The Common Good

Judgment Day: Does Matthew 25 Apply to the Health-Care Debate?

Yesterday, I heard a Christian leader say that the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 is not a reason for Christians to support universal health care guaranteed by their government. His argument was that this text is Jesus' instruction to the Christian community for the Christian community. This sounded like an error of interpretation to me.

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I read the biblical text through the lens of ethics. I am not a biblical scholar. So, this morning, I called my friend and colleague Allen Callahan to ask him about this interpretation of Matthew 25. Dr. Callahan is an ordained Baptist minister, educated at Princeton and Harvard. He has taught New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, Macalester College and now at Seminario Teologico Batista do Nordeste in Bahia, Brazil. He is an international lecturer and has appeared in television documentaries about the early church, and about politics and spirituality.

Callahan thinks that this Christian leader may have come to his conclusion based on the word "brethren" in the text. Or in another translation: "those who are members of my family." Two relevant verses say:

"And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25: 39-40 NRSV)

However, in the second half of this section, when Jesus speaks to the condemned, he does not include the familial language. According to Callahan, when we encounter the familial language of Jesus, it is important to keep in mind Jesus' definition of family. In Mark 3:35 Jesus says: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

When I asked Callahan whether the reference in Matthew 25 to the gathering of the nations is a political reference to nations, he said a better way to understand this would be as a reference to all the peoples of the earth.

Moreover, when we consider any particular passage of Jesus' teaching, it is important to consider it within the context of the whole arc of Jesus' teachings. It is important to read Jesus within the whole arc of the Bible. Callahan reminded me that the Bible from beginning to end insists upon the moral imperative to care for the most vulnerable members of society -- women without husbands, children without fathers, aliens.

Callahan remembered the influence that the teachings of Jesus had upon Mahatma Gandhi. It led Gandhi to work to bring the untouchable caste into the mainstream of India's society and politics. The teaching of Jesus to care for the least is a moral teaching for all of humanity. When we see people in our country who do not have access to basic health care because they lack insurance, when we see even those who have insurance now living with the reality that they could lose coverage at the whim of their employer or if they lose their jobs, it is a moral imperative for us to urge our leaders to join most of the rest of the world and recognize health care as a human right and the obligation of governments to provide access to health care for all of their citizens.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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