Part 1 of 3.
Unlike Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 6:1-6 is not at the tip of anyone’s tongue when discussing charity, although it may be a story of early church food ministry at its best—and of course at it’s worst. In the midst of adding more and more followers, a group of widows have been neglected perhaps in the rotation to serve, perhaps in receiving charitable handouts. The whole church is gathered around this challenge. New leadership is recognized and in the verse after this pericope, the church continues to grow.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6 NRSV).
More recent scholarship on this text falls into three broad categories. Feminists engage the widows themselves, and wonders if widow necessarily means poor. Post-colonial scholarship identifies this as a story about the interaction of two cultures. Reta Halteman Finger and Andrew McGowan focus on the way this text contributes to our understanding of shared meals in the early church. First I’ll provide some of the traditional critical background to Acts and to this story. Most critique suggests this is a transition story intended only to introduce Stephen and other new leaders in the church.
According to Robert Wall in the commentary “The Acts of the Apostles” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Acts was written by the same anonymous author Luke, and addressed to a new or immature believer, Theophilus (Wall 5), to consolidate the diverse membership of the church, to be a Christian apologetic (Wall 8) and to deepen the faith of new believers (Wall 9). It is likely that the writer (who scholars call Luke) was not present for the stories found in Luke and Acts and thus is dependent on stories that were handed down (Wall 13). Of the many theological purposes of Acts, most relevant to this project is to help believer’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to join this community that shares everything in common (Wall 23).
Acts 6 continues the image of sharing material belongings from Acts 2:42-44 (Wall 71) but addresses conflict arising out of the sharing: the widows have been neglected (Wall 112). While Wall identifies that diakonia is translated “distribution” when referring to widows, and “ministry” when referring to the apostles (Wall note 244 p111) he still accepts the traditional reading that the widows have been overlooked in the distribution of charitable handout (Wall 111). While the story is about a break-down in the equal sharing of goods he finds good news in the decision to show solidarity with a full community meeting (Wall 114). Wall defends the apostles by noting that the existing leaders cannot “preach and do bookkeeping at the same time” (Wall 115), although it is hard to see how the criteria in Acts 6:3 (“men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”) could point to bookkeeping. Wall’s argument is that here, and in the pastoral letters, the requirements point to the Greek ideal of choosing leaders based on character rather than skills (Wall 115). It still seems to me that these requirements imply leadership more than simply keeping the books, and at least some of the seven do go on to be church leaders, more than managers of a meals program.
Bruce Malina and John Pilch in Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts suggest that the purpose of Acts 6:1-6 is to introduce these new leaders, especially Stephen (Malina and Pilch 55). They note that each narrative in Acts begins with everything fine in the community, introduces a disturbance, and then neatly resolves the disturbance to ends with the restoration of “equilibrium of life, their collectivistic life story” (Malina and Pilch 10). The disturbance is created in part by the cultural differences between the civilized Hellenists and the barbarian Hebrews (Malina and Pilch 29), the Hebrews are insiders and focused on Judean customs, while the Hellenists, returned from the Jewish Diaspora, would have adopted Greek customs and language (Malina and Pilch 56). The seven appointed new leaders are Hellenistic based on their names, starting with Stephen, who is critical to the next story in Acts; the last is Nicolaus, a foreigner (Malina and Pilch 56). Thus the story of the widows exists mostly to introduce leaders, to carry the story forward, and to show the growth of this new Christian community.
Acts 6:1-6 is about widows
Gail R. O’Day in The Women’s Bible Commentary focuses on the failure of the community to name women to solve the widow’s neglect. She notes that Hellenistic women are likely to have high standing since we know that the women Paul meets in Greece are identified as leading women of their communities (O’Day 396). O’Day accepts that the story is about almsgiving (O’Day 397) but notes that Luke is reinforcing the concept that table ministry, assigned to seven men, is identified as less important than the preaching ministry of the twelve (O’Day 397). The value of the widows is further downplayed when we see that the widow Tabitha is identified as doing good works (not ministry) later in Acts, while the work of the men assisting widows in this text is identified as ministry (O’Day 399).
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, on the other hand, is certain that this is an argument over the Eucharist. In Memory of Her explores the biblical language around service and finds that “serving at table”, found also in Acts 16:34, Luke 10:40, 12:37 and 17:8 is not giving away money but is table service at a meal, “most likely the Eucharistic ministry” and includes all the prep, serving during the meal, and clean up, which we know from Acts 2:46 was happening every day (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Schussler Fiorenza argues that to be overlooked the widows could “were not assigned their turn in table service or they were not properly served” (Schussler Fiorenza 166). She notes that it is likely that Hellenistic women would have expected to be included ‘breaking of bread’ while the Hebrews may not have allowed it (Schussler Fiorenza 166). The solution of assigning the twelve to do the diakonia of the word, and the seven to do the diakonia of the table (Schussler Fiorenza 162) adds to Luke’s earlier Martha/Mary story which also makes clear that diakonia of the table is the lesser ministry (Schussler Fiorenza 165).
Once the conflict is about serving rather than eating, it becomes clear that the widows who feel neglected may not be poor. Schussler Fiorenza notes that the text does not say either way (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Certainly women involved in this new church movement were not all poor, for example Mary, mother of John Mark, who was cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10) is likely in charge of a Hellenistic house church in Jerusalem (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Her argument is that Mary would not be named if John Mark’s leadership that was most important, and Schussler Fiorenza wonders if Mary is not one of the dissatisfied widows in the story (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Thus this is a story about identifying the importance of table service, not about charitable giving, and the widows complaint is about not getting a chance to serve, rather than about whether they are given charitable resources.
Scott F. Spencer in “Neglected Widows” notes that it seems to be hard for scholars to stay focused on the widows themselves (Spencer 718). As we have seen in our study of food ministries, it seems to be hard to stay focused on the people in need. Spencer traces the widows throughout Luke-Acts, starting with Anna in the birth narrative (Luke 2:36-38), the widows at Nain and of Zarephath (Luke 7:11-17 and 4:25-25), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4, 20:27-40, 45-47), the neglected Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1-7), and ending with Acts 9:36-43 and the supported widows at Joppa (Spencer 718). “These scenes featuring four individual widows accumulate over the course of the gospel to constitute a group of Lucan widows in the reader’s mind” (Spencer 719 italics original). He notes that while widows certainly are women whose husbands have died, biblical studies generally assume they are all also destitute and unappreciated, which fails to recognize the biblical widows who are not (Spencer 720). Still Spencer notes that Hellenistic widows, by virtue of being far from home, are cut off from family support (Spencer 728). He disagrees with Malina and Pilch that this story is neatly resolved, instead he notes that the apostles are more concerned about being distracted from preaching than about members going hungry, and they refuse to be part of the solution (Spencer 729). Spencer argues the apostles fail at the test to act as Jesus would act (Spencer 730). For Spencer this is a story of a community failing to make caring for one another a top priority. They have failed to provide food for the hungry, and then failed to let needs of people who are hungry trump the authority of the leaders.
O’Day, Gail R., “Acts” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed C.A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe; London SPCK; Louisville Westminster John Knox 1992 check all this 305-12.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her A Feminist Theological Reconstructions of Christian Origins, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.
Spencer, F. Scott, “Neglected Widows in Acts 6:1-7” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no 4 Oct 1994, 715-733.
Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X, Leander Keck et al, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
 I have not included the related arguments made by some scholars that this story must not be about widows but about an underlying dispute between the Hellenists and Hebrews. Recent Scholars, including Wall and Finger, show those arguments are unsupported, but they do not add to or take from my arguments about food ministries.
Part 3 of 3
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.
Part two of three.
Are people without material resources included in “the nations”?
Who are the nations being judged? Via says we know “the nations” includes the church because the discourse is presented to the disciples (which in Matthew stand in for the church) (Via 90). The text could mean that it is just the Gentiles being judged, because Matthew typically uses the expression to mean gentiles, as separate from either disciples or Jews (Via 91), however in the story the people who are judged are surprised that they cared (or did not care) for Jesus, so the nations must include people who are not part of the church, and indeed have not been evangelized by the church (Via 92). The nations then are everyone. In the NIB Boring comes to the same conclusion—this is a scene of universal judgment (Boring 456). So if everyone is judged based on their ability or desire to serve people who need food, drink, welcome, clothing, healing, and visits in prison, what does this tell us about the people who need these things? Where are they in this story? Is it a privilege to be poor?
Where are people who don’t have material resources in this story? Biblical criticism is not addressing this question. Are they present only to be served? Is it intentional that only people who have enough to give some away are being judged? One possible response is that people in need will not face judgment at all—that “the nations” really means “those among the nations that have excess of material resources, time, and energy”. A less friendly interpretation is that the text is perpetuating the otherness of people in need—when all the nations are gathered, the people who need material resources, healing, and release from prison are not present, except as a test case for people with enough. As I noted above Eryl Davies warns that the Bible is does not necessarily offer liberative solutions (Davies 104). A similarly unfortunate solution is to spiritualize the text—as we have seen with Tripole in the previous post—we all hunger for community, for example, and for meaning, and thus anyone who gives to anyone in need is both meeting the judgment requirements, and also equally in need of someone else to give to them. This interpretation is effectively counter argued by Gutierrez’ analysis of the difference between material and spiritual poverty in the next chapter. While it is true that everyone has needs (and certainly “sick” today would cover a much larger set of problems than it would when the text was written) that does not mean that this story was about all of the problems people face. The text is about material poverty, illness, strangers, and prison, and that all people will be judged by the way they respond to people who need food, drink, welcome, clothing, healing, and visits in prison. Are the people who need those services given a pass at the judgment?
Jacquelyn Grant is talking about the racialization and feminization of poverty in “Poverty, Womanist Theology, and the Ministry of the Church” and tells the story of a White male theologian interpreting a Jeremiah text to show that “the poor are a gift to the middle class” (Grant 57). Grant’s reply is simple—if it is a privilege to be poor, then surely we should be advocating “a theology of trading places with the poor” (Grant 57). The evidence that we are not striving to trade places suggests that theologies promoting poverty as a good things is about guilt reduction (Grant 57) rather than an objective reading of the text. Similarly, to read Matthew 25:31-46 as a pass for people who need food—either that they are not among the nations being judged, or that they automatically are inside because their material poverty is a blessing, is to declare that people with material poverty are less than people with enough. The text cannot be used to lessen the guilt of people who have enough material resources to survive in this world. Grant argues that Christians must give up theologies that oppresses others, and “must relinquish their theologies of charity where the poor are given enough to lessen the guilt of the middle class but not enough to strengthen themselves for the long fight against the culture of poverty” (Grant 58). Christians must give up theologies that support domination of people with enough resources over people with few (Grant 58). Reading this text as if people living with poverty are not among the nations supports domination.
But in my experience of reading the Bible with people who have no homes, people who have food insecurity, people living without material security, the people I have met and studied with do not accept that they are missing from this text. Instead they see the importance of providing help for others in need. That is, people who do not have enough for themselves see this as instruction to give away what they have in order to meet the needs of others. In my experience, people in material poverty feel the call to serve food and drink, and provide clothing, in the same way that people with enough material resources feel that need. They recognize that the sheep/saved are the givers, not the receivers. For people with little this is not about giving things away out of their excess, it is not about simplifying their lives, it is not about caring for others who are worse off than they are. It is a simple command that Christ is in those in need, and that Christ is asking each of us to aid those in need. There is not a test as to whether the help produces dependence, or is a short-term need, or even if the giver is feeling self-righteous for engaging in giving. The test is only whether a person has given food, drink, clothing, welcomed a stranger, cared for a sick person or visited a person in prison. As such all people, all the nations, people with faith in Jesus, and people without faith in Jesus, people with material resources, and people without material resources, need the opportunity to serve others. In food ministries, the most important gift the ministry can offer is a place for everyone to have a turn to serve those who need food, a chance to serve Christ.
Davies, Eryl W., Biblical Criticism A Guide for the Perplexed, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Grant, Jacquelyn, “Poverty, Womanist Theology, and the Ministry of the Church” in Standing with the Poor: Theological Reflections on Economic Reality, Paul Plenge Parker, ed. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1992.
Via, Dan O. “Ethical Responsibility and Human Wholeness in Matthew 25:31-46” in Harvard Theological Review 80:1 (1987) 79-100.
Here is the introduction to the text.
When considering direct service charity, Matthew 25:31-46 immediately comes to mind. It tells of the final judgment with the King judging the nations based solely on behavior: did they provide food, drink, clothing, did they welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit those in prison? Both those who passed the test (the sheep) and those that did not (the goats) are surprised to learn that Jesus is the recipient of the resources or services they did, or did not, provide.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46) NRSV.
Critical biblical scholarship focuses on who are who are the least of these being helped, and who are the nations gathered. Missing is any discussion of the people who are in need. Are they among the nations? On what basis will be they be judged? A few scholars address what it means to the servers if the people on the receiving end have Christ within them, or actually are Christ. These three questions will guide us to adjust direct service food ministries to make time to sit and eat together, and share together, as part of the program, and to make space for people who need material resources to be sheep—able to serve others who are in need.
According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Matthew is written between 80-100 CE (Boring 108) for a specific city-based Jesus following congregation (Boring 105). The story of Jesus’ ministry was intended to instruct the community on their faith (Boring 100). The goal is pastoral care and encouragement for the community (Boring 457). Jesus in the story is both present and past, but is continuing to speak to them (Boring 109). This sheep and goats text is the last part of Jesus final speech, starting with Matthew 23:1 (Boring 428). The audience for this final speech is Jesus’ followers, that is disciples in the text, but members of the congregation reading the text as well (Boring 429). While Boring says the text is clearly about care of the needy, it cannot be understood outside the particular Christological and apocalyptical arguments (Boring 455). For the writer of Matthew the fact that Christ is never gone, and is present now is balanced with the idea of Christ coming again (Boring 457). Dan O. Via in “Ethical Responsibility and Human Wholeness in Matthew 25:31-46” notes that Matthew’s eschatology also balances the timing of the last judgment as almost now, and yet uncertain as to when (Via 89). Each person must act correctly now because of the imminent and uncertain timing of the judgment. The last portion of the Matthean argument, 25:31-46, connects the eschatology to ethical concerns—inheriting the kingdom requires ethical action in this world (Via 90).
Who are “the least of these who are members of my family”?
We begin with the question of who are the least of these because the answer to this impacts the interpretation of who are the nations. We know the least of these are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison, but does Jesus (or Matthew) intend for this to be all who are in such need, or is it only help for Christians in need? The primary arguments center around the use of the word brothers, which the NRSV translates “members of my family”, the fact that this is private conversation Jesus is having with the disciples, and the fact that both the sheep and the goats don’t know that they have, or have not, helped Jesus.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels identify the challenge: “brothers” is typically used by Matthew to refer to the Christian family to whom the gospel is addressed (Malina and Rohrbaugh 151). Boring, in the NIB, argues that because “brothers” is dropped in 25:45 least of these must be referring to all needy people, not only to the Christian family (Boring 456). Dan O. Via notices that the people/sheep who gave people in need food were surprised—they did not know the person they served was part of Christ’s family. “From the standpoint of the sheep’s own self-understanding, they were not responding to the oppressed because they (oppressed) were disciples or because they made Jesus present, but because they were human beings in need. That is why they inherited eternal life” (Via 93). Therefore the text is about helping people without knowing whether they are part of the Christian community.
Martin Tripole disagrees in “A Church for the poor and the world” and is a good example of the counterarguments. In addition to the use of the word brothers (Tripole 649), because Jesus is speaking only to the disciples, not to crowds, Tripole understands the text as written to provide strength for struggling Christians in their ministry. The text is meant to assure them that “they represent the continuing presence of Jesus in the Gentile world and the possibility of salvation for anyone who would respond to them in their need” (Tripole 648). Tripole goes on to argue that because Matthew 5:1-12 offers blessing on the poor in spirit it would be a mistake to miss the possibility that materially rich could be spiritually poor and thus be included in the kingdom (Tripole 652). I will address how Gustavo Gutierrez makes clear the dangers of conflating material and spiritual poverty in the next chapter. Here I will note that it is so important to Tripole to be sure the rich have a path to salvation (Tripole 653) that he has missed the point of the sheep and goats story—that it is in caring for people with material needs that the nations are judged in this story, not by virtue of their wealth or material poverty.
For Jürgen Moltmann the point is that the Church must be connected to the poor in order to be connected to Christ. Moltmann is writing an ecclesiology, not a bible commentary, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit. For him the “coming judge is already hidden in the world—now, in the present—in the least of his brethren—the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned” (Moltmann 126). For Moltmann the fact they—both the givers and the non-givers—don’t know what they are doing contradicts the effort to make this poor and persecuted Christians (Moltmann 126). The church cannot exist without linking its mission to “seek the fellowship of the crucified one in the poor”, not out of ethics, or even love, but because Christ is present in these least ones (Moltmann 127). He notes that we have left Christ “generally outside the door of church and society”, creating two communities of Christ, the insiders who believe, and the poor who the believers have pushed outside (Moltmann 129).
Church based food ministries are often examples of pushing outside—it is the insiders who are the volunteers, and people who need food are relegated to obedience. And yet these food ministries are developed out of the insiders desire to follow the Matthean command to share food with the least of these. Food ministries would be less toxic if those who need food were invited be insiders, invited to belong, invited to help to serve. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that Matthew 25:31-46 is an insider/outsider story (Malina and Rohrbaugh 151) which is a basic social distinction in the first century, separating family and friends from strangers (Malina and Rohrbaugh 88). Courtesy and hospitality are required within the ingroup and rare to be provided for the outgroup (Malina and Rohrbaugh 88). And yet in this story the sheep and goats are surprised to find that it was not what they did for those they know, but for the unknown presence of Christ that they are judged. I would argue, and I expect Moltmann would agree, that this text challenges the known insider and outsider ethic. The judgment is based only on what people need, and not on who they are.
Boring, Eugene M. “Matthew” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol VIII Leander Keck et al, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Malina, Bruce J. and Richard Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
Moltmann, Jurgen, Trans. Margaret Kohl, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A contribution to messianic ecclesiology. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Tripole, Martin, R., S.J. A Church for the poor and the world: At issue with Moltmann’s ecclesiology in Theological Studies, 42 no 4 Dec 1981, p 645-659.
Via, Dan O. “Ethical Responsibility and Human Wholeness in Matthew 25:31-46” in Harvard Theological Review 80:1 (1987) 79-100.
Chapter 2E, part 3. A little long.
As we have seen above, Stivers analyzes the ways public discourse identifies poverty with lack of responsibility. She notes that even in programs where we build some relationships with people in poverty, the surrounding society encourages us to see them as “diseased other” which creates “a moral boundary between who is respectable/clean… or diseased/dirty” (Stivers 51). While the focus above is on how that is toxic to the people receiving the direct services, I would argue that it is also toxic to those of us with enough. In her interviews Stivers found that the diseased “worldview is so insidious that even when most staff members hear stories of structural obstacles from guests, they still interpret the choices as freely made apart from the constraints and environmental pressures of poverty” (Stivers 109). That is, it is difficult for us to hear about the underlying structural causes of homelessness and food insecurity because the language of otherness is so ingrained. Indeed even those telling stories of life in poverty can buy into the language that marks them as less-than those of us with enough.
We all, those of us with more power, and those of us with less, are influenced by the dominant social discourse that privileges white and middle class values (Stivers 13). It is our very effort to claim neutrality and deny the significance of race and class that reinforces the superiority of white and middle class culture (Stivers 13). Direct service charity that doesn’t acknowledge and affirm differences in language, culture, and values based on race and class aren’t really getting to know the depth of people’s lives. When we who have enough are the only people authorized to give, and we attempt to listen to people’s life stories, we are further building up the power differential between us. It is easiest to see individuals as making bad life choices when our only standard is whether we think we would have made the same choices.
Kevin Blue notes that overcoming this presumed standard of white and middle class culture requires reconciliation around oppression along with fixing US structural obstacles (Blue loc 961). Structural change is necessary but not enough; to be reconciled with one another we must create relationships across race and class divisions (Blue loc 964). We must figure out how to deal with our fear, or, as Pathak notes, our awkwardness, that keeps us from creating relationships with people who are different from us. If we do not do this we continue with direct service charities that further enforce our segregation from one another. I hope, and Blue presumes, that in church based charities our goal is more than simply providing food; our goal is to welcome one another into the family of Christ (Blue loc 969). In my experience with progressive congregations we are quick to point out that we are not trying to make people into Christians, but the reality is we also are not inviting the Christians who come to our ministry to be part of our congregation. Inviting people who need food to be part of our church, part of our ministry, even leaders of our program; that is the relational work to of church. It is in large part racism and classism that keeps us from loving our neighbor.
Love of our neighbor is shown with actual action, not simply by reporting that we love. Blue notes that “Jesus’ love—by which the world is to know we are believers—was costly and sacrificial. It meant the relinquishing of power; it meant humility, it meant a coming and dwelling among people” (Blue loc 981). We are called to follow Jesus with this sacrificial love as part of our actions to feed people. Ministries that serve food without the underpinning of sacrificial love for our neighbor are not meeting Jesus’ command to share food, drink, clothing. Blue argues that racial and class divides are ultimately broken down when God’s people choose to be a bridge across those divides, when we bring the gospel not only in the food but in the words we share with one another (Blue loc 990).
Stephen G. Ray Jr is also concerned with oppression, but goes further in this discussion to suggest that it is sin, and particularly sin-talk, that perpetrates the divide between us. His book Do No Harm investigates sin as a social, rather than individual, construct, and shows how sin-talk maintains cultural oppression. Ray identifies two types of sin-talk that hurt our communities. The first connects the “social margin” with irresponsibility—that is it identifies people on the margin as people who created their own difficulties (Ray 34). The second type of sin-talk essentializes communities on the margin by suggesting that their very identity is defiled (Ray 34). In this case it is not inappropriate action, or bad choices, that put people in the category of sinfulness, but their very existence. While we generally don’t use the word sin for this (Ray 10), we do group individuals into a class of their own and then using language that presumes a singular, sinful, identity of that class.
Ray uses the examples of the welfare queen as the model of irresponsibility who signifies all people who receive welfare, and LGBTQ folk who are defiled not by their actions but simply by their identity. The trap of sin-talk, according to Ray, is that while fighting against unjust systems, we engage in public discourse in a way that perpetuates the marginality of the people in question. Ray demonstrates how Reinhold Niebuhr argues against discrimination, and yet identifies the irresponsibility of “the negro and his culture” (Ray 62). Similarly Bonheoffer argues against anti-Jewish laws while perpetrating the idea that Jews are essentially a defiled people. While it can be argued that they each were doing the best they could in the language of the time good intentions do not redeem the impact of their language. “Far from being an inoculation against the peculiar madness, sin-talk can be a power tool for its perpetuation” (Ray 96).
This sin-talk perpetuates the toxicity of direct service charity and blocks us from changing it. Those in the center of the social construct, that is people with “ordinary”, middle class lives, are pressured by the language to rescue those on the margins. It presumes those on the margins do not have the agency to rescue themselves because they don’t exist as individuals but only as the defined group. In fact, when one or two people start to be known as individuals their story stops being the story of those on the margins and becomes instead an exception to the stereotype. Ray sees Niebuhr identifying, the rare, responsible, Negro as a sign of how it is worth it to help the other (irresponsible) Negros (Ray x) and Bonheoffer identifying the baptized Jew as cleaned of defilement (Rax x). Both Niebuhr and Bonheoffer were trying to speak out against the oppression of their time, and yet their language becomes “sin-talk” that perpetuates the othering of the people they intend to defend. Welfare recipients, people who use food stamps, people who need food pantries and soup kitchens, they all become a group of people with a particular identity—irresponsible, addicted, lazy, dirty, and more—rather than individuals. When we get to know one or two, they have particular stories that refute the stereotype but these are seen as exceptions. (As we noted above Stivers found service workers who had heard, and believed, stories of structural obstacles, and yet continued to see individuals as needing to change. Ray would argue that is part of how social-sin and sin-talk works.)
The connection of the church to the center of society makes it hard for us to see and critique our role in using sin-talk to perpetuate social sin. And yet we have theological language that can help us overcome the sin-talk that we miss. Augustine’s theology of original sin suggests that our sin precedes any actions we take (Ray 103), Luther emphasizes that we cannot choose, or not choose, to engage in sin (Ray 105), Calvin describes sin as more of a status than a behavior (Ray 106). What is critical to our discussion is that both Calvin and Luther, based on Augustine, reject any voluntarism in sin (Ray 107). We cannot simply decide to not be sinners. Whatever efforts we make “the taint of sin affects all humanity” (Ray 108 italics original).
Because we believe that sin is part of the human condition, there is no place for relative judgments based on different social conditions (Ray 109). We cannot rank my sin or yours; we cannot evaluate my sinfulness as different from your sinfulness, or even more dangerously those people’s sinfulness. There aren’t some people who have a different relationship with God than any other person (Ray 110). All of humanity is in relationship with God, both through Adam as sinners, and through Christ as redeemed (Ray 111). This corrective is needed because we tend to put the sins of those on margins through a different scrutiny than we put the sins of those with power and within our social norms (Ray 111).
Ray notes how social norms are deciding sinfulness when we compare the way gangs are seen as evidence of the sinful condition of the community where they rise up, while corporate greed, when noticed, is seen as the exceptional identity of an individual (Ray 114). We can see the apparent sinfulness of that “other” community but not the sinfulness of our own (Ray 115). As seen in the examples of Niebuhr and Bonheoffer, but also in the toxicity of direct service charity and its stereotypical descriptions of people who need resources, we cannot objectively analyze our own social sin (Ray 117). And yet our theology insists that we recognize the mutuality of our sinfulness.
It is, in the end, our human sinfulness that keeps us from engaging in direct service charity in ways that know and honor the people in need, and in ways that share the gift of giving. To get beyond toxic direct service charity we must face the difficulty that our own sinfulness is the same—unchosen, unseen, and yet forgiven—as the sinfulness of the people with whom we engage. We must be aware that it is hard to see our own sinfulness, and that society encourages us to see the sinfulness of those at the margins. We must attend to the language we use, whether or not it includes the word sin, for ways that it perpetuates the idea that there is something “more wrong” with the person who needs food than is wrong with the person who is giving food. To do that we have to get to know the people who need food, and open up to be known by the people who have food, to see each other as fully gifted, able, and fully sinful, unable people. We have to know each other well enough to build trust between us.
Blue, Kevin. Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World. Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2013. Kindle.
Ray Jr., Stephen G. Do No Harm: social Sin and Christian Responsibility. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Stivers, Laura. Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Kindle.
Chapter two part E, parts 1 and 2. Why do we keep doing direct service charity in ways that are toxic?
Presuming we are concerned with the gospel, and thus want to engage people in need, and are also concerned with people in need, why do we who have enough continue to take part in direct service charity that is toxic? What is it that keeps us from getting to know the people we serve, from appreciating people in need as having gifts, from seeing though the stereotypes, what is it that keeps us from making room for people in need to help with our programs? Some churches insist that direct service makes lazy people dependent, and yet aren’t engaging in community development that would provide work, while other churches insist that the systems are unbeatable, and handouts are needed, but reinforce the dependency stereotype by not engaging people so that they can contribute. Food pantries, especially, become ministries with inflexible rules about who can come in, and how often, while meals programs draw strict lines between patrons, or more lovingly, guests, and volunteers. What keeps these boundaries intact? What keeps us from crossing over boundaries and building relationships in our food ministries?
Lupton notes that it is common in church based food ministries for the gatekeeper to be someone who is pleasant and kind. Different ministries have different rules: you need an ID or you can only pick up food once a month, you need to be sober, or properly dressed, or not have weapons, or not have too many piles of things. Week after week in the ministry, people who serve food or stand at the door get to know those who are coming in, and can check in with them about how they are doing. When individual issues arise, one of the people who help serve the food may choose to help that person out. And then the leaders of the program discover that this leads to accusations of favoritism, or to additional requests. It feels like you’ve set a precedent for the ministry (Lupton 52). Generally the response is to become more and more careful about enforcing the program rules evenly, fairly, without exceptions. No one who chooses to give away food wants to be seen as unfair.
For Lupton that emphasis on fairness meaning treat everyone the same doesn’t match the reality that in fact each person’s need is different. His goal with food ministry is the creation of food co-ops owned and regulated by the people who need food. The people who need the food are deciding how the food should be distributed (Lupton 53). When presenting this idea to other churches he gets arguments against the idea, for example about how hard it would be to create these co-ops in rural ministries, or how hard it is for co-ops to serve large groups of people. Lupton notes that our present system where people with plenty are the givers “is efficient, generates compelling stories and statistics, gives regular feedback to donating church members, has controls for hoarding and fraud, and maintains good books” (Lupton 55). Indeed, efficiency is the often the goal of our ministries, for the more efficient we are the more people we can serve, with fewer volunteers, and in less time. More relational ministries require more time on the part of volunteers, and more volunteers, but more than that, it requires letting go of systems that are organized around getting the most food out in the shortest time possible. Relationships are not efficient; relationships are messy.
If a congregation has decided to engage in ministry to others, but does not want to build relationships with those others, what then is the purpose of the ministry? Lupton suggests it is to feel good about ourselves (Lupton 57). Further, if it is more important to feel good rather than to provide what is best for the people in need, is our goal actually charity? Add to our need to feel good about ourselves a dose of the stereotypes of the people in need as broken, irresponsible people, we begin to see mostly how different we are. And many of us are afraid to cross the boundaries of difference.
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon aren’t addressing poverty in their book about neighboring, but they are noticing how hard it is to cross boundaries even in our immediate neighborhoods. Crossing economic boundaries is even more difficult. They suggest that our churchy expansion of “love your neighbors” to mean loving everyone has failed us in our immediate relationship with the people next door (Pathak 35). The book is advice for how to get to know people in your neighborhood, but the challenges it describes are appropriate to explaining some reasons why it is so hard for us to get to know people in need, even if we are part of a direct service charity.
What keeps us from knowing our neighbors? One cause is the isolation common in US life. Pathak is addressing the way middle class homes keep us relegated to fenced back yards and garages, which keep us from contact with our neighbors. I’ll add that we mostly live in a segregated society. Most of us are isolated from most people who are a different race, or a different income level from us. Our neighbors are unknown, we find ourselves afraid because “it’s easy to imagine the worst” (Pathak 30). We misunderstand each other because we fear each other—his example is of a broken down home that seems to imply lack of care, lack of motivation, perhaps even that drugs or alcohol are tearing the family apart, only to learn that actually the occupant is off caring for a sick family member (Pathak 30). What we don’t know about each other keeps us separated from each other, keeps us in fear.
Pathak notes that the fear changes not only our image of other people, but also our idea of how they see us (Pathak 64). We develop a circle of distrust, where each person is guessing what the other is thinking, and that guessing distorts what we know about the other. Our fear, Pathak argues, makes us see ourselves as less than—we see the other as breaking down our importance and taking away our power (Pathak 66). Interestingly in direct service charity the assumption is that the people who are leading are trying to hold on to power, but I think that Pathak is right—we hold onto the rules because we are afraid that the people in need want to take our power, want to limit our importance. At the same time, because we are in charge, our enforcement of strict boundaries does successfully take away the power and importance of those that need the resources. Our fear that we are not equal with each other has the unexpected, and usually unintended, affect of making us not equal to each other, which circles around to build up our fear.
Pathak suggests that the answer to fear is discernment. We must recognize the real risks and separate those from the imagined risks (Pathak 67). Pathak is challenging whether it is really fear we feel when we fail to connect to our neighbors. In our segregated society he is asking most of us to make friends with people who are not much different than we are. However the fear of crossing racial and class boundaries. As Stivers has noted above, and we will consider with Ray, below, much of the differences we suppose exist are the results of systemic stereotypes. The things we are afraid of are not actual risks. Much of our fear is actually simply being timid, and we must push past timidity (Pathak 67) to make connections that the gospel insists upon. Pathak wants us to recognize that “awkwardness isn’t fear—it’s just nervousness about possible rejection. The truth is, awkwardness won’t kill you” (Pathak 67). It won’t kill you, but if we let it our feelings of awkwardness can keep us from engaging in direct service charity except in ways that are toxic to the people we are aiming to serve.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.
Pathak, Jay, and Dave Runyon. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2012. Ebook.
Is it weird to post my sermon in advance? March 6, 2016.
Luke 10:1-12 After this the Lord appointed seventy (two) others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
I love this text, but I must admit I always use it to talk about doing our ministry two by two. Frankly, when I started my outdoor church I was too afraid to go out by myself, so this two by two message seemed really important.
And, in fact, it is. Not just the safety in numbers, but we also know “wherever two or more of you are gathered, I am with you”. Two by two is good news.
But lately I’ve noticed some other things about this text that are very important to who we are as a church. First of all, do you notice that Jesus doesn’t send them out to start churches? Or to get folk to come to church? Or even to get folk to come to worship or Sunday school or bible study? Nope the people are sent out to “cure the sick and tell them the Kingdom of God has come near you”.
That’s it, that’s all. Deal with people’s problems, and say The Kingdom of God has come near.
This is clearly not the right-wing evangelical message of “sinners repent!” But it also isn’t the UCC and progressive Christian message of “we should just love each other”. There is changing going on here: curing. And there is this crazy idea that the Kingdom of God has come near you. What on earth could that mean?
Jesus’s message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Some of us have gotten this confused with the idea of Heaven—but Jesus is not talking about what happens after we die. And some of us instead imagine a time, as mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s work is done on earth, just like it is done in heaven. But this text, and all the other times Jesus’ proclaims this, the Kingdom of God is “at hand” or “nearby” or “right within sight”.
For year’s I preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand in a little tiny church that met in a small restaurant. The ceiling was low and when I’d point up, as preachers are inclined to do, I’d point directly at the heat vent. Now the heat in that church rarely worked, and the church was in new England, so we had lots of jokes about the Kingdom of God being there in that not-working heat vent. But one Sunday, just as I reached up toward the vent, and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the heat came on!
Indeed, those little things that make us laugh, or feel joy, or feel the love of one another, I think those things are little hints of the Kingdom. In the early church, the community gathered for a potluck, possibly every day. There was enough to eat for everyone, even the poorest of the poor—and that in itself was evidence that the Kingdom of God was indeed already begun. Standard Christian theology is that God’s rule has already started. It’ll be more, it’ll be better, it’ll be everyone, but today our celebration is that it has started.
It feels, today, in the United States, in many mainline churches, like it would be audacious to proclaim that we are already feeling the Kingdom of God. Part of that is because our lives are just fine the way they are. We imagine the Kingdom is great, and can't see how to get from fine to great.
But for people who are struggling out in the world, it would not take much for their life to be a great deal better. I was at a retreat yesterday where someone said their picture of a beautiful community would simply be one where they felt they belonged. Belonging is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide, if we are trying to reach people who do not feel like they belong. For people who have been abused as children, or who are abused now as adults, being in a community where they are safe would be a great improvement. Safety is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. I’ve worked recently in a church that has many parents of kids with mental health challenges. They constantly have to explain, and ask for, basic services their children need. Acceptance and Affirmation of that even kids that act out are Children of God would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. People who are hungry and lack housing and clothing and education and opportunities are treated as if that means they have no skills, no gifts, no contribution to make to the world. Respect and Appreciation would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide.
You may notice that none of the things that bring the Kingdom near seem to be about stuff. And you may notice, as I have failed to notice, time and time again, that in this scripture text, the disciples don’t bring any stuff to give out. It’s actually worse than that, and that is probably why I ignore it, but they are not allowed to even bring the stuff that they need to care for themselves.
Essentially, the disciples are sent out to beg for their own needs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to do that. And yet, what does it mean that Jesus’ asks them to do that?
When I started at Worcester Fellowship, I used to worry about whether I had what was needed to give to people. But over time I learned that what homeless people wanted, more than just about anything, was to do something useful for the world. Some of it was simple: there was no reason for me to try to get 5 gallons of hot chocolate out of my car; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to figure out how to set-up the altar table; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to shovel the walkway and chairs; someone wanted to do that. But later it was even more complicated things. When someone needed help finding the shelter, there was a person without a home who could take them there; when someone needed to figure out food stamps, there was a person without food who could work the system; when there was a call for Worcester Fellowship to speak out on youth homelessness, there was a youth without a home who wanted to speak at the state house.
It turns out not having stuff doesn’t take away knowledge, or compassion, or helpfulness, and it certainly doesn’t take away the desire to serve one another. But more than that, it turns out that when I stop thinking that I need to have what people need I start to be connected to many people who have many things that other people need. And it turns out that there is no better way to treat people as children of God than to treat people as gifted, helpful, ready to serve. In the end it was my ability to leave behind my purse, my bag, even my sandals, that made me more able to proclaim the Kingdom of God in near.
And that is good news.
To see more about Worcester Fellowship go to www.worcesterfellowship.org. This sermon was written as the introduction to my workshop "Mission Goes Where the People Are". For more on that workshop, use the "contact me" page.
Chapter Two, part D. People, even people in need, have skills.
Alinksy would argue that failing to use the strengths and resources of people in need is an ineffective strategy for creating change. There are already leaders, and people with skills, in the community, in any community. Community organizing requires indigenous leadership, the people who are know to the local community and are already identified by the community as leaders (Alinsky 1989 64). As we get to know the community and the people in it, they will let us know who the leaders are, and it is our responsibility to meet them those leaders and to understand their skills. Natural leaders (Alinsky 1989 65) are the people that the community already looks to for guidance. Even when looking for natural leaders outsiders tend to look for leaders like themselves (Alinsky 1989 66), thereby missing that leadership is culturally defined, and specific to each local community. When we attempt to create charity without knowing and respecting the community leaders we may find begrudging acceptance of what we offer.
Organizers (and church leadership) trying to come from the outside and simply give things away will not be respected. Alinsky has found that “generally their method of doing things for rather than with the people was resented” (Alinsky 1989 68, italics original). Charity that does not give people a role for using their skills, their strengths, their leadership, is, in Lupton’s language, toxic. “To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking—taking their dignity” (Alinsky 1971 123). People both know what they need, and deserve the opportunity to create what they need. Alinsky’s argument against charity is that it focuses mostly on the fact that people in need know better than outsiders what the need is, and he is right about this; however he does not focus as strongly on the fact that people how have needs also have skills.
Kevin Blue presumes the skills of people in need and so is concerned with the way direct service charity takes away the potential for work and for personal growth. He notes that problem solving itself can help a person’s skills develop (Blue loc 671). He argues that spending time without work or other responsibilities can wear down those problem solving skills, wear out a person’s confidence in themselves. “Some have not worked for so long that evil spiritual habits become the norm, and then, as sin deceives them, they are convinced that working is actually worse for them than receiving a hand-out” (Blue loc 635). Unlike Lupton, Blue notes that there are people who cannot get paid work, due to illness or disability, but his concern remains that direct service charity replaces the need to work.
Lupton is also arguing that people should work, or pay, for the services and things they receive. His concern is that people have personal power and that we take away that power when we do tasks what people can do themselves (Lupton 3). Their power rests in the skills and strategies they bring to living in poverty, in the relationships and connections they make with other people, and in the Christian context, in their identity as Children of God and as neighbors of us and of each other. If our charitable giving fails to acknowledge this power then it is not kindness. Lupton suggests “[g]iving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people” (Lupton 3).
Using an example of a foreign mission trip Lupton describes a village leader’s lament that the local people’s dignity erodes as they see themselves as needing charity from wealthy missioners (Lupton 21). We who have enough are living out our Christian mission of giving things to people in need, caring for people, people who we presume cannot care for themselves, which leads us see the people who need things as people who cannot do things, people who cannot engage in mission, people who cannot help one other, and eventually, people who are less then us, we the people who have things to give.
We who have enough use charitable giving to become superior with God because of our ability to do what God wants—to serve others. The “others” are only receivers, and thus cannot be true disciples, acting on God’s call to service. Lupton insists that chronic almsgiving “affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before” (Lupton 34). It is an accidental superiority to be sure, we do not set out to do any more than share our excess, and to share it in love, but it is this superiority that Lupton argues makes direct service charity not loving, but patronizing, and indeed toxic (Lupton 35).
Alinsky, Saul D. Reveille for Radicals, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989.)
Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, (New York: Random House, 1971.)
Blue, Kevin. Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World. Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2013. Kindle.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.
Chapter two part c. Direct Service charity is toxic because it sees the person as needing to be fixed, rather than the system as needing to be fixed.
Most direct service charity is set up to with the presumption that people who need things do not have gifts, they are only people with needs, weaknesses, people who are broken. Because we don’t know the people who are served, and sometimes even when we do know the people, we begin to presume that hunger grows out of something more dangerous than simple poverty. The popular world view is that people who need food are irresponsible, without gifts or strengths, unwilling to work, mentally ill, addicted, criminals, in-short we begin to see the problem is the people who don’t have enough, not the system that doesn’t allow for enough. We start to see people as their addictions, their mental health challenges, their struggles, and then more insidiously we begin to wonder if they are responsible with their money, responsible with their families, responsible with their lives.
Laura Stivers’ critique of several direct service homeless ministries demonstrates how we demonize people who live with poverty. She argues that homelessness is conflated with chronic homelessness (Stivers 49); similarly, people who don’t have enough food are often conflated with people who are homeless. Because home ownership is a mark of responsibility, not having a home becomes a sign of irresponsibility (Stivers 47). Not having enough food becomes a sign of not knowing how to budget for food, shop for food, or how to cook food, a sign of unreliability and incompetence (Stivers 49).
People who need homes and need food are seen as unable to provide for themselves because of unreliable and incompetent past choices, rather than because of they way choices are limited for people who live with poverty. Since they make poor choices, we who have enough are encouraged to help people develop new skills; job skills, social skills, skills for healthier decision making, without any evaluation as to whether individuals actually lack any of those skills. People in need begin to be identified as “diseased other,” someone wholly unlike me, which helps to covertly create “a moral boundary between who is respectable/clean… or diseased/dirty” (Stivers 51). The wide boundary between people with and without resources is made even wider by this covert stereotype.
Stivers suggests that the stereotype of disease encourages people with enough to look for cures and the image of having plenty leads to encouraging people with little to learn middle class language, values, and practices as a step to breaking out of poverty (Stivers 75). The presumption is that if people in need were more like people with plenty, they would not have gotten into this predicament. In both ministries Stivers studied, they are involved in “transforming” the individuals and families who take part. As long as people in need must be transformed we are presuming they were not good enough at the start (Stivers 114). Stivers would like to see society, systems, and supports transformed, rather than focusing on transforming the individuals who struggle to deal systemic obstacles.
Even more compassionate views of people in poverty emphasize the deviance of the individual rather than the systemic challenges people without sufficient resources face. Seeing the poor as victims of trauma, as suffering from mentally illness, as victims of assault, and/or as abused, help us to respond with compassion and helpful services (Stivers 53) and yet still presumes that the role of shelters, food programs, and social services, is to treat the individuals for their woundedness rather than change systems to prevent wounds, and to prevent wounds from leading to poverty (Stivers 54). There are many survivors of trauma, mental illness, and people living with addictions who are not homeless or short of food resources—the difference between them is only whether or not they have the money. Victim language suggests that the people without homes do not have agency in their lives (Stivers 55).
Direct service ministries are a problem when we see people only as victims, and only as people who make bad decisions, and only as people who have needs. Interestingly, Stivers found that even in programs where the staff and volunteers get to know the participants in some depth, the world-view that the people are the problem is hard to break. For example, at one of the programs Stivers studied the guests named low paying jobs and the inability to access affordable housing as key to their poverty, while the staff listed dysfunctional behavior of people who are homeless and the shortage of shelters (Stivers 72). When we are working for programs that presume that we have to change the person in need, rather than in programs that address the faults of the system, we are inclined to hear that our program is providing exactly what is needed. “People who have experienced poverty and/or homelessness know what the structural obstacles are” (Stivers 112). We have to recognize that people in need have a voice that we can listen to, have knowledge that we may not have, have contributions to make to the work of ending homelessness or food insecurity.
And yet even asking for people’s contributions can be done in a way that is, to use Lupton’s word, toxic. In both ministries Stivers studied the people in need help with the work, in one program after they are transformed appropriately (in faith and independence from the program) they come back as volunteers, in the other work is required as payment for the resources provided. The implication with the work requirement is that otherwise this is a handout that will increase dependence, although Stivers notes that there are no work requirements that come with a handout like the mortgage interest tax credit (Stivers 115). People with housing have demonstrated their worthiness by qualifying for a mortgage; people in need of housing must demonstrate their worthiness in other ways.
Interestingly, Lupton sees work and payment for services as reducing the toxicity of direct service charities. He argues for creating food co-ops in place of food pantries, in order to protect the participant’s dignity. People who need food join for a low fee and receive a higher dollar amount of “surplus” food (Lupton 7). Throughout the book Toxic Charity Lupton successfully avoids blaming people who are poor for their poverty, but he does imply that without payments or work requirements people prefer dependence on handouts. His concern with direct service is that it is too tempting for people in poverty to choose the easy (and apparently to him, comfortable) life of poverty, rather than to make the life transforming changes required for having enough. While he argues against direct service ministries he emphasizes the brokenness of individuals, rather than systems, when he emphasizes that direct service job training programs are ok (Lupton 56).
A big fan of job training is David Apple, an urban missioner encouraging churches to go beyond food ministries in Not Just a Soup Kitchen. The strength of this book is its emphasis on relationship building, and on his understanding that he himself is broke, that all of us who have enough are equally broken, and that in God’s eyes we are equal in our relationships. He notes the ways that the addicts he meets generally describe themselves as losers, as unworthy of a better life, as unworthy of services to help them (Apple loc 852). Unfortunately he then presumes that that sense of unworthiness is a sign of a lack of faith, and that that lack of faith is the primary block to getting ahead in the world. He, as Stivers has critiqued, is identifying personal brokenness (which for him is lack of Jesus) as the primary obstacle to food security. This helps him to see, then, other services for fixing the individual as essential to effective help, so he suggests job training, recovery services, teaching reading, and most importantly, Bible study and teaching about Jesus. As Stivers notes, even this compassionate approach presumes the people in poverty are problems, rather than that the system that creates poverty is the problem. People who need food are seen as only needy, not a combination of needs and strengths.
Apple, Dr. David S. Not Just a Soup Kitchen: How Mercy Ministry in the Local Church Transforms us All. Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2014. Kindle.
Laura. Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Kindle.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.
Random comments on Church, Intentional Community, Leadership, and how we live and love together.