The Least of These
I was reading this article the other day which contends that a semi-consensus is forming among Biblical scholars that in Matthew 25 these well-known words – “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” – do not refer to helping the poor but rather helping persecuted Christians. Although the overall text was clearly about the poor I can understand that the use of the word “brothers” implies that Jesus is talking about believers.
While this understanding of the text is by no means unanimous it is plausible. It also, if correct, blows a hole in the fund-raising campaigns of ministries to the poor. There are plenty of passages in the Bible, and sayings of Jesus, to justify Christian compassion for and care of the poor but none have the sort of bumper sticker theology impact as “the least of these.”
The current cultural flap around this new, and potentially valid, interpretation comes from a recent article by Southern Baptist scholar Denny Burk who argues that the passage supports the idea that persecuted Christians are in the mind of Jesus and that bakers who refuse to bake cakes for same sex marriages are being persecuted and that we need to support them or Jesus will be mad at us.
His article has been widely criticized for tacitly giving, though silence, Christians freedom to ignore the poor, which I seriously doubt was his intent. But he does not back down one iota from his view that business owners refusing to serve gays are being persecuted, saying “All Christians are called to bear witness to Christ in the world.” Hence, any Christian doing anything based on his religious views and running into conflict with the law is covered.
To me, this raises an issue we have any time we read our inerrant Bibles. The issue is not faith-threatening but it is critical. There are two steps that Burk, and anyone else, takes when they attempt to follow Scripture. The first is interpretation – what does the passage actually mean? Scholarly consensus helps us here but you quickly will find that you can only have such a consensus when you carefully pick the scholars you trust and discard all others. This is a challenging and, to people like me, fascinating task but it has to be undertaken with a firm grasp on the reality that my conclusions are quite possible errant.
The second pitfall, and one that I feel Burk falls headlong into, is application. Once we have decided the meaning of a text we now have to figure out how to apply it. Burk takes this passage, or actually just the phrase “the least of these,” and applies it to a 21st century hot-button issue. The overall passage clearly is about helping the poor, even if it might be just about the Christian poor. To jump the application to an entirely unrelated issue 20 centuries later is something of a leap. Frankly, I’d call it an abuse of the text.
Now, the issue that Burk cares about is one that we Christians need to discuss. It appears that same sex marriage is heading toward legal standing in our country. I am glad that much of the Christian discussion about this issue is trending toward dealing with the “What do we do now?” question. But Matthew 25:40 cannot be shoe-horned into the discussion as an easy answer.
Frankly I think Burk makes what I believe to be a glaring mistake in application for a very familiar reason. We evangelicals are enamored with systematic theology. We want every issue and problem we face to be neatly addressed in the Bible. Whether it is same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, or a host of other issues we scour the Bible for texts that speak to them. But parables are not systematic theology, they are illustrative stories. We don’t have the freedom to bend them to suit our needs.