The tables were crowded at Munchers this morning. Of course, they were every morning, but this morning seemed even busier. Congress had just failed to approve a budget that would keep the government up and running. And the morning after, the famous doughnut shop found itself filled with experts on political science, economics, and health care. Every table buzzed with mutterings of “Obamacare” and “lazy good-for-nothings” and “grandstanding Democrats” and “obstructionist Republicans.” One could not order a cream cheese doughnut without a side of political pronouncement. The air was thick with expertise.
But off in one corner, one table seemed different. There was plenty of disagreement, but it came differently. With much less arrogance and much more humility. Just as many donuts and cups of coffee covered the table. But so did two open Bibles. Rich and Don sat together at the table, sharing a dozen mini-cini’s. It was their weekly guilty pleasure, each of them telling themselves and their wives that it wasn’t really about the donuts. It was their Bible study!
And sometimes it was. Often, they stuck pretty close to the text. Other times, the Bibles were open, but the conversation led elsewhere. Today, their jumping off point was Matthew 25. The sheep and the goats. The least of these. Whenever you cared for one of these sick or in prison, you cared for me.
It was relevant in some significant ways that day. The state of Health care in our country. And the Gospel. Laid side by side.
The conversation was a verdant one. Rich was a retired professor, and a long time Republican. Don, a Democrat, was a retired surgeon. Both were lifelong Christians. And lifelong friends. Both trusted each other enough to let the other have it when it came to discussion of faith and politics. Both trusted each other to know at the end of the argument, they would still be friends.
Rich was the first to speak. They had, of course, spoken before about health care. But now his reading of Matthew 25 revealed a new dynamic of their conversation. “Clearly,” he argued, “the church has abdicated its responsibility. Once upon a time, all healthcare was the responsibility of the Church. There is a reason that so many hospitals are called St. So and So. We saw it as our job. Our responsibility. Our duty as assigned by Matthew 25, and the entirely of the Gospel of Love. We created healthcare safety nets because we were called to.
“And now, we have let the government take over. Or to be more specific, we have forced them to take over. We have abdicated our responsibility to care for the sick and the least of these. What was once our job has become something that we have failed to do. It never has been the responsibility of the government to do this, and it shouldn’t be. Obamacare is an overreach, because it isn’t their job. It’s ours! God is a God of healing and it should be Christians who makes that happen, not government bureaucrats!
“The government is quick to fix, but also quick to enable. They aren’t helping anyone by creating another generation of people dependent on the government! They create these systems of reliance on the government that make it worse in the long run. They need to get out of the health care business and let the Church do it!”
Don was quick to respond. “But it’s not that simple, Rich. Believe me, I know. I saw it first hand in the hospital. It is not like we in the Church can fix what’s broken about the health care system by ourselves. The problem is too big. I saw firsthand how many poor people walked into the Emergency Room and never paid a dime, because they had learned that that was the only way, from their parents and their parents before them. I saw people who would choose not to have a surgery that they needed to survive, because their health insurance had rejected them and they had no way to pay for it. I saw people who waited until their health problems had gone from minor and treatable to raging out of control, simply because they could not afford it.
“The problem is too big. To do it right takes more leverage than the Church has alone. It requires a government response AND a commerce response AND a response of the faith community. It’s not a simple problem and it’s not a simple solution. And the Church does not have the power to force insurance companies to not drop people once they get sick. And the Church does not have the power to protect doctors from the strong arm tactics of the pharmaceutical companies. And the Church does not have the power to keep companies from making our food and water unhealthy in the first place, making us sick. It’s not so simple.
“Matthew 25 says ‘care for the sick.’ I think that implies a more systemic care. Not just waiting until they are on death’s door. Not just those who can afford insurance. Not just a band aid, but a larger view of healing. To care for the sick has to mean something more long-term, systemic, and holistic!
Rich didn’t even take the time to wipe away the crumbs, before he launched back in with a defense.
“OK, then. Put your money where your mouth is! Literally, put your mouth where your mouth is! If the government and business and the church have to work together, then the Church needs to step it up! We have to be the voice of Christ! You can’t let the government be the voice of moral authority. You can’t let business be the voice of moral authority. That’s our job! We have to advocate for the least of these to our bureaucrats and our companies around the world. If government is to be a part of the solution, the Church must continue to hold the feet of our leaders to the fire, even if they are in our own party. We must be the moral authority in a culture without one. We must be the voice for the least of these.
How many of your fellow Democrats elect their candidate and think that they are done?
“We have to be the hands and feet of Christ. Your Christian responsibility does not end at the polls. Instead of simply abdicating that our work is done because this governmental program is in place, you have to continue to engage personally in the work of empowering. We can’t just let the government do it all for us. But we have to engage in the hard work of empowering others. One person at a time. One relationship at a time. One visit at a time.
Matthew 25 doesn’t say:
“When did we see you sick and care for you?”
“And the King responded, well, technically you didn’t, but you elected a guy who made a government program that tried to do it, so you’re good.”
No, we have to DO it!
We must be the hands and feet of Christ!
We cannot let the government do it for us!
Don was salivating at the chance to jump in.
“OK, turn about as fair play! You put your money where your mouth is!
“So the Republican line is that it is the job of the Church – not government – to fix healthcare, but are they willing to do their responsibility?
“Do they give a significant portion of their income and time to make sure that Christian health care clinics do their part? Are they willing to give their time and energy to places where the church is responding to the call of Matthew 25?
“And in the starkest and most obvious terms, do they show up in the midst of the least of these? Are they willing to show up at AIDS clinics and volunteer health clinics and look into the face of the least of these and see the face of Christ? Or do they arrogantly proclaim that people with health problems are their own fault and so refuse to show up? Are they willing to volunteer for Hospice ministry and sit beside those who are dying? Or is it easier to call them death panels and keep the hard work of ministry at bay?
“Do you hate Obamacare because it enables instead of empowers? Or do you hate Obamacare because deep down you resent the people who gain from it? Empowering is one thing. Resenting is another. It’s one thing to challenge people to be better. It’s another to be just mean. To characterize and stereotype and call names.
Matthew 25 also doesn’t say,
“When did we see you sick and care for you?
“And the King responded, “well, technically you didn’t, but you told the least of these that they were lazy and they had to figure it out themselves. So, that’s about the same.”
No, there is no room for resentment in the Gospel. Only love. Only service. Whether or not you think the least of these deserve it – is irrelevant.
Both of them paused for a second to let the obvious wisdom of their own perspectives sink into the other’s hard-headed skulls. But while they paused, something interesting happened. They began to see some of the wisdom in the other’s perspectives. Each listened to conversations around the room and heard some of the inadequacies and some of the dangers in their own ideology.
And for both Rich and Don, they understood that the Gospel allows for options concerning our political party, but when it comes to caring for the least of these, there are no free passes. All are called. All are required. Our salvation is caught up in the way that we care for one another. And it may look different and it may not come from the same ideology, but all are commanded to care for the least of these. You can come to Matthew 25 from the right or from the left, but you cannot leave it unchanged.
And so, as the political grandstanding and empty banter filled the air in the doughnut shop, Rich and Don looked at their watches and nodded that it was not time go. For you see, their Munchers day was not just about Bible study and not just about donuts. It was the day that they volunteered side by side at the local health clinic. Within the hour, Don would be gloved up and performing surgeries for free for those who could not afford it. And Rich would be in the waiting room, praying for those in the midst of emotional and physical pain. Different ideologies and very different voting records. But the same call and the same response – to care for the least of these in their midst.
And as they left, the room was still filled with plenty of pronouncements and little work to change anything. And the echo of Matthew 25 hung in the air…”Lord, Lord, when did we see you hungry and sick and not do something? When you failed to do it for the least of these….”