A Convenient Theological Excuse for Selfishness

My favorite verse in the Bible is when Jesus says, by way of parable, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (NIV) It seems a very clear command to help the poor, the sick and the needy. But a Baptist theologian says it’s really about persecuted Christians:

Many poverty advocates have successfully invoked the phrase to motivate the masses and raise millions of dollars. Jesus himself said divine judgment in the afterlife would be doled out based upon how one treats the least of these. No wonder the phrase is one of the most frequently cited in the New Testament.

But could Mother Teresa and so many others have gotten it wrong? According to a growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars, Jesus was speaking about persecuted Christians rather than the poor. They claim their interpretation is consistent with the way the phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible and the majority view among Christians throughout history. But not everyone is buying it.

“’The least of these’ were missionaries of Jesus — the apostles and others — who had been persecuted and then suffered imprisonment for following and preaching,” says Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Mother Teresa, social justice advocates and liberation theologians have all colonized this term to their own agenda and made it about anyone poor.”

McKnight first encountered this way of understanding the phrase 30 years ago in a German dissertation while studying for his own doctorate. When you look at the New Testament Gospels where this phrase is used, McKnight wrote in his book “Kingdom Conspiracy,” it usually refers to followers of Jesus. To support this notion, McKnight notes that in this passage Jesus adds the phrase “brothers and sisters of mine.” (The Greek only says “brothers,” but it is generic.)

“No matter how many times I’ve said this, it seems not everyone cares how the terms are used in the New Testament,” he says. “They have followed Mother Teresa, and that’s that.”

Look, I’m not a Christian but I know bullshit theology being used to justify a warped selfishness when I see it. All one has to do to prove this nonsense wrong is to look at the few verses just before it, which speak clearly about the poor, sick and hungry:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

It could not be more clear that he is explicitly condemning them who do not help the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the sick. It is a lack of compassion and charity that is being condemned, and the punishment for this is going to hell. There is no mention whatsoever of Christians being persecuted. McKnight is completely full of shit, but he offers up a convenient excuse for right-wing Christians to ignore their obligation to help the less fortunate.

"Okay ... what's a Journey?I get it a band but ...Maybe someone could him a ..."

Paula White and Jim Bakker, Together ..."
"Nope. I **WANT** them stupid and willing to be in others' faces.Makes it shooting fish ..."

Cernovich: Charlottesville was Government Plot to ..."
Follow Us!
POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • carpenterman

    You know, if there was one group of people Jesus had no use for, it was the rich. Seriously, any story he ever told involving the rich, they’re always the bad guys. Yet so many rich christians thank God for “blessing” them with prosperity. They’d better hope their holy book is wrong, or they’re going to be in for a nasty surprise when they die.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    I still, and will always, believe that the notion of eternal punishment for a finite act (or failure to act) is inexscusably barbaric.

    But if you remove that, this passage from Matthew is all that anyone who claims to use the Bible as a moral text should read from it.

  • D. C. Sessions

    If those verses were about the poor, they would have been bog-standard Pharasaic Judaism. Which we know can’t be true because Jesus fulfilled all those Commandments. That means that all of those NT verses must be about something else, like sex, or whipping the lazy takers into shape, or giving your Social Security and rent money to Brother Billy Bob.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    This is not just “a convenient theological excuse for selfishness,” by the way. This is an attempt to revoke what is possibly the clearest and most forceful advocacy by Jesus as depicted in the Bible of the belief that it is morally obligatory to care for people who are poor, hungry, or imprisoned. Do it, and you receive everlasting life. Fail to do it, and you will be punished forever. That’s pretty damn clear, as mandates go.

    And yet of course because they don’t want to care for these people, utter slimeballs like Scot McKnight can apparently claim that that wasn’t what Jesus meant with a straight face, and portray it as an attempt by such horrible people as Mother Teresa, social justice advocates and liberation theologians to “colonize this term to their own agenda.”

    Whenever someone claims that atheists disavow Christianity because they are selfish, and can’t stand to be held to a standard of morality, to be good people, point to fuckers like this guy. He, and his ilk, are the ones who fit that description.

  • themadtapper

    You know, if there was one group of people Jesus had no use for, it was the rich. Seriously, any story he ever told involving the rich, they’re always the bad guys.

    The Gospels are absolutely full of stories about Jesus condemning wealth. He tells the rich man that to obtain eternal life he needs to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. Not “give as much as you can afford” or “give as much as you feel they need”, but “give EVERYTHING”. He then says “it’s easier for a camel* to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven”. He says quite clearly that the love of money is the root of many evils. As Ed pointed out, he blesses those who aid the sick, poor, and afflicted, while cursing those who don’t. Jesus was all about charity, self-sacrifice, and asceticism. The blending of capitalism and Christianity we see today would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dangerous.

    * – The original imagery was of trying to thread a rope through a needle’s eye, but something got lost in translation. Stories about camels kneeling to make it through a gate colloquially known as the “Eye of the Needle” are retcons, and also miss the point because in that case a camel could in fact make it through, whereas a rope cannot be threaded through a needle’s eye. Jesus was pretty much saying you can’t get into Heaven if you’re rich, which is why you should give all your wealth away.

  • tbp1

    such horrible people as Mother Teresa

    In fairness, she was a pretty horrible person, but not for the reasons he thinks.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    A convenient excuse not to give a shit about the poor — but not the only one. Another excuse I heard said that the idea of imitating Jesus in his charitable acts was absurd, since Jesus is Lord and if a mere mortal tries to imitate the Lord, that’s “playing God” and blasphemy. Just like it’s “playing God” when a doctor decides to let a terminally-ill or mortally-wounded person die (but not when a doctor tries to cure a God-given disease, strangely).

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    True, tbp1.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    From “All of us” to “just our own”. I can’t wait for the Deep Theology that moves it one more step, to “me”, finally purging Weak Jesus from the Bible, and achieving Peak Rand.

  • acroyear

    “the way the phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible” – uh, what other places is this phrase used?

    In fact, the few cross-references “BibleHub” does come up with are exactly the opposite of his claim: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs)

  • themadtapper

    @acroyear

    I suspect he’s referring specifically to the phrase “my brethren” to mean “Christians”.

  • busterggi

    You know, there technically were no Christians to persecute at the time Jesus supposedly lived. I don’t suppose this minor fact matters though.

  • sylwyn

    Sounds like they’ve identified a wonderful opportunity for Andrew Schlafly’s conservative bible project to provide clarification:

    “For whenever you did for one of the least of these materially blessed but nevertheless oppressed apostles and profits of mine, you did for me.”

    (the spelling error/homonym was initially unintentional, but fit nicely enough that I left it in.)

  • dingojack

    Clearly Jesus just meant those disciples around him at that moment who some random innkeeper had told to piss off when they attempted to disrupt their business by praying ‘in the name of JAY-sus’ a few minutes earlier. @@

    Dingo

  • Pen

    Jesus was speaking about persecuted Christians rather than the poor..

    Is there a limit to how stupid it’s possible to be? There were no Christians in the time of Jesus. Every single person he could possibly be talking about was a Jew or a Roman pagan or … a bunch of things actually, but definitely not one single, solitary Christian.

  • dingojack

    Are you sure he didn’t mean his mother Mary’s children are somehow sooper-dooper special?

    He did use ‘αδελφων’ after all* — ‘siblings’.

    @@ Dingo

    ———–

    * weird how he spoke Greek, just for that bit alone. Just like when he answered Peter’s Latin question in English that time outside Rome…

  • Dark Jaguar

    Christians as a whole need to be made aware of these insidious attempts to insert objectivist philosophy into Christianity. (By her own admission, Ayn Rand made it very clear the two ideologies are fundamentally incompatible.) I’m an atheist myself, and have been for a long time, but I can see what’s been going on here, and it’s messed up.

  • eric

    It could not be more clear that he is explicitly condemning them who do not help the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the sick.

    The parable is, but parables pretty much by definition are talking about more than just the literal story that they tell. I’m perfectly okay generalizing it to “anyone you don’t like/look down on/treat badly.” In that respect, yes it would be Jesus-bad to take away the freedom to worship from Christians, because you wouldn’t want to take away Jesus’ freedom to worship. OTOH these Christians should also be applying it to their prospective gay customers; whenever you turn one away, its like turning away Jesus. Both the fundies and gays (and pretty much everyone else) qualifies as “the least of me” on occasion.

  • eric

    Ack, that should be ‘least of these.’ Way to conflate the endings, eric.

  • noe1951

    So, there’s no reason to help the poor, downtrodden, American christians either, if he meant the apostles. They’re all dead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eo.raptor.3 eoraptor

    Yeah, about that gate, which wall, which gate? Did every city wall have such a gate; only Jerusalem, only in Israel?

    And Dingojack @ 16. Actually, Jesus always and forever spoke perfect English. At least according to one fndagelical preacher I saw on the TV. He emphatically stated that Jesus spoke English, but Dad, in a sort of reverse Tower of Babel, caused everyone to hear the language of their choice. And the pastor never even once cracked a smile at all the amens!

  • themadtapper

    He emphatically stated that Jesus spoke English, but Dad, in a sort of reverse Tower of Babel, caused everyone to hear the language of their choice.

    Such a miracle is directly mentioned with regards to the apostles, but never to Jesus. Funny that they’d forget to mention that. But even with the apostles it never says they were speaking in anything other than their own native language. That’s some serious jingo there, to claim that the almighty truly spoke only in your own native language, which wouldn’t otherwise exist on Earth for over a millennium.

  • Georgia Sam

    A “growing chorus of prominent Bible scholars”? Really? If I ever submitted anything for publication in which I made such a claim without referencing a list of sources, I would be whacked hard by reviewers & editors. Let’s see this list of “prominent Bible scholars.” I’m betting they’re “prominent” only among hardcore fundamentalists & “scholars” only in their own little fantasy world.

  • grumpyoldfart

    carpenterman #1

    You know, if there was one group of people Jesus had no use for, it was the rich. Seriously, any story he ever told involving the rich, they’re always the bad guys.

    He wasn’t condemning the rich so much as he was trying to convince his followers to hand over all of their cash to the religious leaders.

    In the story of the widow’s mite he wasn’t condemning the the rich man for donating only a percentage of his wealth to the church. He was praising the widow for giving everything to the church and leaving herself with nothing. He was encouraging others to follow her lead; to hand over all their cash without complaint.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+12%3A41-44

    In the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple were killed because they didn’t give all of their money to Peter. They gave Peter most of the money but that wasn’t enough and they were killed because they kept some of the cash for themselves. Then the story was spread around among the early Christians in order to frighten them into handing over their own cash.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%205:1-11

  • dingojack

    And what of Ezekiel 16:49, Mr McKnight?

    Dingo

  • raven

    Another sockpuppet god. We know where the gods come from. People just make them up.

    Republican jesus

    Tea Party jesus

    Catholic jesus

    Commie Marxist jesus

    Social Reformer jesus

    Messianic Jewish jesus

    And now we have…Libertarian jesus and his saint, Ayn Rand. Not bad for an atheist.

    Oh well, it is quite easy to invent a god. I don’t know that I’m too crazy about…Atheist Jesus though. A god that doesn’t believe in himself is sort of a stretch.

  • dingojack

    Does that make you & your poor ‘persecuted’ Christian brethren, Sodomites?

    Dingo

  • Lithified Detritus

    raven @ 26

    And don’t forget Chocolate Jesus.

  • dingojack

    Raven (#26) – Plastic Jesus!

    Dingo

    ———-

    No, not the original by The Goldcoast Singers (1962), but the King Earl Boogie Band (1972)

  • Michael Heath

    Jesus Schwarzenegger: http://goo.gl/l9Me1e.

  • llewelly

    raven:

    A god that doesn’t believe in himself is sort of a stretch.

    Haile Selassie many times insisted he was not an incarnation of Jah.

    Marcus Garvey (who criticized Haile Selassie harshly for running away from the Axis invasion) likewise insisted he was not a prophet.

    Point this out to a Rastafarian, and they will sometimes argue back that a “real” incarnation of Jah would of course deny his divinity, because only a con artist would call themselves a divinity!

  • hrafn

    Further evidence that the Bible is nothing more than a Rorschach/Inkblot Test to Christianity.

  • scienceavenger

    Is there a limit to how stupid it’s possible to be?

    How about my favorite convenient interpretation of this passage, that it only refers to individual private charity, while helping the poor through government action (ie effectively) is Satan’s work?

  • eric

    @24:

    He wasn’t condemning the rich so much as he was trying to convince his followers to hand over all of their cash to the religious leaders.

    A distinction without a meaningful difference when it comes to 1st world western Christians. On a global scale, earning more than something like $10k/year puts you in the top 10% of richest people in the world. An annual income of about $35k/year puts you in the global top 1%. Thats’ pretty much all of the conservative American fundies, as well as all of the mainstream American Christians too. And probably everyone above the age of 21 who is viewing this message. Even under the typical, more laxer interpretation, if you live in a 1st world country and have a decent job, then you’re pretty much going to hell.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    Another excuse I heard said that the idea of imitating Jesus in his charitable acts was absurd, since Jesus is Lord and if a mere mortal tries to imitate the Lord, that’s “playing God” and blasphemy.

    Raging Bee, so when that excuse maker asks “what would Jesus do?” he or she then does the opposite.