Friday, January 28, 2005

Interpreting Matthew 25: 31-45

I'd like to devote some space today to trying to define a critical term in Jesus' message.

No, this is not a renege on my promise to keep answering objections to and fleshing out my thoughts on Social Security. (I promise, DLW, I will respond to your thoughts soon.) This is just in the way of "breaking things up" and keeping it interesting.

Now, as we've made clear, we think Jesus' moral message (entire message?) boils down to two fundamentals (what a loaded word): (1) loving our neighbors as ourselves and (2) a "preferential option" (as they say in Liberation Theology) for "the least of these." Deciding exactly what these things mean and trying to live them out is life's greatest challenge and highest purpose.

Today I want to start a conversation about just one "term" in Jesus' message. Who are "the least of these" towards whom we are supposed to give special attention in our acts of love?

Some will object that this is obvious. Jesus tells us explicitly! In the verse cited in the title to this post, Jesus talks about the economically poor (specifically the "hungry," the "thirsty," and the "naked"). He also speaks of the "stranger," the "sick" and those "in prison" as "the least of these." Can't it just be that simple. Well, I'm a lawyer, and so I can assure you that it won't be that simple. In fact, I think the issues here are so important and difficult that I would rather hear others' opinions than try to "preach" my own tentative positions. So help me out and comment!

So, who are "the least of these"?

(1) Assuming we can decide who fits into the particular categories of people Jesus mentions in Matthew 25: 31-45, does this exclusively define "the least of these"? For example, if small children are not economically poor, strangers, etc. could they still be considered one of "the least of these"? Or is this a wrong interpretation of the verse just because Jesus doesn't mention them specifically. (The 0ther questions below assume, by the way, that the enumeration is not meant to be exclusive.)

(2) Is "least" to be understood holistically or characteristic-by-characteristic? For example, would a very wealthy person, with an otherwise comfortable life, who suffered from a serious physical disability qualify as one of "the least of these"? (Note that an answer of "no" to this question would not mean that this individual would not be entitled to love. It would just mean that she would not be entitled to the special attention, the "above and beyond," that Jesus contemplates in Matthew 25.)

(3) Is "the least of these" defined only individually or can it be understood collectively? To put it more concretely, if we decide that African-Americans, due to racial subordination, are often members of "the least of these," do I fulfill some obligation to "the least of these" if I help an upper-class African-American? Note that this question is intimately related to an issue of Constitutional Law that has fiercly divided judges and scholars for over a generation. For those interested in this related issue see this link.

I have other questions about the definition too, but I think this is enough for now. I've been thinking about these things (at least the last two) for months and haven't been able to come to a conclusion.


PS: I understand - given that we've written what are arguably invectives against excessive, hand-wringing Biblical interpretation - that it is ironic that we've engaged in what looks like textual exegesis. My response is twofold. One, our positions are always tentative because we're not perfect (or quite as smart as we think we are). Also, we're devoting so much attention to these words not because there in the Bible but because Jesus said them. See this post for the meaning and importance of that distinction.


At 5:24 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I believe it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

To which came the question, "Who is my neighbor?" the answer being even the person one most dislikes ought to be someone we should love as yourself. This can even include more wealthy capitalists or what-not.

This falls under the category of how having impure thoughts about someone other than your spouse is adultery just like actually sleeping with them.

The ideal is impossible for us, and we inevitable make traditions/habits that guide our conduct toward others. And the text of Matthew shows that our actions to others do reflect how we love God. As the prior parables in Matthew 25 show, they indicate the need for vigilance and accountability as part of our walk with God.

You should also note that in Matthew 26, Jesus accepts the gift from the woman that poured expensive oil on him, even though the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Giving to the poor is not the end-all-be-all of how we show love to others and God.


At 8:38 PM, Blogger jj said...

I understand your comments to be disputing my premises rather than answering my questions based on my premises, right?

As in, your not telling me who the least of these are but instead questioning my assumption that they have a "preference," as I've argued in other posts, in receipt of our love?

At 10:50 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I'm questioning your use of the specific scripture passage and whether there is any need to add beyond what Jesus himself set out in the need to love our neighbor(broadly conceived).

I am wary of the "giving the poor special privilege" language of the liberation theologians. No doubt how we treat others is a critical part of how we love God. I mean the context of the parables would seem to infer that and the poor are the ones who have been both hungry, thirsty and naked the most severely and so we must not neglect to care for them. What should be done for the poor, though, is a controversial matter. I am a little torn here. I know some have used the poor as a banner for them to get and keep power for themselves. On the other hand, I think we should force all the parties to value the poor as a part of their competition for the control of the gov't, so as to provide more stability of benefits for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

When I was in Mexico, it seems everyone was either in favor of helping the poor or poor and, yet, somehow they still struggled with corruption and a general lack of sufficient job-creation in their economy.

I've also not read very many glowing reviews of the actual praxis of liberation theologians. The stridency of their rhetoric and manicheistic quasi-marxist worldviews tend to make relations with existing capitalist powers untenable and an obstacle to needed reforms. The praxy of many liberation theologians/politicians leaves much to be desired.

As I read your post, it seemed rather legalistic. I don't think it is our place as intellectuals to specify what exact rules people/communities should have. I think there is a need to call for us to build up and enforce stronger communities, particularly in the inner-cities and rural areas that are having hard times and need more political and local solidarity.

I mean I live in the suburbs with my family right now, but ideally one should live with a community to help it develop. When I was an undergrad, I studied up on the concepts of the Christian Community Development Association(CCDA). They have what are the three r's of Christian development. They are relocation:living among the people, reconciliation and redistribution.

I think that along with systemic legal changes, we need to give more attention to local community development and that when we let others give more attention to the latter, we don't have to get so detailed in politically legislating changes for communities.


At 2:23 PM, Blogger DLW said...

There's some discussion of liberation theology over at harbinger you may find interesting.



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