The New York Times recently reported that "the refusal of about half the states to expand Medicaid will leave millions of poor people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance." The irony (actually, the absurdity) of these states' policies is that they allow federal subsidies for those at or above the poverty level ($11,490-$45,960 annual income for a family of four), but not to those below the poverty level -- in other words, those making less than $1,000 a month. According to the article, such individuals and their families "will be unable to get tax credits, Medicaid or other help with health insurance."
All this made me think of Jesus' teaching in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew about the Day of Judgment when "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
That division will be based on a simple test: those who did and those who did not respond to the needs of the poorest, most needy of God's children. To those on his right, he will say, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." When they respond that they have no remembrance of treating Jesus in such a way, he says, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Conversely, when those whom Jesus condemns for refusing to respond to him when he was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison, protest that they would never have treated him in such a way, Jesus says, "For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
He might have added, "I was in need of health insurance for me and my children and you refused to give it to us, even when the cost to you was negligible." In other words, Jesus is saying, "Even though you consider yourselves Christians, even though you profess to follow me, if you refuse to provide health care for a poor family living in your state, in reality you are refusing to provide it for me."
According to the Times's article, "If the breadwinner in a family of four works full time at a job that pays $14 an hour (less than $30,000 a year) ... he or she will be eligible for insurance subsidies. But if they make $10 an hour (approximately $20,000 annually), they will not be eligible for anything." In what human universe does this make sense? In what faith community can this be justified? It is ironic that most of the states that have instituted this draconian policy are from regions of the country that most ardently professes adherence to the Christian ethic.
Christ's greatest challenges to his followers, as taught in Matthew, is that they are under covenant to treat those they consider "the least" of God's creatures -- no matter how poor or unworthy they regard them -- as if they were Christ himself.
In "Love in the Time of Cholera," Gabriel Garcia Marquez's character, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, teaches a parrot to recite passages from Matthew. On the Day of Pentecost, the parrot escapes and flies into a tree. When Urbino climbs a ladder to fetch the bird, just as he grasps it, he falls to his death. Marquez writes with comic irony,
Urbino caught the parrot around the neck with a triumphant sigh: "ça y est." But he released him immediately because the ladder slipped from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realized that he died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, on Pentecost Sunday
Marquez's wicked imagination leaves us with the image of Jesus' words spoken not by ministers or priests in pulpits -- but by a parrot in the treetops. Or, more to the point, from state capitols.
Robert A. Rees, Ph.D, teaches religious studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.