Who would Jesus insure?
Stories of Bible offer insights into health care
What do we owe one another in society? How do we structure our laws to promote freedom and justice for all? When Jesus was asked that question, he had a ready answer: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
A lawyer then asked Jesus to clarify the scope. Exactly who is my neighbor? The conventional answer was that a neighbor was a member of one’s family and those living within a short distance; one’s fellow villagers at most. Jesus answered with a story we call “The Good Samaritan.”
Samaritans were his people’s enemies, definitely not neighbors. If the shadow of a Samaritan crossed the path of one of Jesus’ people, they believed themselves to be unclean, in need of ritual cleansing. In Jesus’ story, a stranger is robbed and beaten and left for dead by the roadside. A priest and a worship assistant each approached the scene, and each crossed to the other side of the road. That’s reasonable, a listener would think. Contact with a corpse made one ritually unclean. They didn’t want to risk defilement.
But a Samaritan, a despised foreigner and heretic, tended to the injured stranger, took him to an inn for safekeeping, and paid the cost, with promises to cover whatever else might be needed in the injured man’s recovery. Jesus said this is what it means to be a neighbor.
It is an instructive story for our current debate about how our society should structure its health care laws? What kind of policies do we owe our neighbors?
A just policy, according to Jesus’ values, would be all inclusive, erasing the boundaries between villager and stranger, native and foreigner. A person in need is our neighbor.
A just policy, according to Jesus’ values, would give to the other person what we would want for our own care: a compassionate, loving standard of care.
I know we are not a Christian nation. We uphold the freedom for anyone to practice his own religion or no religion. But over 70 percent of Americans say they are Christian, and 93 percent of Congress identify with the religion of Jesus. And, in fact, the moral principle “love your neighbor as yourself” is a pretty universal ethical teaching. It is also a value that is consistent with the morals of our Founders and with the spirit of our Constitution.
But we know health care is expensive. It is one thing for a prosperous Samaritan to choose to use his resources compassionately. It is another for the government to use its force to impose taxes for the same purpose.
Jesus has another story that offers a word of warning. It is a story about a poor man named Lazarus who lived outside the gates of an unnamed wealthy man. Lazarus was ill and hungry. He longed for the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Jesus imagines them both in an afterlife that gives them the justice they did not experience on earth. Lazarus is comforted in Abraham’s bosom, but the rich man is in torment in the fires of Hades. The rich man wishes he could send a warning to his wealthy brothers. Abraham tells him that they know well enough. They can look to the law and the prophets. They just don’t.
Jesus’ story is a picture of America. Poor Lazarus suffering outside the gates of the rich man is us (U.S.). Among 35 relatively advanced nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, we are right at the bottom in combating child poverty and total poverty. Among the 11 most developed nations, our health results rank dead last. Lazarus is poor and ill in America.
But the rich man is doing pretty well. In the past 35 years paycheck income for the top 1 percent rose 256 percent while wages for the bottom 90 percent have gained less than half of 1 percent per year. One percent of American families hold nearly half of the U.S. wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. One wealthy household out of 1,000 earns 76 percent of all U.S. income.
A health care bill that cuts poor people off Medicaid while giving more tax breaks to the wealthy seems immoral to me. It takes us in a direction opposite what Jesus teaches us.
Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the rich man to change our behavior. He tells us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan.
What would “love your neighbor as yourself ” look like in health care?