Monday, November 23, 2009

The General Welfare

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:28

Here’s one on which most of us honest working folk get a reprieve. Whew! At least I don’t steal … unless we’re going to get nit-picky about office supplies and tax deductions…

Na, you can have the reprieve – I need it too!

After all, if the majority of us weren’t fulfilling this mandate to do something useful with our own hands, how would society hold together?

What I cannot offer a reprieve on, however, is the reiteration –it appears elsewhere in Paul’s writing – of what the purpose of work is: so that we may have something … to share with those in need. That’s what it says. Now notice what is doesn’t say (which my local pastor says is almost as important as what does say). The scripture doesn’t say, “Work so you can have all the things you desire without dishonesty.” It doesn’t say, “Work so you can take care of yourself.” Nor it does say, “Work so you won’t be a burden on anyone else.” In fact, what it does say implies that there are going to be people who are a burden on others – and that’s not only OK, but our purpose in working hard should be to take care of those people in their time of need.

Whoa! Am I advocating for welfare? You better believe I am – the general welfare. In this age of the nation-states, it’s doesn’t seem realistic to pine away for days of yore when institutionalized welfare didn’t exist. It’s a utopian ideal for families and communities to be able to pitch to take care of those in need, but I doubt that’s even possible on such a large population scale and the way we define “community” today. Nonetheless, it seems a shame that a “Christian nation” even needs welfare.

I’ll stop here because I’m no student of history or politics and I know that there were a number of major factors of which I’m ignorant about how our welfare system was conceptualized, and further, how it got to be in the shape it is today. So let me just fast forward to the present. In my opinion, there seem to be two schools on welfare among Christians. In gross generalization: Christian liberals favor institutionalized welfare. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they favor this out of godly compassion for the poor rather than some hidden agenda to move the country toward socialism. They believe everyone should have a basic standard of living. It’s not right that children should starve, people should freeze to death and the elderly should eat dog food when the Jones’ are throwing leftover ribeye in the garbage. On the other end of the political spectrum, Christian conservatives may not be opposed to a system of institutionalized welfare per se – they also can’t stand the idea of starving children – but they think welfare should be a safety net for only the legitimate hard cases rather than to ensure a basic standard of living and give ongoing aid to people who can but don’t work.

Neither of these positions is antichrist. Christ was extremely liberal in his giving – he fed 4,000 people who should have known better than to leave home without a picnic lunch. And worse, they had all been playing hooky from their jobs – for three days! – to hang out and listen to Him. Why should this type of behavior be condoned? What a bunch of loafers! But Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people … I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

On the other hand, the scripture we’re exploring right now (Ephesians 4: 28) is a solid basis for the conservative Christian stance that we shouldn’t allow abuse of the system by able-bodied people.

Both views are Biblical, and therefore, not at odds. And both hold the basic Biblical tenant that we need to share with people in need. Conveniently, in America today, we fulfill this mandate to share whether we like it or not. The government figures our level of support and takes it out of our paychecks, before we ever even see it. We’ve done something useful with our hands, and as a result, we’ve been able to share with others in need. So, does that take care of things? Is our Christian obligation to share with those in need fulfilled by paying taxes?

You can wrestle with that question in your quiet time with God, but I know this: the amount I am obligated to give from my paycheck is not meeting the needs of everyone in this country and certainly not everyone around the world. I can say this in all certainty because I know people with needs that aren’t being met through welfare. And I bet you know some too. The liberals and conservatives can duke it out about welfare all they want; two things don’t change: I still have to pay as much in taxes as always (if they make cuts to welfare, it will be to fund another program) and there are still people with need in my sphere of influence.

It seems to me that if God has placed someone in need in my path and simultaneously provided me with an income that meets and exceeds my need (even after taxes), it would please God for me to use that excess to share with those in need. And I do want to please God.

Contemplate this: Have I fulfilled God’s will to share with those in need by being in a certain tax bracket or paying a certain percentage to charity?

Monday, November 2, 2009

For All My Efforts

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
Deuteronomy 8:11-14a, 17-18

Do you recall the story of how Jacob, who later became Israel, father of the nation, became wealthy? Remember after cheating his brother out of the birthright and then lying to his father to get the blessing of the first born, he took off to his uncle Laban’s house. A lot of good the birthright and blessing did him. Because of the way he went about getting them, he had to get out of Dodge and quick, for fear of the wrath of his brother. So he arrives at Uncle Laban’s with nothing and that dear fellow gave him a place to live and a dose of his own medicine.

Laban agreed to give Jacob his daughter Rachel in marriage in exchange for seven years of labor. The morning after the wedding night, Jacob realizes Uncle Laban is a cad and has given him the wrong girl, the ugly older sister, Leah. Well, too late to give her back now! So he agrees to work yet another seven years for Rachel, the one he really wanted.

During this time, Jacob realizes he’s got to get smart with Uncle Laban if he ever wants to get ahead. So he makes a deal with him: “I will go on tending your flocks and watching over them. Let me go through all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat. They will be my wages,” (Gen. 30:32). From then on, Jacob was to get all the spotted and speckled among the flocks and herds.
Now Jacob had a strategy: he took “fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted,” (Gen. 30:37-38) because as anyone in animal husbandry can tell you, if you want spotted, speckled or streaked livestock, you have to expose them to this kind of environment when they’re drinking and mating, right? He further bettered his livestock by selecting only the stronger females to expose to these gene-influencing branches. “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservents, and camels and donkeys,” (Gen. 30:43).

So that was the secret of his success – striped braches in the watering trough. I wonder how many Israelite shepherds throughout history tried to replicate this strategy and ended up wondering why it wasn’t working for them. I suppose that it is possible that being in a certain type of environment could encourage genetic selection in favor of that environment in one generation, but any way you look at it from the perspective of our current understanding of genetics, it’s clear that what Jacob was doing had little to no bearing on the result he was getting.

And yet God certainly knew that when you and I would read this story thousands of years later, we would understand that poor Jacob was clueless and really just grasping at straws. On the other hand, he was doing something, anything, the only thing he could think of to try to become more prosperous. He was making an effort. But it was God who gave the increase because of the plan that he had for Jacob.

We might think Jacob was pretty na├»ve, but not so. He knew the score. He told his wives: “God has not allowed [Laban] to harm me. If he said, ‘The speckled ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks gave birth to speckled young; and if he said, ‘The streaked ones will be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked young. So God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me.”

If he had made this connection, that his success was God’s doing, why would he bother peeling almond branches? I’m gonna say he did it because it was all he knew to do. Whereas he attributed God with the increase, Jacob contributed all he could as well, even it if was sheer nonsense by today’s standards.

What about your success thus far? Have your flocks and herds increased by your own efforts, or did God come along and miraculously cause the increase? Careful how you answer.

Who can explain why certain things succeed so and others do not. It’s not all about marketing – some companies spend millions of dollars on a campaign that produces no results. It’s not about talent, if that were the ticket wouldn’t ever Denzel Washington movie have been a box office hit? Perseverance? Don’t you know a starving artist who has been starving for decades? There’s something very mysterious about success, and whereas I don’t think all of it is God’s will, he’s certainly allowing every success. God is enabling our health, intelligence, relative peace so we can work, and an environment in which we can be successful – capitalist United States of America. These things are much more tenuous than we believe. From one day to the next any of it could change at God’s command. But God allows these favorable conditions so that we can produce wealth.

If anyone has their doubts about whether God disapproves of fine houses, having some silver and gold on hand, and a big successful family business, let this scripture put that question to rest. God says in his word that enabling this ability to produce wealth is how he confirms his covenant with Israel. I’m no theologian, but I think this somehow applies to us gentiles to as. Like Paul said in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

So good! But wait, there’s a flipside to this. “If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God,” Deut. 8:19-20.

With great privilege comes great responsibility. And the privilege of wealth carries with it the responsibility of gratitude and recognition of the one Force that made it possible, at a minimum.

Contemplate this: In what ways have I seen the hand of God enabling my success in the past and present?