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Monday, November 12, 2012

Sheep or Goat? Government or Church?

The influential religious right-wing, claim that the bible puts responsibility for the poor and downtrodden in the hands of the church and its people, not in the hands of government. This is used to justify smaller government and the removal of publicly funded welfare, health and education services. Yet one of the most famous passages in the bible, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:32, tells us that all 'nations' will be held accountable to God. Nations are ruled by governments. 

For so long now, right-wing Christians have been stating that government is not meant to provide welfare or social security, that caring for the poor is the responsibility of churches and individuals. This belief has been used to justify lower taxation in order to remove or prevent government funded programs such as health, education, housing and welfare. The provision of these services by government is often seen as socialism, which is decried as being evil, as being a principality of Satan.

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in Matthew 25:32, Jesus tells us that 'all nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats'.

The parable doesn't tell us that 'all people will be gathered before Him', but all 'nations'. Nations are not just comprised of people, but have leadership; government. The nations will be held accountable for whether they looked after the 'least of these', those less fortunate, those who were unable to provide for themselves; those who need food, water, clothing, shelter, security, love.

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus states that the 'nations' should have provided:
  • food - for I was hungry
  • drink - for I was thirsty
  • refuge - for I was a stranger
  • clothing - for I was naked
  • caring - for I was sick 
  • compassion - for I was in prison
Those who did provide this, were put with the sheep and will inherit the Kingdom of God. Those who didn't provide for the poor, will be with the Goats who will depart from God's presence into everlasting fire.

Why did God separate the nations into the sheep and the goats? Sheep need shepherds. For a nation, the government is the shepherd. It is the government that provides the direction and the protection for the people of that nation.

In Ezekiel 34:2-4, God warns the shepherds of Israel, 'You eat the fat clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them'.

The shepherds that the bible talks of are Kings and religious leaders. This scripture is criticism of both the government and the religious institutions.

Throughout the Old Testament, God did not just single out individuals for his warnings and blessings. He also directed his edicts towards nations, in particular the nation of Israel. He warned Israel of the need to care for the least of these, for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The stranger being someone who was not of that land, a foreigner.

While each of us is responsible for our actions ... and inactions ... God also holds governments accountable for their treatment of everyone, including the 'least of these'. In Matthew 25:40, He states 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to me'.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, government is held accountable for its treatment of poor, the destitute, the homeless, the refugee, the prisoner, the patient. It cannot be argued that this is not the responsibility of government, that only the church can provide these services. Besides that, most churches are only interested in providing these services to their followers, not to those who have no interest in their religion. Would the church provide refuge for Muslims fleeing a despotic regime, or would they only provide it to the Christians? Would they provide care and compassion to an openly gay person who may be dying? Some might, most won't.

Governments are responsible for caring for all members of their society, not just those who fit certain religious criteria.

And of course to take those services off government and give them to churches would be to overwhelm the ability of the church to deliver those services. Certainly there is a place for churches to provide these services, but not to be the sole providers of them. In a world with more than 7 billion people, can the churches truly claim that governments should not be used to deliver these services?

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats holds governments responsible for their treatment of the 'least of these'. As mentioned in Ezekiel, religious leaders are also held accountable. By undermining the ability of government to provide these services, religious groups are denying the 'least of these' access to food, clothing, accommodation, security and care. Is there an agenda that the churches are working towards by transferring social welfare from government to them? They can't possibly deliver services to all, so is it just a power-grabbing, money-making scam? Or is it a genuine concern for the poor?

Instead of pursuing their own agenda and fighting for essential services to be taken off government, religious groups should be working with government to ensure that the services are provided to all who need them.

There will come a day of reckoning.

Will government, will the church, be with the Sheep or the Goats?

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