The New Testament leaves little doubt that there is intended to be a profound relationship between what Christians believe and how they behave. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the greatest commandment was to “Love God and love your neighbor.”
These are not separate commands with which we are to struggle first with one and then the other. Together the two create a single command that forever welds together worship and ethics.
Unfortunately, in many faith communities, this bold ethical challenge to love God and neighbor is reduced to a lowest common denominator of personal piety. Loving God is distilled to a warm fuzzy feeling about God. Loving our neighbor is whittled down to being polite to strangers or not losing our temper in traffic.
This is an unfortunate reduction. Even a cursory reading of the Bible makes it clear that God expects more than warm fuzzies – for God and our neighbor.
The biblical expectation laid on people of faith is to seek a just community. This quest for justice means resisting the social and economic forces that oppress the powerless and the weak.
The prophets used the shorthand expression “widows and orphans” to describe these people. Jesus called them “the least of these” and “little ones.” The writers of the Bible understood all too well that sometimes people of wealth and power are able to construct and maintain social arrangements that work for their benefit. As a rule, the more the wealthy and powerful are able to protect their own interests, the more the poor suffer.
People of faith are called to expose these unjust constructions and work for their elimination. This does not mean making wealthy people poor and poor people wealthy. Working for a community of justice means that all of us recognize that the resources for life in this world belong to God. It is wrong to hoard and keep from others what God has intended for all of us to share.
One of those resources is education. In our society the key to getting and staying out of poverty begins with a good education. For decades public schools in rural counties have endured grossly substandard funding because of Alabama’s method for funding public education.
We ought to call it the Lazarus system because it basically means that the poor depend on the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich.
Unfortunately, like the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable about Lazarus, not many crumbs are available. This is mainly due to the inadequate funding process for Alabama’s schools. Because we depend inordinately on sales tax, our school revenues rise and fall with the economy.
If school funding were based on an adequate property tax – a source of revenue much more predictable than sales tax – school budgets would not seem so much like a roller-coaster ride.
These are not merely political issues. These are matters of morality. Our failure to adequately educate the children of our state and provide resources for their development contributes to the ongoing poverty in our state.
Conservatives who love to quote Paul by saying “those who do not work shall not eat” should be ashamed of not providing resources to help those who would work have the training they need to work.
Jesus had a word for people whose thought processes work this way – hypocrites.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.