Mitt Romney’s recent views about poverty in America have been boiled down by the press into one very simple statement: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Would this (admittedly simplified) synopsis of what Mitt had to say square with the views of one Jesus of Nazareth?
The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. Jesus’ concern for the poor certainly comes through in at least one of four gospels written about the life of the master teacher. In Jesus’ infamous Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the poor.” Jesus goes on to note that the poor are those that populate the kingdom of God. He then goes on to blast the rich. Whether he’s focused on the 1% or his remarks are also aimed at the middle class of his day, Jesus doesn’t explicitly categorize. But he does condemn those who eat well saying: “Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.”
Matthew’s gospel gives the only other account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but with a decidedly different take. Rather than “Blessed are the poor,” the Jesus of Matthew is quoted as saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew’s gospel also excludes all of Jesus condemnations of the rich from what are also known as the “Beatitudes.” And Matthew’s Jesus is the one who dryly observes that “you have the poor with you always.”
For Matthew, the blessing of the first Beatitude is based on poverty as a spiritual condition rather than material condition; for Luke it’s all about economic and social condition. Luke is also the only gospel to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story where the social outcast and not the prominent leader helps a man who has been robbed and beaten.
The other two gospels – those of Mark and John – or of less utility in this debate. In the parlance of the 21st century, Mark could be considered the gospel for America’s cynics – those who (like Ron Paul) see the country going down the tube with every Wall Street businessman and banker a crook, every governmental action a form of conspiracy. Every person for himself (or herself). The gospel of the libertarian (or the survivalist).
John’s gospel is of even less utility, but rather more mystical and spiritual – focused on individual salvation and regeneration – being born from above. Are there those who view America in spiritual, almost mystical terms? Well, yes. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the spiritualists fall into two camps. On the left, there are the true socialists (in an earlier time known as communists). They are a step beyond Luke – who view saving the planet not simply as the right thing to do, but as a spiritual imperative. Who value salmon over humans.
On the right are those who revere “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith. The preservation of the free market no matter who suffers. Libertarians, gold fanatics and monetarists who view gold specie as having a power of its own. Tea party activists bent on destroying government at all costs.
So back to Matthew and Luke. Think Matthew and prophecy fulfilled, like the sense of “manifest destiny” that propelled the United States to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to today’s concept of “America first” and to the notion of exporting the grand experiment of democracy worldwide. It’s the theology of Ronald Reagan’s America as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of democracy, market capitalism and hope for the rest of humankind.
And so, we’ve come full circle again to Luke. We can spot him as the house Democrat a mile away. An advocate for social justice. Or in today’s world, the one-time civil rights crusader morphed into environmentalist.
No Republican fits this bill, unless its Newt Gingrich and his advocacy of creating a work ethic for children in poor neighborhoods who have “no habits of working and nobody around them who works.” But that’s likely a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?
So, is Jesus in step with Mitt Romney? Or is he marching to the beat of a different drummer?
On this issue, all sides can find common cause with Jesus – as each can find a biblical writer supporting their point of view. Which leads this observer to suggest, it not about a helping hand versus the stiff arm. It’s about both – carrot and stick. Because that’s the kind of guy Jesus was and is.