In his effort to support a revision of the budget to shift even more money from the poor and oppressed to the wealthy and powerful, Erick Erickson, who, despite claiming to read the New Testament in Greek (according to a tweet on March 17), invoked Matthew 25 to justify a limited government. It’s an overt attack on those who would say that Christians have a duty to care for the vulnerable and the poor by arguing that, in fact, Jesus meant the Christian vulnerable and poor, not the poor in general.
Erickson’s tweet is pretty sloppy. First, there were no Christians during Jesus’ time. There were a few people who consistently followed Jesus around and supported his work, and Jesus did speak about them, but he didn’t talk about them as Christians. The term wasn’t used until after his death; the author of Acts says that the term was first used in Antioch (Acts 11:26). In fact, Jesus himself wasn’t called “the Christ” in the gospels, though he was anointed (the meaning of the word) with both oil and the Holy Spirit according to the gospels.
But let’s read Erickson generously–after all, he had just 144 characters–and say that he meant that Jesus was talking to his followers at the time and also looking ahead to after his resurrection, when he knew that those who would become Christians would be in need of help. We have lots of advice to these people from Paul, whose talent was in forming and supporting new churches–greet each other with a kiss, honor each other’s talents, work together in unity. We get some advice from other New Testament writers–don’t chatter pointlessly in church, pull your weight in the community as you are able, bear with each other. We do get some advice that Jesus clearly gives only for his disciples: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Erickson is asking a bigger question than one narrowly addressed by Matthew 25. It could be that the Matthew 25 passage he’s referring to does address only Christian-Christian relationships, though it may be more accurate to read the text, even in this light, as talking about “the teacher and those who are taught,” regardless of whether “the taught” are Christians.
The larger question is how particular or universal Christian charity should be. While the “least of these” passage could be read narrowly–that is, to be applied just to Christians–so many of Jesus’ other words and actions show mercy and generosity toward “non-Christians” (or Jesus’ non-followers) that it’s hard to justify through Christianity the draconian budget choices Erickson is defending. Maybe Jesus is talking about fellow Christians or even only fellow Christians when he instructs listeners to feed the hungry and care for the sick, but that doesn’t undermine his call to “love thy enemies”–which includes walking an extra mile with them and giving them your coat. He performed miracles for those with faith as well as for those without it.
Above, Domenico Fetti’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Jesus answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” with the story of a Jew injured by robbers who is ignored by other Jews. Finally, a Samaritan, a man from a despised group, picks up up, tends his wounds, sits him upon his own animal (as in the scene above, where the Samaritan is hoisting the injured man on his donkey), and takes him to a nearby inn, making an open-ended promise to pay for his care at whatever cost. The passage says that Jesus took up the question because a man (not named, but perhaps Erick Erickson?), “wanting to justify himself,” wanted to reduce his obligations only to those within his religious circle. Jesus says no to that foolishness.
Oh, and the cruel, oppressive government, which exploits the poor to the benefit of the rich–it’s always the bad guy in the New Testament. It’s not bad because it’s European-style socialism. It’s bad because it takes from the poor to give to the wealthy and demands allegiance that belongs to God.
Jesus characterizes the tribalism that Erickson is calling for as the most basic of responses. It’s an instinct to care for our own. That’s a standard even unbelievers can meet. It’s not hard to love those who love you–even sinners can do that, Jesus tells his followers. We don’t need to make much effort to tighten our ranks, support our own kind, and ignore the suffering of those unlike us; it’s when we act counter to our own selfish interests to care for the one unlike us that we demonstrate that we are worthy of being told to “go and do likewise.” In fact, it’s the only way to “be perfect like your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
Ultimately, Erickson is asking Christians to be afraid–that we won’t have enough to care for ourselves, each other, and non-Christians. He entices us to feel resentful–after all, what if those non-Christians I feed, clothe, or shelter end up being unworthy of my effort? What if they take advantage of me? What if I end up poor and they end up rich because I gave them so much? This ungrateful thinking asks us to forget that all we have is God’s and to doubt God’s providential care for us.
And there is another way that Erickson is wrong: Christian generosity to non-Christians doesn’t threaten Christianity; it grows it.