To claim Jesus called people to voluntarily help the poor and needy is true. But to go beyond that assertion and claim Jesus wouldn’t support – and we shouldn’t support – helping the poor through taxes and government structures is nonsense. It’s like saying Jesus cares about the safety of people but would only support voluntary, uncoerced compliance to traffic laws. Jesus wasn’t in the governing business. But neither was he in the business of dismantling government when it served ends he advocated: the care of the most impoverished and needy people in society.
Those who tout voluntary charity to the exclusion of government support for the less advantaged reflect a hierarchy of values that is foreign to Jesus and the witness of scripture. They place the choice of the strong whether or not to do good over the good to be accomplished for the weak. What we find in this is the celebration of the unfettered freedom of the potential giver over the alleviation of suffering and want. This priority is not found in Christ or the apostles, or for that matter, the early church Fathers. Freedom was not something cherished as an end in itself to be celebrated regardless of the impact on the weak and vulnerable.
True freedom was understood to be the freedom to serve, freedom for others. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13). Freedom used to advance self-interest and refuse responsibility for the needs of the suffering was not condoned but condemned in scripture. Within the Bible attention to the concerns of the least advantaged is never treated as a mere option that can be “freely” ignored.
It was not out of a concern for the freedom of the selfish and uncompassionate that Jesus called for voluntary generosity to the poor and needy. What else could he do? As I already noted, he wasn’t in the governing business and the Roman Empire wasn’t interested in any guidance he might offer. Yes, he called people to follow him and do good without compulsion. Yet Jesus showed no interest in affirming the freedom of those who were able but unwilling to help alleviate the suffering of the needy. It might be wise to keep as a backdrop to the ministry of Jesus the vision of his mother Mary who spoke of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up (Luke 1:46-54).
Concern for the freedom of the wealthy did not seem to capture the attention or interest of our Lord. What was very much in his focus was the sickness, hunger, and abandonment faced by the suffering people. Can we read Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus with any degree of honesty and come away thinking, “Yes, the most important lesson is that the rich man should freely choose to help the poor Lazarus?” (Luke 16:19-31). Is not, in fact, the focus of Jesus on the external condition of the poor man rather than the internal state of the rich man?
Our Lord makes no mention of how he would like the rich man to feel. Instead Jesus speaks of the over-abundance of the man which takes on a grotesqueness in view of the great suffering that occurs just outside his home. The pain and humiliation of the poor man is spotlighted. He was “full of sores” and “desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores” (vss. 20, 21). There is nothing in the text that even hints that Jesus would only want the rich man’s wealth to be used to help Lazarus if the rich man felt compassion.
While the apostle Paul tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7), the good cheer of the giver, or the lack thereof, does not trump the needs of the needy. Not free choice but the necessity for the rich to relinquish their advantage for the sake of the needy is the real lesson that we find in the story of the rich man and Lazarus and much of the rest of what the Bible has to say about helping the poor. The Bible fixates on neither the subjective state of the privileged nor on the specific means of helping the needy. It matters less whether this help is done through individual action, private charitable organizations or government programs than that help occurs.
Yes, our Lord called for his people to lead by example as servants and not “lord it over” others as do “the kings of the Gentiles” (Luke 22:24-27). Followers of Jesus are not to compel others to bend their knees to Jesus or use coercive authority to establish their position of greatness. All of government involves coercion to some extent. A case can be made – and has been made – for Christians to distance themselves from all of the government’s enforcement activity, from the courts to the battlefield. But unless one is calling for this sort of sweeping withdrawal, it is grossly hypocritical to target programs that help the most vulnerable by claiming Jesus “never advocated stealing from the rich to give to the poor.”
Certainly, it is true that Jesus calls his people to be compassionate. To be joyfully and freely generous is a virtue that needs to be fostered. The church should be deeply involved in caring for those who suffer and be a model to the world, a sign of the kingdom of God. But to make care for the poor and disadvantaged totally dependent on the voluntary help of individuals of good will is misguided. Welfare and public assistance for the needy is not, as some critics have claimed, “being generous with someone else’s money.” Rather, as Ambrose (333 AD- 397 AD) taught, “Everything belongs to God…This is justice: that one restore to the needy, because it is God who gives.” This is not one bit more true in the private life of the individual than it is in public life.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”