Even as a relatively new Christian, there are numerous times that I have heard an impassioned exhortation from the pulpit for social justice, and perhaps more specifically, a call to serve the “least of these” and by doing so to serve Christ.
The preachers and teachers are referring to a well known parable found in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus is establishing everyone’s final destiny on the basis of whether or not they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited those who were imprisoned. Jesus is clear, that which was done or not done to one of the “least of these” had correspondingly affected him personally.
If the text is purported to indicate the basis for our final destiny- that in Jesus’ words is to either “inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world” or to “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:34,46)- it is exceedingly significant that we seek to understand what is being communicated.
I began taking my time to look at the text intentionally. What I discovered surprised me, and I began to ask the question-
Is social justice the point behind the text?
The conclusion that I have come to is: no.
Though such luminaries of the church as Augustine, Chrysostom, Benedict of Nursia, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley have interpreted this text in such a way, not to mention contemporary expositors of the Bible, the most accurate reading of the text does not lend itself to such an interpretation. This is not to obviate the necessity of social justice, rather it is to highlight that this text in fact is not exhorting followers of Christ to that end.
A key to understanding this is to note that what Jesus actually says is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Nowhere in the New Testament is such language used to refer to all people in general. In fact, earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:48) He then progresses by “pointing to his disciples, (saying), ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)
In effect, this is a parabolic manner of communicating what Jesus states explicitly in John 13:34-35, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What, according to these verses, determines our eternal destiny? The answer to the following question, “Does the Spirit of love that compelled Christ to the cross indwell us in such a way that we love one another with a similar sacrificial disposition?”
Just to substantiate this point further, hear the words of the apostle James, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that.” (James 2:15-16) Do you hear the echoes of the parable from Matthew? James is using this point to highlight whether or not a person has living faith or not.
The apostle John also adds his voice to this conversation by stating, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18) Such tangible sacrificial love toward other disciples of Jesus Christ, in his eyes, is indicative that they “have passed from death to life.” (1 John 3:14)
Hopefully, by now, it is evident that there is sufficient support to question the commonplace interpretation of Matthew’s parable. Rather than being an exhortation to engage in social justice, the parable is a clarion call to love other disciples of Jesus in the same sacrificial and selfless manner with which he loves us all. Considering that this passage is often presented as determining our eternal destiny, this is a substantial shift.
However, the subsequent question is, “So what? What are the implications of this shift in thinking?”
Rather than seeking to exhaustively answer this question, let me suggest some preliminary questions that we can be thinking about, while leaving substantial room for further engagement. Perhaps this can be the impetus for a communal discussion in the comments section below.
Given that the parable highlights the global scope of its vision, “all nations will be gathered before him” (Matt. 25:32), how should a wealthier Western church respond to impoverished churches in other parts of the world?
How may this shift in thinking affect the way that churches engage one another across socio-economic and denominational lines in a particular city?
How might this shift of thinking be engaged to encourage deeper mutual awareness within a congregation?
What are ways that God may be inviting me to respond to this shift in thinking? Who may he be asking me to love in such a way?
What questions or comments does this shift in thinking stir up for you?
Though I am not obviating the necessity of engaging in social justice concerns, with Paul, I am saying, “whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal. 6:10)