February 06, 2012

Barack Obama, theologian

Everyone's a theologian, as one of my pastors occasionally says. We all believe something about God. The real question is whether you're a good or bad one.

Barack Obama spoke last Thursday at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, as is traditional for American presidents since Eisenhower. In his speech, he described how his Christian faith drove his policies, particularly his economic ones. For example:

[W]hen I talk about shared responsibility, it's because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it's hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills, to shoulder the burden alone. I think to myself, if I'm willing to give something up as somebody who's been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.

But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus's teaching that "for unto whom much is given, much shall be required." It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who've been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.1


The biblical quotation comes from Luke 12:48, and is part of a larger parable:

[T]he Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more." (Luke 12:42-48)

This parable is one of many that Jesus spoke on the subject of stewardship. The "manager" represented the apostles (and by extension, any of his ministers), who are given charge of the Church in his absence. They are "blessed" if they are found to have executed that charge faithfully. But if they are found to be abusing their authority, their judgment is greater. "[T]o whom much was given, of him much will be required": in other words, greater responsibility entails greater accountability, and the blame is more severe for those who know God's will but do not do it.

The better-known parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) has a similar theme: God's servants are responsible for how they use the resources with which he has entrusted them, and for their willingness to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom. This was the text our senior pastor used last evening, to say that our church has been entrusted with both material and spiritual benefits, and it is up to us to use them in the best possible way to further the Kingdom.

What "to whom much was given, of him much will be required" does not mean, as President Obama suggested, is that those who have an abundance of money are obliged, through force of law, to give more of their wealth to those who have less. In the parables, the master is God himself. Obama's misappropriation of this verse puts the state in the place of the master—and thus equates the state with God. That's a rash implication to make, and an unfortunate one: states that deify themselves tend to be the totalitarian kind, which can brook no authority higher than their own.

Is there a suggestion in Scripture that those who have been given more money, should give more away? Certainly. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to contribute to the offering he was taking for the poor brethren in Jerusalem, and he appealed to them on the basis of "fairness": it was fair that their abundance should relieve the want of the Palestinian Christians (2 Cor. 8:13-15). However, Paul did not mandate this as a requirement: rather, it was to be voluntary, "as [each] has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion" (9:7). The very ability to give was a grace from God (8:1).

Charitable giving is good, and it is a Christian virtue. Redistributing wealth through raised taxes and government programs, on the other hand, is not. Barack Obama was elected as head of state, not theologian-in-chief. This is a good thing, because he makes a terrible one.

Footnote

1 Qtd. in Scott Johnson, "Render Unto Barry . . .," Power Line, http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2012/02/render-unto-barry.php (accessed Feb. 6, 2012).