03/21/2013 11:29 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

Rejecting the Austerity Gospel

As the House and Senate vote on competing budget resolutions this week, religious leaders around the country are once again stepping into the breach to remind us that budgets are moral documents that should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable.

On March 20, clergy and lay leaders from PICO, Faith in Public Life, NETWORK, Bread for the World, Interfaith Worker Justice, and many other faith-based organizations across the country will be delivered "Loaves and Fishes" to the offices of their senators and representatives, urging them to reject the path of austerity as exemplified in the Ryan budget and instead, make sure that the wealthy and powerful pay their fair share.

The New Testament story of the Loaves and Fishes is a stinging critique of austerity as a solution to our budget challenges. The story goes that a crowd of 5,000 had gathered out on the mountainside to witness Jesus heal and preach. As the sun began to set, Jesus' disciples urged him to break up the crowd since there wasn't enough to feed everyone. Instead, Jesus asked the disciples to bring him whatever food they had, which amounted to just a few loaves of bread and a few pieces of fish. He thanked God for the food before them, and began to pass around the loaves and fishes for people to eat. By the end, every one of the 5,000 had been fed, and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.

The moral of the story is clear. Jesus rebukes the disciples' austerity approach, their inability or unwillingness to see the abundance before them. Rather than force the people to think solely about themselves and their own individual security, Jesus keeps the five thousand together, knowing that together, we are stronger. He prays and gives thanks to God for what he has. And finally, and most importantly, Jesus knows that if each person contributes according to their means, then there will be more than enough to go around.

While this story is considered one of Jesus' miracles, it doesn't in fact take a miracle to ensure that everyone has enough. What it takes is moral courage and political will from our elected officials in Washington to make sure that everyone pay their fair share, especially the wealthiest and most powerful members of society who have used their clout on Capitol Hill to slash their tax burden over the last 40 years.

That's why the Ryan budget proposal touches such a deep nerve with so many in the religious community. Not only is Rep. Ryan unwilling to choose abundance over austerity -- a mistake even Jesus' closest followers made -- but he is willing to shower the wealthy with large tax breaks while demanding austerity from the most vulnerable members of society.

If the story of the loaves and fishes were to play out today, Rep. Ryan would step in, round up the meager rations of the masses and hand them over to a tiny number of wealthy merchants and bankers, sending most of the five thousand away hungry and with even less than they had to start with. That's why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described a very similar budget proposal last year from Rep. Ryan as failing a "basic moral test", and why Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has described the Ryan budget as "Robin Hood in reserve -- on steroids."

On the contrary, the Senate budget proposal put forth by Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray acknowledges that we cannot solely cut our way to prosperity or deficit reduction, that adequate new revenue is needed. The reality is that without new revenue, deep cuts to the safety net are inevitable. It is not possible to close the deficit, protect the poor and invest in our country's future without raising taxes on wealthy households who have gained the most from the economy over the past decade. Granting the top two percent of income earners additional tax breaks while we cut programs for the poor and vulnerable doesn't make sense for our economy, and as the Catholic Bishops state, it fails the most basic moral test.

Scripture does not tell us how we should spend public funds, but it makes clear that we are stewards -- not owners -- of the financial resources entrusted in our care and that how we spend those resources must advance God's purpose. As our Senators and Members of Congress go to vote this week on a budget resolution, we urge them to think of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and decide what they are going to do - require that the wealthy and powerful also contribute their fair share or send the masses away hungry. For this is precisely what is at stake in Washington this week.