Individual Responsibility vs. the Welfare State: A biblical perspective

You might think that the bible would support the ideological premise that we ought to do well by our fellow man. We are supposed to help those in need. There are many scriptures that would lead one to this conclusion along with those verses that call upon us to help the poor, widowed, and orphaned. On this, most of us would agree. There is a responsibility for those well off to help those who are not. Therefore many conclude that because of this it is the government’s role to mandate higher taxes in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. They use Matthew 25:35-46 where Jesus says that the “King” will reward those who cared for the less fortunate or the “least of these” and punish those who have not. They conclude that society must do its part and use that coercive power of government to address the needs of the poor in order to fulfill the biblical admonition stated in Matthew.

Unfortunately, they have misread the admonition and taken it out of context. Matthew chapters 24-25 are more about personal responsibility and relationship with the King than coercion to help the poor. 

When will the End be?

The disciples ask Jesus about the signs of his return and the end of the age beginning in Matthew 24:3. Jesus lists a host of events that must happen first but warns that the son of man will come in power (v 30) and without warning (vv. 32-41). The key to Chapter 24 and 25 is what Jesus says next in verses 42-44. The disciples are told to “keep watch” and to be “ready,” because, as stated in earlier verses, you do not know when the Lord will return. What follows are parables about being ready for the return of Christ and a call to its readers and hears to be faithful in whatever task God has given them.

Disciplined focus (Matt. 24:45-51)

The first parable in the string of three provides the lenses by which we are to view the other two. The wise servant is one who does what is required by his master (employer). He is faithful to the task that is given to him. He is disciplined enough to stay focused on the task before him. The wicked servant shirks his responsibility abuses the other servants while he associates with people of questionable character. He is undisciplined lacking focus and character. The consequences of the wicked servant’s actions incurred judgment while the faithful servant received a promotion. Lack of discipline and moral judgment seals the fate of the wicked servant.

Prepared for the opportunity (Matt. 25:1-13)

In this parable, ten virgins are awaiting the bridegroom to let them into the wedding banquet. All of the virgins have oil lamps but only five have enough to last the evening. The virgins running out of oil (foolish virgins) ask to borrow some of the oil of the wise virgins. The response is a resounding  “ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ There is no welfare here. The responsibility is on the individual virgins to make sure they are ready for the bridegroom. Lack of preparation or planning for the future assured a negative outcome.  As the old adage says, “When preparation meets opportunity you have success.” Five of the ten virgins were not prepared and they missed out on an opportunity.

Capitalize on the opportunity when presented (Matt 25:14-30) 

In the parable of the talents a master goes out of town but leaves three of his servants with various sums of money.  Each is expected to do something positive with the sums given to them. The master does not give the money for them to waste it. He gives them money according to their “ability” or “capacity” for using it to make more (v. 15). The sums given allow us insight into which servant the master trusted the most. Clearly the servant with 5 talents was perceived to have more capacity than the servant with 2 or 1 talent. 

This was not a charity or welfare program. They were each given an opportunity to perform regardless of their capacity and regardless of the amount of money invested in their care. They were supposed to produce. Two of the servants doubled their respective amounts. The third buried their talent in the ground.

As you can imagine the two who were successful in doubling their master’s investment were promoted and given greater responsibility. The one who hides it in the ground was punished and the money he had was given to the servant with ten talents. Then a very interesting statement is made in verse 29, “[f]or everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” I will not be able to fully unpack this statement in this article but suffice it to say that those who see opportunity and use it wisely will always be rewarded. Those who for whatever reason do not nor will not seize the moment will be lost. This is not only an economic principle but one that is applied to spiritual development as well.

The servant is called “useless” or “unprofitable” in verse 30 as judgment is pronounced on him. His fate is similar to the wicked servant mentioned above (24:51). 

The final result (Matt 25:31-46)

This section is actually the final judgment but is the result of our actions. Our actions are a result of our relationship with the Lord (master). In the parables, those who trusted the master were faithful to him. In the story of the ten virgins, the ones who understood what was required of them entered into the banquet. Those who did not were too late and they are told by the bridegroom ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ (25:12)

Hence when Christ returns he will divide the nations (people) into two groups, the sheep and the goats. He places the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. He then pronounces judgment starting with the sheep. They are allowed to enter into the Kingdom because they have been faithful in attending to the needs of the King/Christ. The goats are judged harshly for not attending to the needs of the King/Christ and are condemned to eternal punishment (25:46).

The only thing both groups have in common is that they ask a related question: When did we run into you? The response from the King is that every time you helped a stranger or the least of these my brethren you ministered to me. This is personal responsibility in carrying out the teachings of the sermon on the mount (see Matthew 5-7). These are acts of random kindness motivated by a love for the Savior and a desire to “do unto others…” (Matt 7:12).  Look at the “Be Attitudes” and you will find the prescription for personal/ spiritual growth. Read Matt 7:21-23 and couple it with Matt 25:31-46 and you will see that neither religiosity nor indifference gain favor from God. Only obedience to the teachings of Jesus (Matt. 7:24-27) will please God. Matthew 24-25 highlights the need to be ready but also demonstrates that readiness is simple faithfulness to the task God has given us, along with random acts of kindness.

These things cannot be legislated. What the gospel writer calls righteousness cannot be mandated or even carried out by the government. It is our personal responsibility to help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. The only thing government can do is get out of the way and let private individuals and non-profit organizations provide the help that people may need. 

So don’t let politicians fool you to thinking that your paying more taxes is somehow fulfilling the need to help the poor. It is an attempt to take more of your more so they can spend it as they see fit. In all actuality the more money you pay in taxes the less you have to give to others. It is this writer’s opinion that if the government got out of the business of  “helping the poor” the poor would be better off. Your direct assistance or contribution to a non-profit help organization would do more than any tax increase could ever accomplish.

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