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?

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