Last week’s article ended by invoking the image of Christian service the early church practiced. Their example being based on the social consciousness of the Jewish “church” or religious establishment, which was closely associated with Jewish governance. The prophets repeatedly admonishing the Israeli people to pay fair wages, not to take advantage of the less astute and educated, to care for the weak, the sick, the orphan and widows and to make provision for the alien residing amongst them. Jesus parable of the sheep and goats mirroring these injunctions in Matthew 25:31-40. Not stopping there, though, he went one step further and instructs us to counter-intuitively love – and consequently care for – our enemies. (See Malachi 3:5; Psalm 82:3,4; Micah 2:2; Jeremiah 22:16; Matthew 22:34-40 & 5:44)
As a direct result of their Israeli heritage based on God’s command, the Christian church, which was initially made up almost exclusively of Jews, was acutely aware of the needs of people around them and strove to meet those needs as best they could. (See Luke 12:15; 1 Corinthians 10:24;Phil. 10:24;2:3,4; James 2:14-19) So much so that the pagan Roman Emperor – Julian – complained in a letter to other pagan leaders that, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”1
Julian loathed the “Galileans”, suspecting their generosity had ulterior motives, even as he recognized that his government’s pagan-based responses to people’s needs paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had virtually created a miniature “welfare state” within an Empire that offered almost nothing in the way of social services.
The pagan faith system made it difficult for any large-scale response to people, their god’s example of greedy manipulation of people and events mirrored by their supplicants’ ritualistic manipulation of the gods in return, fostering a low opinion of their fellowman in the process. Lacking a God who loved them and expected love for him to be expressed likewise as love of others, they did as little as possible for those around them. Their lack of spiritual charity never risking their salvation, as it does for the Christian. (See Matthew 25:41-46)
Julian’s ulterior motive theory was disproved resoundingly by the Christian response to a plague that struck much of the Empire within a few years of his letter. While most people fled the areas of plague, including the doctors – who knew next to nothing as to how to cope much less cure it – leaving hundreds and then thousands to die in their beds in the filth of their disease and lacking any care whatsoever, even by family members. The Christians moved in to fill the gap, bathing, cleaning and feeding these miserable people; sometimes nursing them back to health, at other times ministering to them in their last hours – often catching the disease themselves and dying of its wasting effects on their bodies. Their self-less giving and Christian witness did not go un-noticed. (By those around them or their God.)
This self-sacrificing spirit came directly from Christian theology, which never preached that everyone could or should necessarily be equal in terms of wealth and power in this life, but that all are equally deserving of grace and mercy and that the more fortunate had a God-given responsibility to help those in need. (See 1 Timothy 6:17,18)
Tertullian, an early church “father”, listed a number of services rendered to the less fortunate by Christians in his Apology (or Defense) of Christianity; such as supporting and even burying the poor, caring for widows, orphans and the aged while setting up mission “response teams” to those who had been ship-wrecked, sentenced to work in government-run mines or banished to penal islands. Perhaps if we Christians today – individually and corporately – were more focused on these types of efforts than politics and maintaining a cash flow, many issues would solve themselves through the type of exponential growth the early church experienced and the influence a Godly community can exert.
The best model we have of a government intimately involved in the lives of the poor, orphan, widows and alien is arguably Israel. The very entity that many Christians in the past and some still today claim for themselves. (As the “New Israel.”) If that be the case, we must remember the exhortations of men like Jeremiah, who in speaking for God contrasted rulers who were self-absorbed and those who led their people in acts of righteousness and generosity, saying of the latter, “He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, so all went well.” And then questioned, “Is that not what it means to know me? (God)” Jeremiah 22:15,16 The writer of Proverbs specifically warning, “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13 (See also Proverbs 31:8,9)
And finally, Dr. Richard Feldman, an Indianapolis family physician and former Indiana Health commissioner, recently wrote in the Indy Star that while not a Catholic, he had worked in a Catholic hospital system for 40 years and greatly admired the ethic of their healthcare services which encompassed a sense of social justice that would serve the rest of America well.
Part of the directive guiding that ethic reads, “Catholic healthcare should distinguish itself by service to and advocacy for those people whose social condition puts them at the margins of our society and makes them particularly vulnerable to discrimination: the poor, the uninsured and underinsured; children and the unborn, single parents; the elderly; those with incurable diseases and chemical dependencies; racial minorities; immigrants and refugees… The person with mental or physical disabilities… must be treated as a unique individual with the same right to life and to adequate care as all other persons.” 2
If our guiding principles within our homes, churches, corporations and government were based on these biblical precepts, many of the contentious debates on policy and practice would be simpler, more just, more humane and much more civil.
1Quote taken form Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, Harper One Publishing
2From the Indy Star opinion page
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