In my column last week about our crazy presidential race, I mentioned that, curiously, the most Christian candidate in either party is probably Sen. Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew.
Sanders’ positions sometimes sound a lot like those of Jesus and his disciples: feed the poor, love your neighbor, heal the sick, welcome the immigrant.
This observation touched off a flurry of online comments and private emails arguing that Jesus was not some socialist wacko who wanted the government to support the lazy and redistribute wealth.
I hear this a lot.
“Yeah, the Bible says to remember the poor,” goes this argument, “but Jesus never said we should transfer that job to the government! That’s an individual choice! The government shouldn’t take from the rich or interfere with citizens’ private rights!”
Except that, in my observation, the people making this argument tend to be the same folks who, in the name of Jesus or the Bible or Christianity, clamor for the government to intrude everywhere else.
They want the government to tell gay people they can’t marry and to tell women they can’t have abortions. They want the government to micromanage many lives on multiple fronts.
Except when it comes to the poor or the ill. They don’t want the government aiding the less fortunate. That’s intrusion. That’s socialism. That’s wealth redistribution. That’s enabling the no-account.
The irony is obvious.
Jesus said nothing specifically about abortion, for instance. Nary a word.
He said nothing about gay people, either. St. Paul did condemn homosexual behavior, but within a long section that criticizes many acts of the flesh.
Conservatives say early Christian leaders were mainly silent on such issues only because abortion and gay rights and such weren’t even on the radar in the first century. Why, if Jesus and the apostles were here today, they’d be aghast at our present society’s decadence. They’d beg the government to step in.
Maybe so. Or maybe not. I mean, Jesus did proclaim that his kingdom was not of this world. Maybe he wouldn’t care much what a secular, temporal government did. Maybe he would.
It’s hard to predict how a first-century, Middle Eastern reformist Jew or his followers would act if thrust into 21st-century America. It would be quite a culture shock, I imagine.
Religious conservatives, however, are certain they know what Jesus would say on all kinds of matters about which he rarely, if ever, talked. They’re eager to throw the full force of government into legislating their ideas of God’s will.
Yet when it comes to a subject on which Jesus and his lieutenants spoke directly, endlessly — caring for the poor, the ill and the outcast — God forbid the government should get involved there.
Here’s just a sampling of what the New Testament says about dealing with the less fortunate:
▪ Jesus: “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you? And he will answer, ‘I assure you, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:44-46).
▪ Jesus: “And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full” (Luke 6:20, 24).
▪ Jesus, to a rich ruler who wanted to become his disciple: “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven. … For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:22, 25).
▪ St. Paul, in urging the well-off to share generously: “That there may be equality; as it is written, ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:14-15).
▪ St. James, Jesus’ half-brother: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you!” (James 5:1-5).
▪ St. John: “But if anyone has enough money to live well, and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help — how can God’s love be in that person?” (1 John 3:17).
Can I tell you that, if they were here in 21st-century America, Jesus, Paul, James and John would lobby for government-directed welfare or wealth redistribution or healthcare?
No. I can’t.
But for other Christians to use Jesus’ name to demand that the government outlaw gay rights or abortion or immigration — while claiming that Jesus wouldn’t want the government to intervene on behalf of the poor, the sick and the stranger — is beyond illogical.
I’m not sure Jesus or the apostles would give a snap what our government did or didn’t do. They seemed not to have given a snap what the Roman Empire did.
But if they were going to campaign for any type of government intervention, I’ll bet the farm they’d start with intervention in favor of the poor, directly against the rich.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.