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Some thoughts on the Matthew 25 Network

Normally, as anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor would know, I tend to stay away from political commentary.  That is largely because I find I tend to make my most rash statements when I’m talking or writing about politics.  I’ll make an exception this time and see if I can make any cogent points.

The Matthew 25 Network portrays as its guiding principle the statement of Jesus found in Matthew 25:40: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  As critical statements in the Bible go, this one is right up near the top.  Just before and just after we are given a list of the classic states of the unfortunate (the poor, if you will) souls who are to be considered “the least” – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger and those in prison; I’d suggest it’s not a leap to say these states were intended to suggest a universal definition of the poor and not be a limited list.  As it stands it truly is a strong foundation on which to build a proper understanding of social justice.  To this point I believe the folks running the Matthew 25 Network and I are in agreement.

Where I think we begin to part ways is that they continue from this point and suggest that it also gives a strong base for how those things are to be done.  Quickly following this is the assertion it is the role of the government, of those “in power” to make these things happen.  Read the whole of Matthew 25 again and you will find no such specific or direct statement – no mechanisms, devices or modes of delivery are suggested.  In fact, at most what you will find is precisely the contrary – in the story Jesus tells rather of individual responsibility both in the doing and at the time of judgement.  Jesus says “whatever you did” not “whatever the governmental organization to which you delegated responsibility did”.  Is that a gross oversimplification?  Perhaps, but it serves to illustrate the point.

Let me further my argument by taking a different selection of the Bible to deepen our understanding of Matthew 25.  In Matthew 14, just after Jesus has been told of the death of John the Baptist we read:

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.  They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over — twelve wicker baskets full.  Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Notice specifically what Jesus tells the Apostles – “give them some food yourselves.”  He makes it clear, with a point, that it is the responsibility of the Apostles to provide for those who have nothing from what they have.  There is no allowance for offloading this responsibility even when the Apostles try to shy away.

The Church has taught the principle of subsidiarity from at least the time of Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum and it is, to me, critical to this issue.  The principle holds, in short, that government should only take on those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently.  This I find to be a crucial distinction to be made whenever we are considering any of the acts of charity outlined in Matthew 25.  The first, the primary responsibility for performing and ensuring the performance of these acts lays not with a government but with each of us as members of the Body of Christ.  From there it should roll up to the parish level and with small charities and NGOs.  I, personally, have a hard time believing that there are any issues regrading these acts which require the participation of government, particularly at the Federal level.  The government is required to ensure proper legal protections and where appropriate individual fiscal incentives (i.e. recognizing contributions to these charities as tax writeoffs) but the implementation of these acts is not, either in Matthew 25 or Matthew 14 ever given the government.

I will grant right now that this is not an exhaustive discussion of this issue, but I hope to have at least probed the intersection of two Gospel directives which I think is all too often ignored or glossed over.  I’d like to hope this kick starts a discussion, although I’m afraid my little blog doesn’t quite have the readership necessary to thoroughly deal with all its ramifications.  Even so, comment away, one and all!

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