The "conversation" between the evangelical left and right is heating up as President Obama, the left's champion, sinks in the polls and his legislative majority is in jeopardy. Bible-thumping progressives warn of the judgment day, repeating the Lord's words, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:34-46). When Christians serve the poor, when we make an effort to alleviate their suffering, Jesus receives that kindness as given to Him personally. But the left uses this passage to justify expanding the welfare state to European proportions. But as someone once said to a traveler asking directions, "You can't get there from here."
Leave aside the question whether such help is charity or justice, and the significance of the qualification "my brothers," and consider who the poor are whom Jesus has in mind. The poor in the Bible-"the least of these"-are not what we call poor today. In America, "the poor" are fed, clothed, and housed at a level far above what the teeming masses in the shantytowns of Brazil, Haiti, and Bangladesh have ever known. They are generally poor only relative to our widespread middle class expectations.
By contrast, when the Bible speaks of the poor, it has in mind people in desperate situations. They are people for whom it is a challenge each day simply to feed themselves and their families. The Bible typically presents them as the widow, the orphan, and sometimes the sojourner. These are people who have lost their natural protectors and have little or no means of providing for themselves. They are exposed to the wolves of society, powerful and unscrupulous people of means who would devour them for selfish gain.
But what are we to do for these people when we find them? It depends who you are. "Blessed is the one who considers the poor!" (Psalm 41:1). But what charity and justice require of you by way of "considering" the poor around you depends on your station in life, your relationship to them, and their particular circumstances.
Whereas the left reflexively views civil government as having chief responsibility for aiding the poor and suffering of every description, the Bible clearly distinguishes between appropriate private and public roles. Aside from public safety, what the civil authorities give to the poor is always equal protection of the laws through the courts.
The Apostle Paul certainly taught that Christians should help the needy, but he just as clearly understood that the closer the givers are to them, the more helpful the giving will be. Hence, Paul tells Timothy, "Honor widows who are truly widows" (1 Timothy 5:3-14). One of Paul's concerns here is the efficient use of scarce resources. Don't unnecessarily burden the deacons! But the moral concern is that diaconal assistance should not go to widows whose family can help them. The closer people are to the poor relationally, the greater their moral responsibility to provide for them. "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8). Paul makes no mention of the civil government. He issues no call for Christians to protest the "injustice" of the Roman government leaving the poor without food and work.
In giving to the destitute, givers should also be mindful that their compassion be effective and not just a sop to the conscience that does unintentional harm. Indiscriminate giving to panhandlers encourages shameless fakes to take to the streets in great numbers for free money. As people become more generous in their handouts, you could expect begging to become more organized around the equivalent of pimps. In the film Slumdog Millionaire, we saw a man burn the eyes of an orphan in his care so that the boy's begging would be more lucrative. This happens in countries where almsgiving is common. In Albania, I saw a young man with no arms or legs set out shirtless in a busy square. No doubt someone maimed him as a child, perhaps an uncle or stepfather, or perhaps even a captor, so that he would elicit greater sympathy and attract more generous giving.
Christians have no disagreement over the moral necessity of kindness to the poor. Our point of debate is what the legitimate and most beneficial means are for accomplishing this. But it is sheer political fantasy that in Matthew 25 Jesus was mandating a government engineered transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor in the form of direct payments and a broad array of social services and economic subsidies.