In his recent speech to the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama quoted the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48 that unto whom much is given, much is required.
The President emphasized the responsibility of those who are materially blessed to take care of those in need. And Mr. Obama is correct: the New Testament clearly commands those who are rich to share what they have.
Indeed, in his telling of Christians at Ephesus to not steal but to work, the Apostle Paul says the proceeds of that work will allow the individual to give to those in need. And Paul writes to his disciple, Timothy, about wealth distribution. Timothy, Paul says, is to charge the wealthy to “do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate” [in the context of money].
So the President has it right -- the Bible teaches that the rich are to give of their goods to the poor.
Except for one thing.
Mr. Obama made his statement in reference to increasing taxes. And there is no virtue in government forcefully taking wealth to help the poor.
No virtue. None.
An overriding principle of biblical giving is that it should be voluntary. Always. Voluntary giving is virtuous -- Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the incredible personal benefit it was to them because they were providing for those in need, doing it willingly, not out of a sense of obligation. Even in his calls for “equality” of goods among believers (“your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want”), an overriding thrust was that of giving freely and willingly.
Some might say the concept of willful giving is negated by the New Testament account of Ananias and Sapphira whom God struck dead because they did not pool all their possessions with others in the church. Careful reading of the story indicates they were judged not because they held money back, but because they lied about it.
Taxes may be a form of “giving,” but they are not about willingness. They are founded on force.
In the Old Testament, God outlined to the prophet Samuel the incredible burdens of taxation and obligation that a centralized monarchial system would bring to Israel. God’s view on taxation did not reflect a concept of virtue (although Jesus did say there was an obligation to pay taxes).
Using taxation for aiding the poor corrodes our individual and national character in several ways: 1) it represents a forced burden, thus a resentment, that can sometimes spill over into our attitudes regarding the poor; 2) it places a governmental layer between us and our personal obligation to people (“Why should I help that guy – there’s a government program to take care of him!”); 3) it lessens the resources we have to give to people, 4) it institutionalizes social programs in far-off state and federal capitals, putting them out of sight and out of mind 5) it creates self-serving government bureaucracies concerned more about their own perpetuation than their mission, 6) it creates too-large programs unable to address specific situations of people in need, and 7) it corrupts politicians and others seeking votes and patronage through government largess.
The argument can be made that without government programs, people would be sick, hungry, and homeless. I say just the opposite: despite decades of extensive government effort, people are still sick, hungry, and homeless. Big government poverty programs don’t work. And for the corrosive reasons I mentioned above, individuals, churches, and civic organizations are not always meeting their full potential to intervene.
There’s more to say on it, but not today.
Meanwhile, like so many attempts to present biblical precepts that eventually result in problems, President Obama at the prayer breakfast got it only partially right.
The problem is in the taxes.