Serving the “undeserving”

Just before Christmas, I shared a clip from the Colbert Report on Facebook.  You have probably seen it – it is the one where Colbert’s identity as Sunday school teacher basically overcomes his character, and he really lets us have it about what Jesus is all about.  Soon after posting it, my friend Scott wrote to me that he had first seen it when his pastor posted it the week before – she had suggested that it would make a great Christmas Eve sermon.

This message led to a great conversation about the Christian obligation to base our loving response upon need and not upon a person’s “deserving” – based in large part upon our understanding that we have received abundantly more than anyone could ever hope to deserve.  However, Scott and I were not in agreement about the extent to which government should be a part of that loving response.  This does not much trouble me, these days – my overall political philosophy has not changed too much in the past 18 years or so, but my ability to see the other guy’s point has.

Thoughtful Christians who believe that government should certainly have a role in protecting and nurturing “the least, the last, and the lost” may believe (as I do) that to trust individuals to do this without the carrot and stick that government provides is to be naive about the fall – about the inevitability of the job not getting done unless someone makes those with the most power and wealth surrender some of what they have for the have nots.  Thoughtful Christians (such as Scott) who believe that caring for all those in need can and should in fact be done without doing it through government may believe that I and my cohort are being naive about the fall – about the inevitability of corruption and graft preventing much good from getting done, and so diverting much needed resources to pork projects, not to mention the money lost to lobbying, and salaries of various undersecretaries of dubious value to the commonweal, and on and on.  And it may well be that, in his assertion that “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus was conceding both of our points.  The fall is pervasive – and we will not be the ones to architect the demise of the “not yet,” and with our “cunning plan” singlehandedly hasten the kingdom’s coming.  Alas, we are still – all of us – seeing in a glass dimly.

It has come to be that, for me, the more important measure of how much I am going to be renewed by my time with a person is not whether we voted for the same folks, but whether we worship the same Jesus – who loves us all more than we deserve, and so inspires us to love and care for and act on behalf of others without hesitating merely because “they got themselves into this mess.”  We may disagree on the best way to go about serving the poor, the lost, and the lonely, but I hope that we can agree that we are called to serve them – whomever and wherever they are.

Who is there to judge but Christ Jesus?  The one who died for us – when we were yet sinners!

2 responses

  1. Nice post and very thoughtful. I would add, however, that it is not so much being naive about the fallen nature of humanity — that much is evident to those in favor of governmental and non-governmental solutions. It is about doing the right things for the right reasons. I have known too many people from other countries with much stronger central governments, and they often take the decidedly un-Christian view that caring for one another is the job of the government. Ultimately each of us is his or her brother’s keeper, and the dictates of government don’t relieve anyone of his or her obligations.

    Now, whether or not private charity is enough to meet the needs of the poor is a different matter. I think those, such as I, who favor keeping government largely out of people’s lives, believe that the means are more important than the ends, and that even if the ends are not achieved people must be left the freedom to choose. If you view the ends as more important than the means, a governmental approach does not seem so problematic, and may indeed yield a better outcome. I can respect that, though I do not agree.

    As a side note, last week there was an Ivy League professor who was advocating that the recipients of the continued tax breaks for those in high income brackets donate the amount they retain in earnings as a result of the latest tax bill to charity. After overcoming my initial skepticism of anything the academe attempts to impose on “normal folk,” I thought it was an exceptional idea. In fact, it’s something those in such tax brackets should be doing already if their hearts are in the right place. But the current debates over tax policy, and the current economy, make this a perfect time to highlight this. If you are fortunate enough in this economy to be in such financial shape, and are not a Christian, I would implore you to give out of your sense of humanity and decency. If you are in such a position and ARE a Christian, your duty should be clear. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

  2. Thanks for the response, Scott! I was waiting until I had more time to write a considered and lengthy reply, but too many snow days intervened (preschool cancellations = less time for me to be writing!) I am glad to have a better sense of where you are coming from.
    What I most appreciate in your perspective is the problem of strong government social programs encouraging others to push off on government their own duty to love their neighbor. For, as you said in your reply, “Ultimately each of us is his or her brother’s keeper, and the dictates of government don’t relieve anyone of his or her obligations.”

    I do, however, have reservations about trying to draw clear distinctions between means and ends. It sounds instead as if you are saying that there is more than one end to consider – that there are consequences to not allowing individuals the freedom to make bad choices. It is clear that “unintended consequences” often a problem with any decision making (not least in government) – in large part because people so often fail to recognize that any act has not just one repercussion, but many. (For instance, apathy and entitlement being a particularly unappealing end result of strong central government social programs).

    Which would, in my reckoning, make the problem one of trying to balance ends – of weighing outcomes – even while heeding Gandalf’s warning that even the wisest do not see all ends. Which is why, for me, it is becoming easier to agree to disagree on matters of strategy – ultimately, we are all doing our inadequate best to deal with the data we have as faithfully as we can.

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