Jesus and the Modern Welfare State

Several years ago an editorial writer expressed the view that because Jesus was for ministry to the poor, that he would then be for the modern redistributionist welfare state. Following is the gist of my reply.

It’s very hard to say what Jesus’s attitude to the modern welfare state would be. There’s only one reliable source for what Jesus might have said, and that’s the four gospels. One of the characteristics of Jesus is that on many questions he took an approach which would be different than expected. It’s treacherous simply to take something that I or you might think is something positive, such as the modern welfare system, and assert that Jesus would be for it. Unfortunately, many people do that all the time. An example of this is the well intentioned believers who say that Jesus would take public transportation or drive a car that gets good gas mileage. Unfortunately, since Jesus did not make any statements that I can find which had ecological significance, all that I can say is that it’s possible, but there’s no way of knowing that from the historical accounts of the gospels, since Jesus generally used his own two feet, except for the unusual case of his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, which is the basis of the celebration of Palm Sunday. To make any pronouncement about what Jesus would be for or against without a definite reference from the four gospels is pretty much to assert special personal revelation about what Jesus would say or do.

It’s more reasonable to assert that Jesus expected compassion for the poor to come from those who were committed to be his disciples, and not from a governmental system. First, he had many golden opportunities to speak for government largesse to the poor, such as the Sermon on the mount, his teachings in the Jewish Temple, the occasion of his famous pronouncement on giving what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and (with much more emphasis) what is God’s to God (Mark 12:13-17), or his audiences with the Jewish high priests, the Jewish ruling council, Herod and Pontius Pilate during the multiple trials of the last day of his earthly life. Second, his words are more for the compassionate use of wealth by individuals, such as the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31). Thus while Jesus was definitely on the side of compassion for the poor, it is more reasonable to say that his statements were at variance with the modern welfare state in the area of means and motive (government taxation and redistribution rather than demonstration of a changed heart by his disciples).

Certainly over the centuries the professed disciples have always not followed Jesus’s compassion for the poor consistently, but the amazing thing is how much they have over the centuries all over the world, and very often for those who are not professed Christians. Even in the centuries when the church has been caught up in outright cruelty, such as the Crusades and Inquisition (which I think one can easily show happened in complete disregard for the actual teaching and example of Jesus), there has been a great deal of caring for the poor and disadvantaged by the church throughout the ages.

A more careful look at the four gospels will show that Jesus’s own sense of mission was not so much ministry to the poor but rather the careful fulfillment of the Messianic mission as he saw it set forth in the Old Testament. It’s apparent that he saw this as culminating in his death and resurrection, as his followers have asserted actually happened. The fact that the Jewish ruling council had a guard placed at his tomb after his death shows that not only his disciples were aware of this aspect of his teaching and that it was not a late fabrication after the fact. So, any blanket statement about what Jesus would say or do should be a challenge to give some time to reading the gospels all over again. I think that you’ll find the Jesus there to be someone surprisingly refreshing and someone not so easy to enlist in one’s own causes.

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