Part 2 of 3
Acts 6:1-7 is about cultural conflictBut the story is not just about providing food for another person; it is about caring for someone from another culture. Hansung Kim in “Rereading Acts 6:1-7” and Justo L. Gonzalez in “Reading from my bicultural place: Acts 6:1-7” focus their interpretation on the cultural clash between the Hebrew leadership and the Hellenists. Kim suggests this story is the church’s first struggle with intercultural conflict (Kim 57). He finds it interesting that biblical scholars are thinking of the administrative issues, while mission scholars are focusing on what is a cultural and political conflict (Kim 58). Gonzalez identifies his Cuban heritage, and Spanish accent as fundamental to his reading and understanding of this scripture (Gonzalez 140).
From a cultural standpoint Kim notes that the Hellenists and Hebrews may have had different rituals and the Hellenists may have been denied table fellowship because of that (Kim 59). While the Hebrews would know Greek, the language of the empire, the Hellenists would not know Aramaic, the local language (Kim 58). Gonzalez suggests “[t]he Hellenists are looked upon with suspicion by many of the more orthodox Jews. Their faith and religious practices may not be entirely orthodox” (Gonzalez 142). Kim notices “the Hebrews were likely to have greater access to the decision-making process than the Hellenists” (Kim 60). The result was unequal treatment. In Kim’s experience Western missionaries generally speak the organizational language as a first language, know the decision making ins and outs, and engage in organizations that are designed around western cultural sensibilities (Kim 60). Similarly Gonzalez notes that even today churches create structures that unintentionally block access to people of different cultures than that of those in power (Gonzalez 141). The selection of Matthias in Acts 2—and the rule that the new apostle must have known Jesus—limited the twelve to only Hebrews (Gonzalez 143). And yet the twelve were Galilean—outsiders to the Jerusalem community—that may have made them more understanding of the Hellenist’s complaint (Gonzalez 143).
Gonzalez is impressed that the early church did not put a token minority into a position of authority, but rather changed the structure of the leadership, with the seven now in charge of all the resources of the growing church, a position that is administrative, but with great authority (Gonzalez 144). Still more remarkable, these seven administrators are then filled with the Holy Spirit to become significant preachers of the word (Gonzalez 145). Kim is equally empowered, finding the story will lead members to speak out and encouraging leaders to make a space for people from other cultures to speak (Kim 61). He notes that this will require people with authority to recognize what they don’t know about other cultures and that the right response to grievances is to change the systems (Kim 61). Kim argues this text calls for existing leadership to recognize and listen to other cultural voices, and make a place for leadership alongside, rather than under, the western leadership (Kim 62). Read as a story of cultural clash, Acts 6:1-6 suggests that the people who have been neglected must be part of the resolution, not simply allocated an equal share of the resources, but also encouraged to be part of the leadership. In the cultural divide between people who have enough food, and those who need more food, the response that Acts 6:1-6 offers is to put the people who need food in charge.
Kim, Hansung “Rereading Acts 6:1-7: Lessons for multicultural mission organizations” in Evangelical Mission Quarterly January 2009 Vol 45, no. 1 pp 56-63.
Gonzalez, Justo L., “Readings from my bicultural place: Acts 6:1-7”, in Reading from this Place Vol 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.
 While traditionally this pericope goes through verse 6, both Kim and Gonzalez include verse 7 which describes the continued growth of the community.
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.
The assignment was to write the introductory paragraph for each chapter of my project, which ends up being an interesting summary of the whole thing.
In recent years there have been critiques of church-based direct service ministries, with most authors arguing that churches should engage in community development and end all direct service programs, save emergency ones. While it is clear that many types of local and national systems need to be changed to improve people’s access to affordable food, it is wrong to conclude that fear of dependence and/or other harm means that Christians should end their involvement in direct service food pantries, meals ministries, and community gardens. With 17.4 million U.S. households without access to adequate food resources, these food ministries are critical to the health of our nation. But these programs must be changed to account for their failures, namely the lack of interaction between those ministering and those being served: people who serve food need to be eating with people who need food, and people who lack food resources should be serving with those who have enough food. I call this shared ministry. While engaging in shared ministry, food ministries need to look for, and liberate themselves from, oppressive structures—i.e., classism—that separates people with material resources from those who lack them. This paper will explore the problems with direct service ministry, consider what Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 6:1-6 contributes to the discussion, engage with Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell for a liberation theology perspective, and then grapple with what it is that keeps ministries from shared ministry. I will then describe three examples of shared ministry found in the literature, propose a research plan to observe shared ministry, report on what I found, and the conclude with a description of shared food ministry.
In most direct service ministries in the United States, people with enough material resources are allowed to see themselves as almost god-like in their ability to give—they give not only resources but also services to people who are in turn seen as unable to contribute either skills or knowledge. People in need are not recognized as possible members of the congregations where they receive food, and are encouraged to adopt -middle class values as the only path out of poverty. Direct service ministries can perpetuate the focus on individuals as problems rather than identifying the systemic causes of poverty. Most importantly, direct service ministries often perpetuate the stereotype that people who lack material resources are defined by their needs—they do not have gifts to contribute to ministries, or presumably, anywhere else. One concern with direct service ministry is whether the programs create dependency, and whether as Christians depending on one another is necessarily inappropriate behavior. Several critiques conclude that Christians should stop all except emergency direct service ministries and instead engage in community development and systems change. While systems change is certainly necessary, direct service ministries should not be eliminated; they should be converted to shared ministries.
The Biblical witness concerning giving people the things they need is clear—in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says each person’s final judgment is based on whether they have given food (drink, clothes, welcome, visits, and healing) to people who need it. Christ says that he is not only within, but actually is each person in need. Even those who do not have material resources must be givers. Presumably, as someone gives to Christ, they will want to sit and eat with him, and will believe that he/the person in need has gifts and skills to offer. Acts 6:1-7 builds on Acts 2 in identifying the importance of eating and serving together in order to be part of the community of Christ’s followers. When a few in the community are neglected in the chance to serve the others, perhaps because of a language or cultural barrier, the apostles respond by fixing the meals program to be more shared—they create a leadership team made up of those who are culturally outsiders. In Acts a sense of belonging is created not only by eating together, but by serving together, regardless of an individual’s material resources. These biblical texts suggest that Christians are called to direct service ministry where there is an equal sharing, and an equal sense of belonging, between those who have many material resources and those who have few.
Liberation theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell use the language of solidarity to describe the relationships that Christians both with and without resources are called to have with communities that have few material resources. Gutierrez emphasizes that material poverty is effectively a death sentence and that it is important that the Church does not spiritualize it. To effectively address poverty, conscientitzation is required—the people in poverty need to see the systemic nature of it, while the people who have enough need to see the role they play in perpetuating those systems. Gutierrez addresses the difference between community development and systems change and warns against helping people adapt to systems that are meant to oppress. Russell focuses on the wide depth of leadership among people who are oppressed, and notes that when we stop identifying leadership with those in power, we will find extensive leadership within the community. Direct service food ministries are called to build solidarity, conscientization, and leadership by eating with, listening to, and making safe space for the gifts , abilities, and even the leadership of the people who come to eat.
The biblical and theological consensus is that direct service ministries must engage people deeply enough to create solidarity and a sense of community. Ministries could do that by learning the gifts and skills of the people who need food, but for the most part they do not. Why is that? There are technical reasons for creating systems that prioritize fairness, equity, and order over relationship-building: it is easier, people want to feel good about themselves, funding rewards efficiency more than building relationships, and people fear being confronted with their own plenty. Not all reasons are specific to food ministries; there are systemic reasons to avoid building relationships across the gap in material resources. Our segregated communities isolate people of one kind from others who are different, and that isolation creates fear. Similarly, classism keeps us separate and wary of one another. Therefore a more liberative direct service ministry must not only create opportunities for interaction between the people with material resources and those without, but the program must consciously engage the systemic oppression in our society and in our programs, opening up the topic for frank discussion and working toward ending that oppression.
Direct service food ministries can do three things to address their problems of maintaining inequality. The first is for people who are serving food to engage with the people receiving the food by eating together, waiting in line together, gardening together. The second is to share the leadership of the program so that those with and without material resources are planning, cooking, organizing, serving, and cleaning up together. And the third is to attend to oppression—as a community the food pantry, meal program, or garden must learn about how class-based oppression works, notice the systems that are perpetuating that oppression, and work together to overcome oppression. Three books propose shared ministry. Using these books and the biblical and theological conclusions from above I will develop a research strategy to describe shared ministry in action in four U. S. congregations.
The four congregations identified for study were in Columbus Ohio, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Portland Oregon, and Granbury Texas. Two are Episcopal, two are United Methodist. I visited two food pantries, one community garden, and one meal program. All of the programs engaged in some level of shared ministry in that people who need the food were engaged in some of the work to produce and distribute the food, and some people who didn’t need food helped also. Interestingly in some programs there were very few volunteers who didn’t need the food. At the garden the spring schedule and transportation challenges meant that no one attended who needed thee food, but they reported that at harvest time there are volunteers who come in order to take home the food they harvest. Shared ministry in all the contexts was inefficient, chaotic, and awkward, there were conflicts and struggles. At the same time all of the volunteers reported a significant level of involvement, were proud of their contribution, and most reported feeling like they belonged to the ministry and were respected for their gifts. Everyone felt the food ministry they were part of was using the right approach in including a diversity of people as volunteers. The study was limited by some poor decisions I made for the surveys and by the short time spent at each program. Still, it is clear food ministries are trying to run themselves differently, are trying to be in solidarity with the people who need the food, and are finding shared ministry as an appropriate way to deliver food to people who need it.
Direct service ministry needs to adapt, but not be eliminated. Arguments suggesting that direct service creates dependence are unfounded, but there are real problems with the inequality that is perpetuated by ministries where only one class of person is allowed to serve. Food ministries can fix those problems by engaging in shared ministry, e.g., including the people who serve the food in the eating, and the people who need the food in the serving, and by addressing the issues of oppression between people with more resources and people with less. The biblical tradition calls Christians to serve others, regardless of whether we have plenty or little, and calls us to eat together to create communities of belonging. Liberation theology calls us to solidarity—deep solidarity, not just friendship. Both the people who serve and the people who need the food need conscientization—the ability to see the systems that keep poverty in its place. Our programs must face the way they oppress those they mean to serve, and work to be liberated from those structures and assumptions. The result will be ministries that start with food but are most importantly creating communities of belonging. Further study would find more programs where the ministry is shared; spend more time to look for evidence of belonging, solidarity, and conscientization; and look more explicitly for how they do, or could, address oppression. Another valuable study would explore the how to change an existing food program to shared ministry. It would be interesting to learn whether congregations who engage in shared food ministry become more motivated to engage in community development and community organizing. Crossing the boundary of difference in material resources may lead to additional community building, stronger belonging, and perhaps a changed neighborhood. Shared ministry is a step toward that.
 United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx Accessed July 22, 2016.
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.
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