This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I discussed last month in treating the “Render unto Caesar” lectionary,we have witnessed in recent years an assault from within certain quarters of the church on the idea that government should be expected to provide for the common well-being. This, as prominent evangelical leader Richard Cizik said in Friday’s Washington Post has been coupled with a kindling of affection among evangelicals for the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose supporters last week had to retract the cover of the DVD of the movie based on her book Atlas Shrugged because it embarrassingly claimed to advocate “self-sacrifice.” To be sure, some smart evangelicals like Chuck Colson have abjured Rand in toto for her atheism, but her basic premise that government is the root of all evil and that unfettered capitalism is the answer for everything is as true as Trinitarianism in most evangelical’s minds and hearts, a position all but unheard of in Christianity prior to the 20th century.
To think this way as a Christian, one has to do strange things with the Scripture, such as with this week’s lectionary gospel passage for Christ the King from Matthew 25:31-46. The obfuscation of what’s going on in the text is accomplished by diminishing one aspect of the text, while overemphasizing another. The former is achieved by glossing over the fact that the people being called to judgment in the passage are “the nations” (ta ethne). The NRSV manifests its uneasiness over this term by idiosyncratically translating it as “peoples,” a translation which it gives to no other usage of the word anywhere else in Matthew, which is telling. Nobody wants to have Jesus advocating welfare, so the word has to be watered down lest it offend by saying something distasteful. Libertarian ideology asserts that charity be done only by individuals or at most, churches. Government-funded help for the needy is like a Mafia-run charity, who will hurt you if you don’t pay up. So this text presents a huge problem for folks who have that worldview, because it contains the prospect of an eschatological judgment for nations, not people or congregations, for not taking care of the needy, with Jesus cast as Don Corleone.
The overemphasis occurs with respect to the terms “the least” (toœn elachistoœn) and “my brothers” (toœn adelphoœn mou) in 25:40 (cf. also v. 45). In Matthew’s usage throughout his gospel, especially with respect to the word “brothers.” The terms are clearly indicative of members of Jesus’ community of disciples, which by the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel described itself as the ekklesia, or assembly. This, then, is taken by so-called Christian Libertarians to mean that Jesus was not arguing for government subsidy for the needy generally speaking, but only for his followers. But is this what Matthew’s Jesus went around teaching? In 5:46-48, for example, Jesus chides the disciples for this kind of thinking, in which a standard of behavior is acceptable towards one group of people, and another standard for everyone else:
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The point in this passage is that Jesus’ disciples are supposed to have the same ethical commitment even to their enemies as they have to those whom they love, just as God does. So Is it really believable, therefore, that the only people whose well-being God will judge the states for in Matthew 25 are Christians?
The identification of Matthew’s community with “the least” is typical of apocalyptic literature, which is the kind of writing we have in Matthew 24-25. Apocalyptic literature is generated by communities that feel themselves to be surrounded by a larger, dominant society which threatens either to destroy or assimilate them. Such communities hold out hope for a great reversal, where all that is wrong will be made right in the new age that is just over the horizon, a hoped-for reality which the judgment scene of Matthew 25 renders proleptically. Matthew’s community sees itself as with the most marginal of any in the empire. Judaism was a legal religion (religio licita) in the Roman Empire, which meant that adherents were exempt from many of the normally required aspects of civil religious life. Synagogues throughout the empire maintained lists of Jews with which magistrates could confer in order to ascertain whether a person should be granted exception to participation in the state cult. Around the time that the gospel of Matthew was composed, mainstream Judaism circulated something called the Birkat Ha Minim, in which followers of the Jesus Movement were publicly (and daily) repudiated, and thus stripped of their protection under the legal umbrella of Judaism. (This is likely the back drop to the scene in Revelation in which names are written in the Lamb’s “Book of Life” in which protection is to be found). Matthew’s Jesus thus warns against anyone who moves against his followers, who understand themselves to be the “least” within the remaining groups of Judaism (after the destruction of the Temple) and certainly “the least” in the Roman Empire itself.
But Scripture teaches that God sides with “the least,” whether a slave kicked to the curb by a jealous wife (Genesis 21:9-19), a barren woman desperate for a baby (1 Samuel 1-2), an unarmed band of slaves on the run from a super power (Exodus 14), not to mention eunuchs and foreigners (Isaiah 56:3-8), or widows and orphans (James 1:27). There are over 300 biblical texts that address matters of social justice and which instruct the faithful on how to think about and to treat the poor, including Proverbs 14:31, whose meaning underlies the Matthew text (“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour him.”). Social justice, in fact, is what messiah is all about– read Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 if there is any question about this!
(It’s an indication of how bad things have gotten in contemporary American Christianity when one actually has to cite the scriptural references to demonstrate what, in previous generations of church history, would have been obvious.)
Matthew’s Jesus is thus not trying to carve out a welfare exception for his followers on the grounds of faith, as if they were deserving of special treatment because they believed in him. Rather, he is demanding justice in the traditional biblical fashion based upon the longstanding and widespread belief in Judaism that economic justice was owed to whomever was on the bottom of the pecking order.
The current trend in recasting the Bible as advocating laissez-faire capitalism in which Supply Side Jesus urges people to help themselves rather than be helped by the government thus has to be challenged by the preacher. Jesus was neither a socialist or a communist, for that matter, so we cannot pretend as if Jesus’ world and its options was congruent with our own. But we can say without hesitation that both Jesus specifically and Scripture more generally are univocal in their support for people at the margins and are not reticent to use public means to ameliorate the fortunes of same. This text claims that not only is money a matter of divine interest, but how the state spends its money in care of “the least” will also be a matter of both divine blessing and punishment. The awful financial situation cause by the “Little Depression” of 2007 and its aftermath have cost millions of people in the US and around the world their jobs, homes and futures. Income replacement by the government is critical to maintain the well-being of the people in such times, and it is unconscionable that followers of Jesus would be found trying to thwart such programs on biblical grounds. If the situation in Europe worsens, as many people fear it will, this issue may become even more crucial for the Christian West. How preachers all over the world preach this passage this coming Sunday may well have an effect on whether support for such aid to those in meed by governments is adequate or not.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is parish associate at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.