If Christ is in people with few resources, how does that affect our giving?
Do we see Christ in church based food ministries? Who are the ministries feeding? What does it mean in Matthew 25:40 when the Judge says “you did it to me”? What does it mean that giving food and drink and clothes is something that we do for, or actually to the Christ? Via notes that the “Son of Man who makes himself identical with his sisters here has also identified with the exposure and danger of the human situation during his earthly ministry” (Via 94). The Son of Man is not merely among people in need, “in some way he is they”, and thus immanent because he is “identical with the poor and imprisoned” (Via 94). Via is arguing that Jesus understands how people who are “exposed” feel because he has been in that situation when he was among us, but also that Christ actually is the exposed today. As noted above Moltmann also emphasizes the presence of Christ in the least of these (Moltmann 127). John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, wrote many sermons on the Christian responsibility of people who are rich to care for people who are poor. Rudolf Brandle explores Chrysostom’s sermons in “This sweetest passage Matthew 25:31-46” where Brandle argues that the text was the central organizing force of all of Chrysostom’s theology (Brandle 136). Chrysostom insists that the body of Christ is present among us in the poor; therefore salvation is not a one-time event, but that it happens over and over again as people interact with Christ in the poor (Brandle 137). “Christ walks through the streets of our city today, meeting us daily in the form of the miserable beggar. He has made human destitution his own. He sees what is done to the poor as done to him” (Brandle 133). Indeed, even when Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” (Mk 14:7) Chrysostom argues Jesus means that he, Christ, will be always present in the poor (Brandle 134). For Via, Moltmann, Chrysostom, the way to know Christ is to get to know people who need food, drink, welcome, clothing, and visits in prison.
In food ministries people who serve others can develop what Corbett called a “God Complex”—a feeling that because they can help others they are more like God than those who need the food. In relationship to the story of the sheep and the goats, the act of serving people who need food—as Jesus has clearly commanded—makes servers think that they are acting like Jesus. That is, it is common to think of Jesus at the head of the table, serving those who are hungry. Andrew McGowan, in his article “The Hungry Jesus”, argues that Jesus was more often the guest than the host at the meals described in the bible.
“Jesus was most clearly someone willing to eat with diverse company, less an inclusive host than an undiscriminating guest. Jesus appears as host only in quite different and more historically contentious material, relative to that where he is depicted as keeping bad company or being a wine-bibber. The “guest” traditions about him are generally defensible; the “host” traditions tend to be more influenced by later reflection than material that scholars in general would actually attribute to the historical Jesus” (McGowan).
Jesus eating with others is the message, not Jesus serving others. It makes sense that Jesus would engage in the social interaction that is part of the culture of meals in the first century especially in his role as an itinerant preacher (McGowan). Without access to his own resources, McGowan suggests it is Jesus’ hunger makes him open to interesting and diverse table fellowship. In this context it is easy to see that Jesus would see himself in the people who need food in the Matthew 25 text, as he needed food in his journeys (McGowan). McGowan suggests that it is not in serving food that we imitate Jesus, but rather in eating with others who are different from us. He is implying a reciprocity in the stories of Jesus’ eating.
Alicia Vargas in “Who Ministers to Whom: Matthew 25:31-46 and Prison Ministry” interprets the text as describing an interesting reciprocity—someone with resources ministers to someone in need, and Jesus ministers to them in return. “[A]s we minister to Jesus’ own suffering incarnated and imprisoned, we also will be ministered to by Jesus himself” (Vargas 135 italics original). Seeing people with glimmers of hope, seeing people’s deepest selves, this helps those who serve those in need to see God’s grace (Vargas 135). Vargas doesn’t use this precise language but I see her as describing a three way relationship—the giver gives to the poor, the poor are Jesus, Jesus gives to the giver—which effectively removes the poor from having a direct impact on the giver. From the point of view of people living without material resources I believe it is important to keep this reciprocity more balanced—when I am caring for people in need, people in need care for me also. In caring for Jesus in the poor, Jesus in the poor cares for us. Further, because Jesus is in the poor and the poor/Jesus care for me, I become more able to see the poor. Thus it is Jesus-in-the-poor that has opened my eyes to see, to perceive the world as it is. Vargas similarly focuses on the necessity of seeing—that we have to notice out neighbor’s needs before we can attend to that need, that we have to overcome our fear, misconceptions and ignorance to be able to see (Vargas 133). I address more about what keeps church based food ministries from seeing, and acting, on Christ being among us in Chapter [five].
The stereotyping of people with few material resources as irresponsible and unreliable, or as wounded and broken, makes it more difficult for Christians to see them as Christ. As modern readers of the text, these stereotypes contribute to the need to interpret “the least of these” to mean Christians in need, not just anyone in need. It is certainly uncomfortable to imagine that Christ is in the violent alcoholic, the prostitute, the person with delusions, the sex offender, and the murderer. (Although I will note that each of them may very well identify as Christian.) Reading the bible with sex offenders, felons, addicts, and people struggling with mental health challenges can break down that barrier. Reading the bible with people who have few material resources provides a new way to see Christ in “the least of these”. Ministries which engage fully with people who need material resources make it possible to see Christ in people in need. And once a person recognizes Christ, the person in need stops being only a need—the person is worth listening to because Christ surely has something to teach us. The person is able to be a volunteer in our food ministry because Christ surely has some gifts to offer to the program. The person is able to be an equal participant in our ministry because the ministry leaders begin to recognize that having Christ’s help, and Christ’s presence, improves the ministry. This is how we build the reciprocity that Jesus built—eating and serving together. Food ministries based on the sheep and the goats text need to be food ministries where the people who are serving the food get to know the people who need the food. For a Christian ministry to reach out to Christ but then not to engage with Christ is to fail the test of judgment scene.
Reading the text as opposed to being in the text
At the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, those who are judged, both those who have served and those who have not, are shocked by the verdict. They did not know that those they served or rejected were Christ. Those of us who read this text cannot be as innocent as those in the judgment scene. Via reminds us of the importance of our role as reader, not as a participant in the text: we now know, that our judgment is dependent on our willingness to serve the Son of Man in the poor (Via 97). However, as we engage in charity it is important to remember that the sheep/people were not calculating the benefit for the judgment, but only the benefit for the people in need (Via 100). Via notices that the inability of the goats to see or to perceive the Son of Man could be precisely that they tried to follow Jesus but failed to see that following Jesus requires serving the poor, or it could be that they failed to see that there is poverty to which they could respond (Via 98). While Via notes the ethical responsibility for Christians to not only see but perceive people who live in poverty (Via 98), he does not equate the failure to see with the stereotyping discussed in chapter two. In chapters four and five we will explore more about our ability to see and respond to the needs of people who have few material resources. Here we simply note that not seeing is not an excuse for the goats—the judge holds us responsible for seeing that the hungry receive food.
Matthew 25:31-46 Implications for Direct Service Ministry
Christians cannot plead “I didn’t know” that people with food insecurity need food. We cannot claim that we don’t know that Christ in the people who need food. Certainly if we choose to take Matthew 25:31-46 seriously we cannot simply end direct service food ministries. I agree with Moltmann and Gutierrez that the text is about taking care of people in need universally, not only for good treatment to poor Christians. While it is disappointing that this text fails to treat people who do not have resources as present among the nations, if Jesus (or Matthew’s) intent was to include everyone in “the nations” then it must be that they are included as being able to provide services—resources, healing, welcome, and visits. If serving people in need is the same as serving Christ then it seems clear that the poor are not only identified with suffering but also with Christ’s giftedness. As such we surely want to know more about the stories the poor have to share, and the healing Christ knows how to give. Further, McGowan has pointed out that Jesus engaged in food ministries both by attending them and by hosting them, thus we see that a food ministry need not be only those with material resources providing food for those without; the command is to engage together in reciprocal ministry. Although we cannot be surprised by Christ’s presence, perhaps the surprise will be the gifts and skills and assistance the ministries receive by expanding their pool of volunteers. As we will see in Acts 6:1-6, the early church was engaging in food ministries where Christians who had little, and Christians who had enough, were working together to create, serve, and cleanup for meals programs on a regular basis.
Brandle, Rudolf, tr. Dan Holder “This sweetest passage Matthew 25:31-46 and assistance to the poor in the homilies of John Chrysostom” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, Susan Holman, Ed. (Baker Academic, 2008).
McGowan, Andrew. “The Hungry Jesus.” Biblical History Daily. Biblical Arecheology Society. 03/18/2015. Accessed February 24, 2016. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/the-hungry-jesus/
Moltmann, Jurgen, Trans. Margaret Kohl, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A contribution to messianic ecclesiology. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Alicia Vargas “Who Ministers to Whom: Matthew 25:31-46 and Prison Ministry” in Dialog: A Journal of Theology Vol 52 No. 2 Summer 2013 June pp 128-137.
Via, Dan O. “Ethical Responsibility and Human Wholeness in Matthew 25:31-46” in Harvard Theological Review 80:1 (1987) 79-100.