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Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Problems You Can’t Fix

The rich get a bad rap sometimes. But they also have their defenders.

A few years ago in Forbes, John Stossel pointed out that the big-money folk in America don’t have enough spare change between them to put a dent in the financial woes of their own country, let alone the rest of the world.

“If the IRS grabbed 100 percent of income over $1 million, the take would be just $616 billion. That’s only a third of this year’s deficit.”

The finer details of Stossel’s math might be debated, but all the same he’s got a point, and one that won’t go away. Some problems can’t be fixed — at least not by human beings.

Stripping every cent from the much-envied “1%” and sharing the proceeds around wouldn’t get you that much closer to reducing poverty. Further, a significant portion of the deficit Stossel refers to is attributable to existing income redistribution efforts that are unsustainable in the long-term, and that we are constantly told don’t go far enough.

No solution there.

Break Out the Scare Quotes

Frankly, I’m reluctant to use the word “poor” to describe anyone living in North America. Compared to standards of living a century ago, or to standards of living in the Third World, the most down-at-heel Westerner is ridiculously well off.

But differences in both opportunity and outcome are among those regrettable features of existence that have dogged mankind for time immemorial. As Jesus put it, “You always have the poor with you.” Sometimes, yes, because of oppression. Sometimes because of ethnicity or temperament or class privilege or IQ differences or a bad education or thug culture or well-intended-but-socially-destructive liberal mucking-about. Sometimes because it’s easier to complain about the unfairness of your situation than to work your way out of a six-foot hole, five feet of which you dug for yourself.

Some people will always be in need, and often that need is urgent.

Finding a Moral Balance

A defeatist might conclude that since the huddled masses are not about to go away, there’s little point in bothering to address their problems. You can’t fill a black hole, after all. But such an approach ignores the Lord’s next few words, which read “and whenever you want, you can do good for them.”

So there’s a Christian balance to be found somewhere between, on the one hand, divesting ourselves of our worldly possessions on behalf of those in need and joining them in misery and dependence, and, on the other, ignoring them altogether.

It seems to me that when the Lord told the rich young man “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor,” he was probably not intending to set forth a general principle of virtuous self-impoverishment as a condition of discipleship.

With the Rich in His Death

At least it does not appear his followers uniformly took it that way. If, for instance, Joseph of Arimathea had taken these words to heart and applied them to his own life, Jesus would not have been buried with the rich in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Further, Paul seems to indicate that Christians are to be net financial plusses in the system, not a net drain on it: “Let him labor, doing work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

So shedding the immense burden of privilege and joining the poor in their poverty would not appear ideal. The idea is to pull some out, I think (or at least to help them as much as possible), not to jump in with them unnecessarily and place a burden on others.

The Job Solution

Job, who was both righteous and exceedingly rich, seems to have found a godly way of moving through this moral minefield that didn’t involve programs of massive social engineering. He simply met individual needs as they confronted him:
“If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the fatherless has not eaten of it
(for from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow),
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or the needy without covering,
if his body has not blessed me,
and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep,
if I have raised my hand against the fatherless,
because I saw my help in the gate …”
Job’s point is, “I didn’t DO this bad stuff! Whenever I saw a problem, I did what I could to address it.”

The Fleece of My Sheep

When he ate a meal, he made sure he shared it with someone who had less. If he saw someone shivering, he brought a blanket or a coat, even if it came out of his year-end profits. If it would have benefited him to take advantage of those beneath him in station, he refused to do it. If someone asked him for help, he dealt with their immediate problem and did not leave them wanting. He looked out for people in need and made himself available to those who had nobody else to turn to.

That’s a great example for those of us who have a shekel or two more than is required to meet our own immediate obligations.

Christians do not have a mandate to end poverty or to save the world from itself. It can’t be done, and the Lord doesn’t expect us to do it.

What he does expect is the same thing he expected from Job. When we encounter a legitimate need that we CAN meet, we meet it with the resources he has provided.

And if we look around, there’s always a need …

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