Our social safety net is still fraying. In some places it is altogether worn through. This is perhaps not surprising, what with the rhetoric that fills our airwaves and legislatures: poor people are lazy, drug-addicted parasites, and safety-net programs like TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), and others are just enabling their lazy, drug-addled leeching. “Leech” is more commonly applied to welfare recipients than to Social Security recipients, but even there we hear talk of “hard decisions,” which always come back to “How do we cut back?” instead of “How do we raise more?”
Democrats being what they are, there’s not much language coming back from the Left in defense of welfare recipients, but I’d like to provide some. A Google search turns up a few people, mostly actors and singers (perhaps because they get asked a lot of questions about their lives), who have stories about growing up in poverty and relying on one or another social safety net. Let’s have a roll call, shall we? There’s Shania Twain, famously, but also Kelly Clarkson, Tobey Maguire, JK Rowling, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin…
Yes, that Jesus. Obviously the social safety net took a different form in his day, but he made use of the ancient version. In Israel it went like this: the law (specifically Leviticus 19:9-10) commanded that everyone had to leave some of their crop for poor people to eat, both by leaving some of the crop unharvested when the rest was brought in―leaving some grapes on the vine, leaving the ears of wheat at the edges of the field, and leaving anything that spilled on the ground lying there. In fact, those with more land had to leave more behind, which is almost progressive taxation. Moreover the law also said that anyone could eat from anyone else’s fields, though they couldn’t take anything out of the field in question. In this way everyone who had something left a little for those who had nothing, and the reason for this is given in a rather important commandment later in Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus? Listen to this: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (Matthew 12:1) That’s all twelve disciples taking advantage of the laws protecting the poor. Jesus himself presumably never had to worry about going hungry (lilies of the field, and so on) but he had to feed his flock, after all.
Now it’s true that Jesus likely worked as a carpenter before his ministry began, and his disciples had all sorts of jobs from fisherman to tax collector; it’s also true that where they could get freely-offered hospitality, they took it. That was the better way, and it remains the better way. But for those in-between places, Jesus and company relied on Israel’s form of food stamps.
In fact, if you squint a bit, you can see another connection to today’s situation, because just one verse later the Pharisees chide the grain-plucking because the disciples did it on the sabbath. In short, when they used the social safety net, the disciples were accused of immorality. Some things never change.
So when Jesus said, “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me,” he meant it. He and his group had used the laws protecting the poor; in all likelihood they were poor, having renounced all wealth, property, and careers to follow the call. Israel had protections and help for its poor citizens, and Jesus was among them. Which means, as I’ve often stated, that those who slander the poor are slandering the man from Galilee. “As you do for the least of these” cuts both ways.
Which is, I think, worth remembering.