Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Social Justice Watch: The Least Of These (Pt. 2)

My recent New Testament survey of the word "poor" covered all the famous passages—the Beatitudes, the Rich Young Ruler, the Widow's Mite, Zacchaeus and a couple of parables, like Lazarus and Dives (The Rich Man). But looking only at the word "poor" doesn't tell the whole story. Social Justice-ites' most-cited passage is from the end of Matthew 25. Christ doesn't use the word "poor" here, referring instead to the thirsty, hungry, naked, strangers, sick and prisoners. But as with all of Jesus' teaching—whether a fanciful story or a somber discourse—this parable-ish sermon requires ears to hear. The treasure isn't just lying on the surface like so many dropped pearls. We'll need to do a little digging.

Social Justice advocates' favorite verse.

The phrase latched onto by those who want more tax dollars spent on bureaucrats-to-the-poor is reproduced above: "unto the least of these." And rightly so, for the phrase is important—Jesus spoke it twice in his polemic. But this familiar snippet—found in verse 45—is an abbreviated repetition from verse 40. Do you remember the longer version? ". . . unto the least of these my brothers . . ." His brothers? That's not a throwaway line from the Lord. But hold that thought, because there's much more in Jesus' message than just helping the least.

First of all, this nearly-allegorical warning is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Some say it's a parable because it is preceded by two parables, and is structured like some of Jesus' Comparison Parables (Wise Man v Foolish Man, Pharisee v Publican, Two Debtors, etc). But I don't think it's a parable. For one thing, rather than saying "once upon a time" Jesus here says "When the son of man comes in His glory," which sounds flat-out prophetic. For another, it's not a story about sheep and goats, rather it describes separating ". . . people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” So it's a prophetic sermon, more properly referred to as the Olivet Discourse, named after the hillside where Jesus spoke his apocalyptic, cautionary words.

And it is a distinctly unpleasant message. Christ says in the future he will dispense Final Judgment, as a King on His throne, upon all people. And his sole criteria will be how each human acted toward . . .

. . . him. Toward Jesus. He'll ask each person: "What did you do with me?"

Excuse me? I thought the passage was about the-least-of-these . . . er, I mean, Jesus brothers—and sisters. And, y'know, the naked, the sick, the hungry. Nope. Jesus will send people to hell because they ignored him. Even the righteous sheep in Christ's narrative were confused: "Lord, whaddaya mean? We never saw you thirsty or hungry or naked or sick or in prison. What are you talkin' about?" And Jesus replies that deeds done unto "the least of these my brothers" were done to him.

I can hear the sound of eyes glazing over. Social Justices are ticked off at me: "Well, duh—so Jesus is saying it really is all about how we treat the poor!" Not so fast there Lefty; those pearls can break your teeth. You're coming from a secular perspective seeking government intrusion into the lives of both rich and poor, both Christian and unbeliever. But Jesus was talking to you, personally, not a government. And when you try to use Christ's words against Christians to further your social/political agenda, you're on shaky ground. Follow along, I'll go slowly:

ONE: the good works listed by Jesus cannot be performed to earn sheep status; rather they are evidence of being born again and following the Good Shepherd. Remember the thief-on-the-cross beside Jesus? He'd lived a selfish life, and only in his dying moments did he call out to Jesus—who promised "today you will be with me in Paradise." The crook hadn't done any of the deeds listed in Matthew 25, yet Jesus pronounced him safe among the sheep. So Jesus is describing attributes and activities of his disciples: see how they love one another.

TWO: don't try to re-direct the basis of Christ's judgment. On his throne, the King—Jesus Christ, the Son of Man—pronounces a sentence based on what each person did "unto me." Remember? "I was hungry . . . I was thirsty . . . I was a stranger . . ." Their crime was rejecting, neglecting Jesus. Subsequent to their primary offense, they showed their true colors by mistreating Jesus' brothers.

THREE: about those brothers. Earlier in Matthew's gospel, Jesus sent his disciples out on a missions trip with these words: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me." A little later Matthew also records this exchange: "Someone told him, 'Your mother and your brothers are standing outside . . .' But he replied . . . 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'”

SUMMING UP: who exactly are the least-of-these? They're Jesus' disciples. His sheep, who follow his voice. Jesus wasn't talking about The Poor—he never used the word. He was talking about his flesh-and-blood: the Body of Christ in this world. They are engaged ("betrothed") to be His Bride. They're the people of faith, "... destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world is not worthy." 

So we are getting to know "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" a little bit better. The one who said, with a child on his lap, ". . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." This is the same Jesus, who said "you have the poor with you always, but you will not always have me." The Jesus who, in the very breath before his least-of-these discourse, wrapped up the Parable of the Talents (reminder: a "talent" was a measure of money) with these words: ". . . to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

I, Wayne Zeitner, am the-least-of-these. And you, dear reader, if you have humbled yourself to become a follower of Jesus, you also became the-least-of-these. And we are "not many powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise . . . what is weak to shame the strong . . . what is low and despised in the world . . . to bring to nothing things that are." And the lesson we take from our Lord's sermon is this: be good to his people.
MAY 19, 2017 ADDENDUM. Given the ongoing SJ debate in the church, fueled mainly by the rising generation, this blog series continues to be read and discussed. So I need to add two obvious points missing from the original:

1) The Body of  Christ. Jesus says "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." His statement here, along with others ("I am the vine, ye are the branches," etc) foreshadows the Apostle Paul's revelation that Jews and Gentiles together "in Christ" are now mystically-but-actually The Body of Christ. "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." (1 Cor. 12:27) This disclosure further clarifies the Matthew passage as being, not a catalog of the types of societal situations Christians are called to remedy, but an instruction about whom Christians should minister to as their first priority. We are literally feeding, clothing, refreshing Jesus himself when we minister to "his body."

2) The Least. Paul oddly echoes Jesus' words from the Mount of Olives. In 1 Corinthians 15 and again in Ephesians 3, the born-out-of-time former Pharisee declares himself to be "the least," and even "less than the least" among saints and apostles. Think of all the times in his letters Paul talked about tangible needs—both his own needs (a cloak, that scroll, encouragement, companionship), as well as the needs of others (taking up a collection of money for a church, sending Timothy to help out, etc). He was literally a prisoner, naked, hungry, thirsty and in need of visitation. His reminders to his readers that they ought to come and help him, was giving them the opportunity to demonstrate that they had been "blessed of the Father," and would so inherit the Kingdom.

In conclusion, the passage so often used by Social Justice advocates is much deeper, but also much more modest in scope, than they imagine. Jesus was not issuing an LBJ-like call for a War On Poverty (a war which, like Vietnam, LBJ miserably failed to win). The church's job is not "social," though whenever it flourishes it truly becomes the salt of the earth. No, the church's job is to be Christ's body on earth, to love one another, to go to all nations teaching, baptizing, and obeying everything Jesus commanded . . . so he will be with us always.

Final post is Part 3: Verses and Curses