Trump’s Budget Slashes Aid to the Poor. Would Jesus Have a Problem with That? By David Gibson
Since it was unveiled last week, President Trump’s proposed budget has been widely denounced as “immoral” and downright “evil” for boosting defense spending by billions while demanding drastic cuts to vital aid programs.
Yet if liberals and some conservatives are upset about cuts to programs that help ensure clean drinking water, give financial aid to low-income college students, and even help support Meals on Wheels — which delivers nearly a million meals a day to the sick and elderly — would Jesus have a problem with slashing assistance to the needy?
The question has been roiling Christian commentators on social media in recent days, with many on the left arguing that of course Jesus would be outraged by sharp cuts in assistance to the poor while the exegetes on the right took the opposite view.
The latter said the truth of the matter — and, by extension, the Christian rationale for much of the nation’s safety net — depends on how you translate a single phrase in the early Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew.
This scriptural smackdown began hours after the budget was unveiled on Thursday (March 16), when the conservative pundit — and newly minted theology student — Erick Erickson began bristling on Twitter and on his blog about critics of Trump’s budget cuts, reductions that he backs.
“If you don’t support Meals on Wheels you’re not a good Christian, according to people who aren’t Christians and don’t believe in Jesus,” as Erickson tweeted on Thursday.
Several people who are in fact Christians, such as author Rachel Held Evans and USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, were among the many who expressed astonishment at Erickson’s take; some of them pointed to the well-known passage in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus speaks about those who will be saved as the ones who cared for the thirsty, the hungry, the homeless and the stranger — “the least of these,” as Jesus says.
Cue the translation wars.
Erickson, who in 2014 left his highly successful editor post at the conservative political website Red State to start a degree in biblical studies at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said his critics were flat-out wrong. “When Jesus talks about caring for ‘the least of these,’ he isn’t talking about the poor in general, but fellow Christians,” he tweeted in response.
Then on his Instagram account, Erickson — who pointed out that he could now read the Gospel in the original Greek — explained that when referring to “the least of these” Jesus qualifies the phrase with the term “adelphos,” which means “brothers” or “brotherhood.” Thus, he says, Jesus is talking about how you treat only his disciples, not the poor and certainly not the poor in general.
If this seems like a rather obscure point of scriptural interpretation, it has in fact become a fulcrum for conservative Christians to leverage arguments against the government providing many social services.
This is a vigorous debate that has been going on for several years as evangelical scholars, in particular, have pushed for a more restrictive reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew. The more prevalent view, and one espoused by believers ranging from Catholicism’s Mother Teresa (now a saint) to evangelicalism’s Shane Claiborne, is that Jesus was referring to
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