Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 4

The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 1
The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 2
The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 3
The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 4 


In the previous three posts, I have argued that the gospel of Jesus regards the regeneration of a man's heart, not the alleviation of poverty. Jesus did not come as a humanitarian but as a Savior of men - rich and poor. This fundamental message is often hijacked and confused by well-intentioned liberal theologians who want to present a more relevant Jesus. Such talk about repentance is much easier on the ears when it is defined as charity and submission to the party platform of the Democratic party. Yet Jesus demands more than social justice, he demands justification.

In the previous three posts, all of the passages in the Gospels regarding poverty and the poor were classified into three separate categories. Categories 1 and 2 were addressed in the previous article (click here). In this and the next post, I want to briefly discuss the third category which include passages that challenge my thesis most directly or are frequently cited by so-called Red-Letter Christians and the like. These passages include Matthew 25:34-46; Luke 4:18; Mark 10:21; Mark 12:41ff (parallel in Luke 21:2-3); and Luke 18:22.

The first passage, Matthew 25:34-46, which is, without a doubt the most cited passage from the Gospels regarding social justice is, will dominate our time today. Here's the text:
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see 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 say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This passage is often interpreted to mean that Jesus demands charity to the poor as a means of salvation. Consider the following quote I highlighted in the first post from Tony Campolo:
The fact is there are 2,000 verses in Scripture that talk about caring for the poor.  And I don’t care what else your into, if you ignore what the Bible is really about, helping poor and oppressed people, you’ve missed the message of Jesus . . . I see you’ve got the white band on Bono, and here is a guy who is a rock singer who has done more to articulate what Christianity is really about than most we preachers.  In fact he says to be Christian is to commit to the poor and oppressed.  The only description that Jesus gives of judgment day is how we treated the poor.  On that day, He’s not going to ask you theology questions . . . Here’s what it’s going to be, 25th chapter of Matthew, “I was hungry, did you feed me?  I was naked, did you clothe me?  I was sick, did you care for me?  I was an alien, did you take me in?  What you’ve failed to do to the least of these, you failed to do unto me because I’m not up in the sky somewhere.  I’m waiting to be loved in people who hurt.  And as you relate to people who hurt, your relating to me.”  There is no Christianity that does not tie us up with the poor and the oppressed of the world.
That last sentence is important. Based on his reading of Matthew 25 he states There is no Christianity that does not tie us up with the poor and the oppressed of the world. Is this true? Is this how we ought to interpret this text? I do not believe so.

In his systematic theology, Christian Theology, Dr. Millard Erickson argues this text describes the fruit of salvation, not the definition of salvation. He writes:
Perhaps the most problematic passage is Matthew 25:31-46, which seems to suggest that our eternal destiny will be based on whether or not we have done works of kindness and charity for others. One feature of this account should be noted, however. The works done to others are not really the basis on which the judgment is rendered. For these works are regarded as having been done (or not having been done) to Jesus himself (vv. 40, 45). It is, then, one's relationship to the Lord, not to one's fellows, that is the basis for the judgment. The question arises: If the works done to others are not the basis of judgment, why are they brought into consideration at all? To answer this question, we must see Matthew 25:31-46 in the broader setting of the doctrine of salvation. Note here the surprise of both groups when the evidence is presented (vv. 37-39, 44). They had not thought of works done to others as indicative of their relationship with God. Even those who had done works of charity are superseded when their deeds of kindness are introduced into evidence. True, works are not meritorious. However, they are evidence of our relationship with Christ and of his grace already operating in us.
Key to Erickson's argument here is when he writes: Note here the surprise of both groups when the evidence is presented (vv. 37-39, 44). They had not thought of works done to others as indicative of their relationship with God. If the "heavenly" crowd knew their acts of charity were the means of their salvation, why are they so surprised? Instead, we should see that those who enter Christ's Kingdom are justified by Christ and as justified citizens of the Kingdom, do the works of the King.

Of course this text is more than this, but it is at least this. I find Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung's argument that "The least of these" refers to other Christians in need, in particular itinerant Christian teachers dependent on hospitality from their family of faith (What is the Mission of the Church?, 162-163) compelling, but such a discussion goes beyond the point of this post.

One more point needs to be made hinted at by Erickson. Scripture is clear that salvation is an act of justification, not sanctification. We are saved only by the finished work of Christ, not by our own works. For Jesus to suggest otherwise in Matthew 25 is to contradict what Jesus Himself had taught elsewhere in the Gospels and what the Bible teaches throughout.

We conclude with this: salvation in Christ is not defined by charity. Nonetheless, those who are truly saved truly love and serve others including the poor.
Post a Comment