By Bob Allen
The “least of these” in Matthew 25 refers not to the poor but rather the Christian baker and florist persecuted because of their Christian faith, says a Southern Baptist Bible scholar.
Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a May 13 blog the phrase routinely used in discussions about poverty is taken out of context.
“This text is not about poor people generally,” Burk said. “It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus.”
Burk said virtually every speaker at the May 12 faith-based poverty summit at Georgetown University used the phrase “least of these” to refer to citizens who live in poverty and need help.
President Obama said he believes that even his political foes are sincere in wanting to help “the least of these.”
“I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor,” Obama said. “They exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do.”
“And then there are those on the left who, I think, are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.”
Burk said it wasn’t surprising to hear the panelists speak that way, because that is how the phrase is commonly understood. In the context of Matthew 25, however, he said what Jesus was talking about is the final judgment when it will become plain who are “sheep,” those who will inherit the Kingdom, and “goats,” those who are condemned.
In audio of a recent sermon he preached linked to his blog, Burk said the parable of the sheep and the goats is often misunderstood to imply that Christians earn their salvation by good works, but that reading contradicts other Bible verses that say salvation is a gift from God.
Another thing the text doesn’t teach, he said, is “salvation by social gospel.”
“The social gospel is the idea that somehow the message of Jesus boils down to the elimination of social injustices,” he said. “Feeding the poor, eliminating poverty, ending homelessness, etcetera, all these things — they become the focus of what it means to follow Christ.”
“Proponents of the social gospel will turn to texts like Matthew 25 and they’ll say, ‘See, Jesus says that charity to the least of these is the most important thing,’” he said.
Burk agreed that the Bible says in many verses that Christians have a responsibility to love and act kindly toward the down and out, but in this passage Jesus described the “least of these” as “my brothers,” a term that elsewhere refers specifically to his disciples.
“Brothers is not a generic description of people created in the image of God,” he said. “Jesus reserves the term brothers for those who are his disciples — those who believe and obey his word.”
“When Jesus talks about feeding and clothing and caring for the least of these in Matthew 25, he’s talking about feeding and clothing and caring for his messengers,” Burk said. “And he’s saying that if you mistreat his messengers, you’re mistreating him.”
Burk said that isn’t surprising, because Paul used the term “body of Christ” to refer to the church.
“Have you ever heard someone say, ‘I like Christ, I just don’t like Christians?’” Burk asked. “Jesus says that if you don’t like his disciples — if you reject them — you are rejecting him.”
“There is no version of Christianity that allows you to follow Christ while mistreating his body, and it won’t matter how much you profess your love for Christ if you reject and mistreat his body,” Burk said. “What you do with Christ’s people will tell everything that needs to be told about you at the judgment.”