poor are deserving of our financial assistance simply because they are poor!). Individuals can, should, and do discriminate, donating money to charities that make judgments as to the worthiness of the individuals to receive support. Churches do this (and should!); we get calls all the time from people wanting a handout, but many are people who are making foolish choices and then want the church to bail them out. Some, on the other hand, are people who for one reason or another have legitimate needs, and prove themselves willing to work to try to get themselves out of their situations. There is all the difference in the world between the two—but the government can’t make this distinction very easily. This is why charity is always better left in the hands of private agencies, agencies that could receive more funds to help “the least of these” if the federal government weren’t sticking its infernal paws into our wallets.
And it’s a particularly egregious thing when the very politicians who’ll readily stick their hands into your pockets to grab your money—and then sanctimoniously suggest that it’s the “patriotic” thing to do to roll over and allow them to do this—are the same people who, when it comes to voluntarily giving their own money, prove themselves anything but concerned for “the least of these”.
I think it would be helpful to address the context of the Matthew 25 verse. Jesus is prophesying about his second coming. It is a day of judgment in which He will separate the sheep from the goats, rewarding those who have received Him and judging those who have rejected Him. The evidence of their acceptance or rejection will be in their willingness to serve the followers of Jesus Christ. It’s not that Christ is rewarding service and condemning those who don’t serve. Jesus explains that serving Christ’s followers is the same as serving Christ himself, the point being that failure to serve Him proves one does not really belong to Him.
My point is this. Jesus is not talking about government programs to help the poor, but neither is he talking about giving to charitable organizations per se either. Now I do not disagree with your premise that charities are better suited to help the poor then the government. I also agree with how unimaginable it is that certain politicians can presume to preach to us about not doing enough “for the least of these” (i.e. not paying enough taxes) in the face of their own stinginess. But this misses the point. The context of the Matthew chapter 25 passage has nothing to do with any of these things. Matthew 25 is about Christians serving other Christians as an evidence of their salvation. Matthew 25.org is attempting to co-opt a passage of scripture in which they apparently have little understanding of its true meaning. They have misinterpreted and misapplied the teachings of Christ to further a political agenda.
The first question is a no-brainer, biblically. The state’s role is not simply the restraint of evil. Paul states the govt’s positive function before he states its negative function: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). I agree with John Calvin when he denounced those who regarded the government “only as a necessary evil.” When we think biblically about the issue of JUSTICE, we learn that God sees government as being very important in this: “He (The LORD) has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” Those two words, if we are good exegetes of the Old Testament, are NOT just words referring to fairness and legality, but about just economic structures. In other words, God sees government in charge of economic justice. Psalm 72 teaches this explicitly:
“1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
2 May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
3 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
4 May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.”
If this passage does not teach that God gives government the responsibility to deliver the needy and the oppressed. State power should deliver the economically weak and guarantee the “cause of the poor” (Jer. 22:16).
Now, that is settled. Question 2 is obviously a mixed bag. Government must not feel compelled to step into any and every situation. Perhaps there are other institutions in society that do things better than government. We must never see government as the first resource for all our needs. Other sources often do a much better job.
Question 3 is interesting, in that it allows personal righteousness to trump corporate righteousness. This is the evangelical way of seeing things. The only thing that ultimately matters is the individual. However, biblically, corporate righteousness is just as important as personal righteousness. Systemic justice is as important than personal ethics. Evangelicals always narrow the gospel in on how an individual’s motivations and actions. The Bible, while saying that is very important, also makes the justice of a society just as important.
@Don: Point very well-taken, Don.
Well, this topic made me reach out for my copies of “The Welfare State We’re In” and “The Bumper Book of Government Waste.”
Interestingly, in medieval times (and much later), the “welfare state” was administered by the church. Pre-Reformation there was the work of the monasteries, which often provided hospitals and almshouses.
With Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, these functions were, of course, no longer provided and so there were more beggars on the streets. So he required parishes (which would be the size of a village or small town) to provide alms for those unable to work, and this led to the “Elizabethan Poor Laws” of the late 16th century, whereby the parish was responsible for providing support, and the people of the parish responsible for paying. And normally, this meant the churchwardens overseeing the system in each parish.
The system was meant to be “personal” in the sense that you were not dealing with a distant government employee. The facelessness of the welfare system means that welfare cheats believe they are taking from “the system” rather than from their friends and family. Whereas in the Elizabethan Poor Law system, there is that personal level to it- the person relying on welfare will be known to the community, and it would be clear that it’s the community providing the welfare.