Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Mini-Rant on when Good Causes Do Bad Theology

I am convinced that the evangelical church needs to help the poor around us, and that our faith shines when we are engaged in a Christ-like manner in meeting needs around us.  I served an inner city church for seven years, have been significantly involved with ministries to prisoners and the urban poor, and I am supportive of liberal immigration policies, and of welcoming strangers.

That said, I am incredibly bothered by the sloppy usage of Scripture by many who hold the same views to try and promote care for the poor, the stranger, and the prisoner.  This is no more obvious than when Matthew 25:31-46 is used as textual support for this call.  While it feels like a gut-wrenching motivational call to arms, it is a faulty interpretation and (I believe) misapplication of an important text.

In case you don't remember, it is the famous passage describing the final judgment as a separation of righteous "sheep" and unrighteous "goats," with the sheep rewarded and the goats punished.  The sheep on his right are commended by Jesus with these words: "I was hungry and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."  The righteous ask when they did this, and Jesus replies, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."  The unrighteous, as you may remember, did not do any of these things for the least, so they did not do them for Jesus, and are sent into eternal punishment.

Now, a whole lot hinges on this passage, including our understanding of salvation itself, for it seems that eternity is on the line here.  Is relief for the world's sufferers a requirement for salvation?

The phrase that gives the passage its proper meaning often gets missed.  Jesus is not speaking of caring for all the poor.  He specifies who he has in mind who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison. It is "the least of these my brothers."  Are all people the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus?  Not according to his usage of the word.  When Jesus identifies his brothers in Matthew, it is those who do his will--read Matthew 12:46-50 (see also the parallel passages in Mark 3 and Luke 8 ; also Matthew 23:8, 28:10; Luke 22:32; John 20:17, 21:23)).  This is said in a context where his physical family is present and seeking to take him home.

Jesus is saying in Matthew 25 what he says elsewhere, and what John says in 1 John, and Paul indicates in various epistles: love for the people of Jesus is the evidence that the life of Jesus is in us (Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 3:14).  We cannot say we love Jesus, but have no care for his people, who are his Body.  He is not saying that failure to visit all prisoners, or feed all hungry, or clothe all naked people is a sign that you stand condemned.  But failure to care for the people Jesus has redeemed and made his brothers and sisters is such a sign (1 John 4:19-21).

So, let us take this Scripture to heart and love Christ's people and meet each others needs.  Let us care for those in need around us, regardless of whether they know Christ yet or not.  But, let us also build our theological foundation for compassion upon those outside the Body of Christ from Scriptures that apply directly to that concern.  The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind as a much more applicable passage.

Don't diminish the Scriptures by failing to pay attention to what they are actually saying.