A cynic was needling a Baptist minister: “I know about you guys. You’re think you’re the only ones going to heaven.” The preacher shook his head. “It’s worse than that,” he said. “I don’t think even most of ours are going.”
Whenever there is seemingly intractable dispute, sometimes it is wise to see if it can be made worse, for this can reveal aspects previously overlooked. Trying to make things worse often highlights that everyone is wrong. Which is always a start.
There is a current standoff in Christian discussion about Matthew 26, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Team A says “Look, Jesus said it. He personally identifies this as the identifying issue for the Church. Therefore supporting generous government programs is a Christian’s duty.” Team B says “Jesus identified several ‘centers’ over the course of his ministry, and this one doesn’t say anything about government, does it?” Discussion proceeds from there about Christian responsibility for a Just Society... historical understanding of the place of Charity and Corporal Acts of Mercy... division of labor, and efficiency... what audience is being addressed... and what the hearers would have understood. All very legitimate stuff. I will touch on some overview of the historical parts later on, but first my goal is simply to make things worse.
Not only does Jesus not identify government anywhere in the passage, He doesn’t mention collective or proxy action, either. There’s no hint of that extra step that we consider just automatic and obvious in our specialising society - of paying someone else to do these for us. Maybe giving money to soup kitchens or prison ministries doesn’t “count.” What if these are things we are supposed to actively participate in, not just assist from a distance? There’s a sobering thought, eh? Just maybe, there's a whole realm of Christian growth we are missing out on because we thought we had a better idea.
I am not fully making that assertion at present (I can think of some sorta counter-arguments myself which I leave off here), but I think it’s worth following that line of thought. There is a framing of Christ’s directions to us that says our main job is to weld together a community, one that demonstrates by its love for its members what God’s love for us is like. (Note: Team A tends to lean in the direction of “No, that’s to everybody, not just ourselves. That would be selfish.” Team B leans to “No, getting as many people as possible into that group is more important.” There are good arguments for both those leanings, but both neglect the texts as written and originally understood. I reject both.)
But if the building of that visible community is the important piece, then doing it ourselves might have some importance. Not that one could never designate others to act on your behalf, or never contribute money to a faraway cause, because both have NT precedent. But the personal nature may have gotten dropped into the ocean on the colonial voyages. Before that, and in most places until very recently, donors and recipients were never very far from each other. Handing over that responsibility distantly, whether to parachurch ministries or to government agencies is new, very new. Come to think of it, parachurch ministries often see advocacy as one of their main functions and gravitate to government solutions. There may be a sympathy of general outlook there, even when they dislike a particular administration.
It seems efficient, neat, tidy – big chunks of unfortunates dealt with at once, feels good.
There might be problems. We will come back to this.