With conferences like this one still in existence, there is no respite for the weary. Those still residing in the two-story universe of modernity are, again, making sure we are aware of our folly. They need us to know that an emphasis upon caring for the physical needs of the poor and marginalized, will almost certainly compromise, ironically, the Good News.
We will say again, however, that the Good News is social justice and is such before it is ever anything about a life in the sweet ever-after. The Gospel is first what is noted in Luke 4: 14-22, before it is ever anything about going to heaven—which, as NT Wright has noted, is mostly misunderstood to begin with, anyway.
I would like to consider the area of social justice (bad words to conservative evangelicals—for many, it gets them more upset than the word Trump used to describe what he liked to grab when, “courting” women), in the light of Matthew 25:31-46, the well known “least of these” passage—because it is so pertinent to the discussion. There is a common refrain from conservative evangelicals when it comes to this passage. They are quick to point out that the “least of these” means either Christians or missionary Christians. Then, they are quick to do something else.
Knowing full well this appears to be a rather self-centered reading and one indifferent to non-Christians, they let us know that, yes, everywhere else in the Bible we are told to care for the poor and marginalized, regardless. Still, they just don’t want us to read this passage that way. This always strikes me as the type of qualification we might hear from the self-unaware white guy, who, when caught in a prejudicial remark or objection, assures us that some of their best friends are, non-white. “But still…,” they add.
To me, the objection seems disingenuous and self-unaware—especially in light of current events and disagreements over how we should understand social justice. This may be the real objection: I don’t like the fact this passage seems to bolster the progressive case for the priority of social justice—a priority mind you—even linked to our salvation. No, the person objecting always wants us to know, they just really-really care about correct and proper interpretation. Oh, okay. Got it.
Let’s consider such, then. There are several reasons to believe the passage is speaking of people in general, and not just Christians. These reasons are echoed in other sources, but I’ve taken these primarily from this one.
Reason 1: The interpretation the least of these are Christians/missionaries is, textually, based upon making connections between the terms “least of these” and “brothers and sisters” and similar terms elsewhere in Matthew and the New Testament. However, as noted by Hultgren:
“While cross-referencing is essential in the study of terms, it should be subservient to the study of the overall structure and content of the text at hand.” (Pg. 321) And then in a footnote, Hultgren quotes E. Watson:
“No one, reading Matt 25:31-46 in isolation, would suppose that its subject is the treatment of Christian evangelists.” And, I would add, or Christians in general. Side note: Please then, don’t make much about a, “plain reading of the text,” in other cases, unless one is willing to make it here.
Reason 2: The term “least” of these (έλάχιστοϚ) can be used of a disciple or Christ follower, but it is better suited to denote anyone, who, in the estimation of people in general are considered small in rank and importance. This would include those in need physically, who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the outside, the unfortunate ones. Hultgren writes:
“…it is precisely because they are not his disciples in any obvious way that Jesus can call them ‘the least’ of his ‘brothers.’ They are ‘the least’ purely because of God’s special favor for them, which Jesus here declares. It is certainly much simpler—looking for the plainest meaning of the text—to consider ‘the least’ as referring to persons who are actually and continuously despised and neglected in the course of common life, and then declared Jesus’ brothers by grace alone, than to think of them as disciples of Jesus, who may or may not be despised at any time or place.” (Pg. 322)
Reason 3: A common defense of the interpretation the least of these refers only to Christians, is that the interpretation is the most common in antiquity. Hultgren responds:
“It has been said that the interpretation favored here… [that the least of these are people in general] …is actually not very old, and that it became important only in the nineteenth century. That in itself would not be cause for rejecting it. But it should be pointed out that it has been expressed from early times, for example, in the writings of Cyprian, Commodianus, and John Chrysostom, in the Rule of St. Benedict, and occasionally in the works of Jerome.” (Pg. 324)
Reason 4: In relation to reason 3, Hultgren also points out that the interpretation the least of these refers to all people and not just Christians, “prevails in various studies of NT ethics.” (Pg. 318)
Reason 5: Finally, here is, I think, the strongest reason for the interpretation the least are people in general and not just Christians. I will quote Hultgren at length:
“The persons on the right and left are astonished to hear that they have, or have not, served the king who speaks to them. If the persons on the right had served the representatives of the king—feeding them, clothing them, welcoming them (regardless of their being strangers), and visiting them while sick or in prison—and if the representatives had been missionary disciples of Jesus, why would those on the right find that out only at the last judgment? If we are to adopt the view that “the least” are disciples, it follows that the last judgment passage portrays a scene in which the Son of man rewards those who knowingly served him in the world, that is, those who had received and served disciples who came in his name. But that is precisely what we do not have.” (emphasis added)
He goes on in the same section:
“They did not know that the persons they neglected to serve came to them in the name of Jesus. And if the unfortunates never identified themselves, how are they to be distinguished from any other unfortunates of the world?” (Pg. 322)
Any textual or exegetical case, the use of terms, would have to give way to what is clearly the best, and most cogent, hermeneutical understanding of the text given the, “overall structure and content of the text…” I would suggest then, that content, interior consistency, structure, and context, should over-ride conclusions derived mostly from the comparison of terms and their usage elsewhere. Further, conclusions, which go against the entire scope of Scripture when it comes to the identification of the poor and marginalized.
There are many other reasons to believe the least of these refers to people in general, in all times and places, and not just or only Christians. However, the above five are some of the more compelling. I readily admit the passage could be read the way conservative evangelicals believe it should be read, and such is a reasonable interpretation. I just don’t think it the best one or, indeed, the correct one for all the reasons noted and others.
Conservative evangelicals protest, it seems to me, a little too much when it comes to this text. On one hand, they are quick to qualify their objection by telling us they know the preponderance of Scripture compels us to do what is spoken of in Matthew 25: 31-46, for all people, not only Christians or the “Godly.” But, on the other hand, even admitting such, they assert Matthew 25:31-46 is the exception.
To such, we should point out, not only the inconsistency and not very subtle attempt to slight the social justice movement, but also that their interpretation is not very compelling in most respects, including textually. But, more importantly, it is not very compelling hermeneutically, nor if we compare it to the entire ethical sweep and arc of Scripture as a whole.
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