If you’re a Christian, you know Jesus is really important. We who claim to be his disciples think we ought to listen to him, follow him, and obey him. We ought to do what he did.
One of our current cultural debates is about what we call “health care.” I saw this picture (“Jesus Practiced Universal Healthcare”) on Twitter today (provided by Paul Goldberger). If by this we mean “Jesus had a serious, important, and extensive ministry of healing,” the claim – at least for those who take the Bible as an accurate picture of who Jesus was and what he did – is uncontroversial. Most places he went, he healed people. He healed lame people so they could walk. He healed deaf people so they could hear. He healed blind people so they could see. He cast demons out of those who were demonized. He cured leprosy. He raised the dead.
The problem is, this is not what is meant by “universal healthcare.” “Universal healthcare” in our current debate is about what kind of system the government should set up for our country.
Jesus did not set up a system of “healthcare,” unless by that we mean that he sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel, part of which was the ministry of healing.
Jesus did not push the government, whether in the guise of one of the Herods, Pilate, or Caesar, to set up a “healthcare” system. In this sense, talk of “healthcare” at the time of Jesus is completely anachronistic.
Jesus also did not travel throughout the world and “practice universal healthcare.” Almost all of his healing ministry was done within the bounds of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. This is a very small territory. If we consider passages like John 5, it also looks like Jesus didn’t even heal everyone around. In the story that opens that chapter Jesus is at a pool where the sick gathered. They sought supernatural healing. Jesus, according to John, goes up to one person and practically inflicts healing on him. What about all the others who were gathered there? Why didn’t Jesus, who “practiced universal healthcare” heal all them too? If Jesus’ practice of “healthcare” included raisings from the dead, why did he do this so rarely? If he truly aims the practice to be universal, why not prevent all death in the first place, and can’t prevent it, why not just raise everyone? That sounds more universal.
So given these anomalies, Jesus’ words and examples are useless to our current debate, right? I don’t think so.
In the first place, the impetus to provide for “healthcare” for all flows naturally from Jesus’ story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Yes, what we call “healthcare” is a very modern innovation, inconceivable in Jesus’ culture. Nonetheless, as the concept does exist now, it is natural for followers of Jesus to hear him say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” We also hear Jesus say things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The deep involvement of Christian churches in the development of hospitals and healthcare networks has been inspired by Jesus.
In the second place, the life of following Jesus is a life of putting others before ourselves. The one who said “take up your cross and follow me” didn’t lead people to believe his way would be easy, comfortable, or cheap – the path of least resistance. It might be that America “can’t afford” “universal healthcare.” That the cost would be large, is undeniable. That we’ve come very close to trying it, that too seems undeniable.
Of course there are problems along the way. First, do we want our government – a self-declared secular entity – to operate on explicitly Christian terms? Or is listening to Jesus in this case merely picking what we want from what he says so we can advance our goals? Both sides in the debate pick parts of the Christian tradition that they like and reject parts they don’t. Do we want our nation to adhere to the Christian tradition in other areas as well? If we do, I’m not seeing it.
Second, even if we agree that “universal healthcare” is the Truly Christian Thing To Do and something we ought to instate, does that mean that any particular model is THE way to do it? Are there other important values to consider? Are freedom and self-determination good things (to at least some degree)? Which segments of the population should be allowed to have them? Only those who can pay out of their own resources (this is clearly a belief of many when it comes to education, another contentious current debate)?
Jesus commands us to love people and to do good to them. This is clearly a command for those who follow him. As a Christian, I will even go so far as to say that I believe it is God’s universal will for all people to love people and to do good to them. I’ll also add a couple of caveats. First, God knows more clearly than I do how to love people and do good to them. Some things my culture says are loving and good will run contrary to God’s views of loving and good. Second, I observe in scripture that God seems to give people at least minimal choice as to whether they receive love and good. We might prefer a coercive God who makes people do the right thing – just as some will prefer a coercive government that makes people do the right thing.
We – as individuals, as families, as churches, as a nation – have much to learn from Jesus. I’d like to see us take time to engage with the totality of what he said and did, and the tradition of engagement with what he said and did, in all areas, including healthcare. Sure, it’ll cost us, but if we trust God & want to obey God, that shouldn’t be such a big deal.