First a confession: As a result of recent healthcare debates, Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress got me to listen to Jesus in a way I’ve not listened before. And apparently I’m not alone.
On June 9, representatives of some 34 diverse religious groups signed onto a letter urging senators not to cut Medicaid as a lifeline to those with health needs. (Medicaid funds 64 percent of nursing care patients and 54 percent of childbirths in the U.S.) The document declares: “Access to affordable, quality health care should not and cannot be a privilege; it is a requirement rooted in faith to protect the life and dignity of every person.” Signers include NETWORK, a Catholic justice lobby; the Islamic Society of North America; the Union of Reformed Judaism; and denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church USA and the National Council of Churches. (No Baptist communions are listed.)
I’ve long been haunted by the 10th chapters of Matthew and Luke, passages in which Jesus sends out his first apostolic reps, the Twelve (Matthew) and the Seventy (Luke). They are lessons in gospel minimalism, the first inkling of how Jesus understood and enacted his witness in the world, trusting those folks to help take the Story on the road. Teaching new generations of seminarians compelled me to consider the calling Jesus extended, the message he instructed them (and us) to declare, and the messengers’ inevitable vulnerability.
In classes and ordination services, I’ve warned would-be ministers that the “sent ones” are vulnerable from the start. Jesus advises: “Don’t take purse, shoes, a change of clothes, or an ATM card [postmodern update]. Depend on God’s Beloved Community to sustain you.” He even throws in: “And when you are arrested.” Not if, but when. That alone should scare a bit of the persistent hell out of us. I even got the part about their message: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven [God’s New Day] has come near.’”
But after years of making a big deal out of Matthew/Luke 10, I mostly missed the depth of the passage, the first element of Jesus’ commissioning. “He gave them authority,” Matthew writes, “over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and cure every disease and every sickness.” Going out, they are to “cure the sick, raise the dead [?], cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus demands that they confront human suffering as readily as they declare God’s good news!
Holy Obamacare! Two thousand years later, our nation confronts questions over caring for those who need healing from “preexisting conditions,” require cleansing from years of chronic pain — physical, mental, spiritual — and those whose demons of alcohol, opioids, or arrogance need to be cast out. No, we can’t raise the dead, but can we keep folks from dying too soon, or get them to hospice so they can die with dignity?
We still don’t know what our government will do about the Affordable Care Act, but we do know that from the very beginning Jesus mandated an Apostolic Care Act of all who would follow him, who would work for and with people who are suffering, overlooked, and underserved. Whatever else, the Jesus Story has both physical and spiritual implications.
National health care conversations and controversies force us to reexamine our own churchly mission and ministry. What if health care legislation becomes so draconian and human need so great that churches have to initiate or expand community clinics, not because Obamacare is repealed, but because Jesus requires it? Even that won’t be enough. A friend reports being in a meeting where someone declared that if churches would only do their duty, health insurance wouldn’t be necessary. To which my friend responded: “When you start doing surgery in the fellowship hall, call me.”
Some Christian communities are responding with their own initiatives. Medi-share is a Christian based program that asks participants to select the monthly amount they wish to contribute, and, if they do not need it themselves, to contribute it toward the care of others persons in the system. The needs of participants are published online and contributions to their health care are funded to them directly from Medi-share. I don’t know how effective this is, but it illustrates a faith-based alternative.
My own hesitancy to claim Jesus’ first-century healing admonitions inured me to the depth of his concern for persons’ physical well-being and its continuing imperative. He won’t let any of us off the hook. At the end of Matthew 10 Jesus sweeps us up with a minimal mandate for all disciples: We may be unable to hit the road for the kingdom, heal the sick, cleanse lepers, cast out demons, or get arrested for the gospel’s sake. But we can all give “a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” in the church and the world.
Indeed, in behalf of the “little ones,” we may even need to get prophetic. In Prophecy without Contempt, Cathleen Kaveny says that prophets provide a “kind of moral chemotherapy … a brutal but necessary response to aggressive forms of moral malignancy.” Should legislators link healthcare cuts with tax breaks for the rich, some prophet might remind them that Original Sin is a preexisting condition.