(RNS) Since it was unveiled last week, President Trump’s proposed budget has been widely denounced as “immoral” and downright “evil” for boosting defense spending by billions while demanding drastic cuts to vital aid programs.
Yet if liberals and some conservatives are upset about cuts to programs that help ensure clean drinking water, give financial aid to low-income college students, and even help support Meals on Wheels — which delivers nearly a million meals a day to the sick and elderly — would Jesus have a problem with slashing assistance to the needy?
The question has been roiling Christian commentators on social media in recent days, with many on the left arguing that of course Jesus would be outraged by sharp cuts in assistance to the poor while the exegetes on the right took the opposite view.
The latter said the truth of the matter — and, by extension, the Christian rationale for much of the nation’s safety net — depends on how you translate a single phrase in the early Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew.
This scriptural smackdown began hours after the budget was unveiled on Thursday (March 16), when the conservative pundit — and newly minted theology student — Erick Erickson began bristling on Twitter and on his blog about critics of Trump’s budget cuts, reductions that he backs.
“If you don't support Meals on Wheels you're not a good Christian, according to people who aren't Christians and don't believe in Jesus,” as Erickson tweeted on Thursday.
Several people who are in fact Christians, such as author Rachel Held Evans and USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, were among the many who expressed astonishment at Erickson’s take; some of them pointed to the well-known passage in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus speaks about those who will be saved as the ones who cared for the thirsty, the hungry, the homeless and the stranger — “the least of these,” as Jesus says.
Cue the translation wars.
Erickson, who in 2014 left his highly successful editor post at the conservative political website Red State to start a degree in biblical studies at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said his critics were flat-out wrong. “When Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians,” he tweeted in response.
Then on his Instagram account, Erickson — who pointed out that he could now read the Gospel in the original Greek — explained that when referring to “the least of these” Jesus qualifies the phrase with the term “adelphos,” which means “brothers” or “brotherhood.” Thus, he says, Jesus is talking about how you treat only his disciples, not the poor and certainly not the poor in general.
If this seems like a rather obscure point of scriptural interpretation, it has in fact become a fulcrum for conservative Christians to leverage arguments against the government providing many social services.
This is a vigorous debate that has been going on for several years as evangelical scholars, in particular, have pushed for a more restrictive reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew. The more prevalent view, and one espoused by believers ranging from Catholicism’s Mother Teresa (now a saint) to evangelicalism’s Shane Claiborne, is that Jesus was referring to anyone in need.
The argument gained a wider hearing in March 2015, when the leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, published a detailed article that sought to give “a more biblically accurate understanding” of Jesus’ words. Two months later President Obama took part in a Georgetown University panel, a “Poverty Summit,” in which he and other speakers invoked the “least of these” term to argue that government had an obligation to care for the poor.
That prompted Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., to weigh in with a blog post arguing that the phrase does not refer to the poor but to Jesus’ disciples and how they are treated.
“It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor,” wrote Burk, a prolific blogger. “It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals.”
In his social media storm over Trump's budget, Erickson pointed to Burk’s article and claimed: “Shorter version is I’m right.”
Well, the longer version is — it’s not that simple.
Theologians and Bible scholars can and have easily argued that the wider context of Jesus’ preaching and the rest of the New Testament — as well as the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus and his followers drew on — clearly show that Christians are called on to care for all those in need.
Those who pin their opposing argument on a single verse from Matthew, and the translation of the word “adelphos,” are, they say, just proof-texting — isolating a phrase from its context to try to establish a larger principle. In this case, they say, it’s also an effort to downplay the crucial religious obligation to care for the poor.
In fact, back in 2015 several scholars and pastors critiqued Burk on those grounds, with one fellow evangelical saying that Burk’s “articulation seems to deliberately exclude the poor, and that is problematic.”
That led Burk to add a number of clarifications to his original column to note that he agrees that “the rest of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is clear about our obligation to care for the poor in general.” Burk said he was “not disputing that point.”
Whatever one believes Jesus meant by “the least of these,” what really seems to be at stake in this ongoing debate over what the Gospels say is what it means for today’s political battles and the role of government in caring for the needy.
As Steve Deace, the nationally syndicated conservative Christian radio host, wrote in response to Kirsten Powers: “The man who wrote most of the New Testament, Paul, was a free Roman citizen. Did he lobby Rome to create a welfare state?”
Erickson also picked up and ran with that line of thinking on his website, The Resurgent, in a series of posts that ripped the “political left” and theological liberals who he said have subverted Scripture “to tie your salvation to support of a government program.”
Care for the needy, Erickson wrote, “is the responsibility of the individual and church,” not government.
“I support cutting the funding of Meals on Wheels,” he wrote. “I think it should be each individual’s obligation to help their family and those in need in their community.”
Conservatives like himself, he said, are more generous than liberals who he said want to use wasteful, taxpayer-funded government programs for charity so they can pay less and do less to ease poverty.
Then again, as a famous man once said about paying taxes: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”
Whatever that means.