A lot of people, when they think of what it means to be righteous, start listing the things that they do not do. They will focus primarily on the things that they themselves don’t do, the things that they are proud that they are not. They “do not smoke, they do not do and they do not run with girls who do.” They are not murderers, rapists or thieves.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Then there are those who will look at the United States and believe that it must soon suffer the wrath of God because of rampant pornography, illicit sex, abortion, uppity women, tolerance of gays and the like. The criticism from the religious right and the Taliban are remarkably similar.
And yet, when God was critical of the ancient Israelites, not a one of those things came up in the words of the prophets. Hear what Isaiah had to say:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” (Isaiah 58)
So should you now feel guilty? Are we doing it all wrong? If we want to “save America” do we need to stop treating our poor and disadvantaged so wretchedly?
But are we in fact neglecting the poor and disadvantaged?
In 2011 the United States Federal Budget was 3.6 Trillion dollars.
20 percent (731 billion dollars) of that was for the Social Security Program
21 percent (769 billion dollars) went to Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program
13 percent (466 billion dollars) went to Safety Net programs, that is, aid to individuals and families facing hardship. These programs include: the refundable portion of the earned-income and child tax credits, which assist low- and moderate-income working families through the tax code; programs that provide cash payments to eligible individuals or households, including Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor and unemployment insurance; various forms of in-kind assistance for low-income families and individuals, including food stamps, school meals, low-income housing assistance, child-care assistance, and assistance in meeting home energy bills; and various other programs such as those that aid abused and neglected children.
That’s 54 percent of the Federal Budget.
How’s the rest of the Federal money spent?
7 percent goes to Federal Retirees and Veterans
3 percent for Transportation Infrastructure
2 percent for education
2 percent for science and medical research (So for instance, less than 0.5 percent of the budget goes to NASA)
20 percent for defense and international security assistance
6 percent for interest on the national debt
1 percent for non-security international
4 percent miscellaneous
That’s what the FEDERAL government spends.
That does not even count what the individual STATES spend on social programs.
Nor does it count what is spent by charitable organizations. Donations just to charitable organizations by Americans in 2009 totaled 304 billion dollars!
It is good to care for the poor, the needy, the suffering. It is what God asks of us and expects of us.
So it puzzles me when I hear people tell me that the United States doesn’t care about the poor and disadvantaged. Based on the money spent, we in fact seem to care a great deal.
Could we do more? Of course. We can always do more. We could always pray more, exercise more, work harder, study harder, be kinder. But does that mean that I should feel guilty all the time, speak nothing but criticism, and bad mouth everyone who doesn’t believe exactly the same as I do? Probably not.
Should I pat myself on the back for how good I am, how generous, how noble, and how kind I am? Probably not.