Monday, July 17, 2006

warning: controversial post

Today's lectionary readings (gospel reading) afford me an opportunity to share a view which will probably make me unpopular with some people (so why would I want to?...hmmm.. am I a theological masochist?).

Today in Matthew 10 we read this verse:
"And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded." (v 42).

This, I would suggest, is pretty obviously an anticipation of the longer parable of the Sheep and the Goats that we find later on in Matthew (25: 31-46).

I've got to say that I think The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one of the most misused passages of scripture I've ever heard. The message, we are told, is usually something along the lines of:

'it's really important to minister to the poor because when we do so we are actually ministering to Christ. Jesus told us that whenever we feed or clothe someone, or give them something to drink, we are actually doing it to him'.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard the Sheep/Goats story used in that way.

But I don't think that's what Jesus is saying in that passage at all.

The key to understanding it is surely the phrase "the least of these brothers and sisters of mine" (25:40). This was a phrase that Jesus used (also in Matt 10:42 quoted above) to refer to his disciples. In fact in the Matthew 10 passage he makes the link explicit ("one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple").

So the sheep/goats story isn't about how we treat poor people. IT'S ABOUT HOW PEOPLE TREAT JESUS' DISCIPLES!

They were the ones who Jesus was sending out with nothing - no food, no extra tunic, etc. i.e. in relative poverty and reliant on the generosity of those they encountered. (see the gospel texts from last week - the fourth Sunday after Trinity). How they were received and treated would influence God's judgement of people.

All of that is not to say, of course, that we shouldn't care for the poor and those in need. OF COURSE WE SHOULD. Just not on the basis of the sheep/goats story which is making a different point entirely.

Ok - rant over. Thanks for listening!


Mark said...

"So the sheep/goats story isn't about how we treat poor people. IT'S ABOUT HOW PEOPLE TREAT JESUS' DISCIPLES!"

Interesting observation... not sure I'd come down that categorically on the basis of one common sentence though... we don't know whether those were the exact words that came out of the mouth of Jesus, we don't know whether he used the phrase in different contexts (some maybe not recorded in Scripture - we all use one phrase to mean different things from time to time) etc. etc. Sorry, but it always worries me when a) an argument is made based on one phrase and b) when a preacher claims some great wisdom missed by everyone else!

One could argue that if the phrase was commonly understood to refer to the Disciples why did Jesus need to make it explicit in Matt 10? Unless it had different meanings...?

Matt said...

thanks Mark. I guess I would have to say that it cuts both ways though: you say it worries you when an argument is made based on one phrase - I would respond by saying that the burden of proof then lies with those who use this story to say that Jesus is somehow 'in the poor' (simply by virtue of them being poor) - where else do we find this idea in scripture? So I would say that that interpretation is as good an example as any of an argument being made on the basis of one phrase/story.
I still think the phrase 'the least of these' is a very specific way that Jesus had of referring to his disciples. But I've been wrong before and I'm sure I will be many more times!
As for me claiming 'some great wisdom missed by everyone else' - I would be the last to claim I was wise and I am sure I have read this interpretation in at least one commentary on the passage. It is very unlikely that I would have the theological skill required to come up with something like that on my own!
Presumably though you have nothing against us continuing to wrestle with the text to understand it more clearly than maybe we did before - as long as we do it in the context of Christian community (as it is the text of the community) - which I guess I am doing with the blogosphere being one manifestation of that community?

Mark said...

Wrestling is good! My whole point is I'm all for wrestling... your capitals kinda indicated a "thump the pulpit' moment!

I guess I've heard so many preachers over the years declare an ultimate interpretation based on something like "Jesus used these words... which he also used here to mean 'this' and therefore they must always mean 'this'" I don't hink the burden of 'proof' lies with anyone particularly... what matters is not which individaul stroy (proof text) you use but is the whole dynamic consistent with the teachings, stories, actions of Christ.
The sermon on the mount, to me, does not point to an egalitarian Christ but to a reversalist... a revolutionary if you want... who does not make all things equal, but turns the world on it's head... let's be honest here, no one is poor just because they are, they are poor because of someone elses greed (perhaps in this capitalistic culture of ours maybe even their own greed might be partly responsible for their poverty!?), lust for power, rape of the planet etc. (me included!)

I would probably not interpret as Jesus being 'in' the poor as much as the deep love that Jesus has for the poor (no one text... just pretty much everything he did and said... as evidence)means that he feels bonded with them... perhaps the way when one of our loved ones is insulted we feel the insult just as keenly (maybe even more so!), and when one of our loved ones achieves something we feel as proud as they do (again if it is our child then probably way more so!) etc. etc.

So... for mw it is not who has the best argument for any one verse, who has the best proof texts etc. but is the idea consistent within the context of the whole creation/incarnation/death and ressurection narrative... BTW I wasn't arguing against your interpretation just the idea that because Jesus is recorded as using one phrase in one place we can then use that as an interpretive net for everytime he is recorded as using the same sentence construction elsewhere.

Benedictine Baptist said...

Actually, Matt, I think you're spot on with your interpretation/argument and several prominent/reputable commentators say the same thing.

Alan Smithee said...

Isn't the term brother sometimes used to refer to a fellow israelite (e.g. when speaking to the crowds and the disciples in Matt 23:8). Because of the strong identification of the Israelites as having one father (Abraham) I would have thought "brother" would be a common reference for fellow Israelites. Haven't looked into it, but just a thought....