My understanding of the ethics of Jesus, and therefore any true Christian ethics that people who claim to follow Jesus should try to live out, comes from two passages from the Gospel of Matthew (as well as their parallels in Mark and Luke, especially Luke's parallel of Matthew 22:34-40 which he uses to introduce the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37). Here they are:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
--Matthew 22:34-40 NRSV
"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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.' 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 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.' 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.' 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?' 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.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
--Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV
I'm a proponent of each believer's freedom to interpret scripture, but I would call into question any interpretation of scripture that did not use these two passages as a lens to rightly understand what Jesus demands of his followers. If your interpretation of scripture does not line up with loving God and neighbor on the one hand and understanding the presence of the Divine in each person and therefore the reality that she or he is worthy of love, dignity and equality on the other hand, then you need to think again about how you read the Bible
In other words, if your use of the Bible ignores "love of neighbor" and caring for "the least of these," you are doing it wrong.
We may disagree about what ways are best in demonstrating love for those whom society calls the "least of these" or for example the best public policies to make such "love of neighbor" reality, but neglecting these key Christian ethical concepts, in my book, is just not possible in any valid Christian ethical worldview.
I've been thinking about these two passages of scripture lately after hearing the words of Jesus used in recent political debates. Earlier this month, Rep. Roger Marshall, who is a doctor just elected to represent Kansas' 1st district, said in an interview, "Just like Jesus said, 'The poor will always be with us.' There is a group of people that just don't want health care and aren't going to take care of themselves." Setting aside the farcical idea that poor people don't want healthcare, let's take a look at the good Christian doctor's use of scripture.
He cites a verse present in three of the Gospels: Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8. In all three versions of this story, a woman has just anointed Jesus with costly perfume, and a disciple objects to her "wasting" such a costly ointment upon Jesus and claims it should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus defends the woman and then says, "The poor will always be with you. . . " Of course the good doctor left out the rest of the sentence in which Jesus says, ". . .but you will not always have me with you."
This story takes place near to the time of Jesus' death. He knew his time was coming, and he understood the woman was symbolically preparing him for burial and anointing him as king and messiah--neither were things his disciples understood. Jesus' meaning is made clear in Mark's version where he says, "For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me." (NRSV) In other words, "Hey disciples, I'm about to get killed, so how about you appreciate me while I'm still around. You'll have the rest of your lives to care for the poor." Jesus doesn't say, "Don't care for the poor, because there will always be poor people," as the good doctor seems to think, rather his commands about loving neighbor and caring for the least of these still stand.
Furthermore, if you read these verses in any modern translation, you will find a footnote in this verse which points a careful reader to Deuteronomy 15:11. It turns out Jesus is quoting from the Torah when he says, "the poor will always be with you." The NRSV translates this verse as, "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'" Just a few verses earlier in 15:8, Moses speaking for God says, "If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor." In other words, God commands the hearers to give with a glad heart to their neighbors who are in need(verse 8) but since God knows humans--being humans after all--will not always do so, people in need will always be around (verse 11).
The verse from Torah Jesus quotes, in its context, really means poor and needy people will always exist not because they are unworthy of care (as the good doctor seems to believe) but rather because people will always be selfish and greedy. I would add to this that people who are poor and in need will always exist, because human institutions in society and government inevitably end up favoring those with more power and wealth. Need proof? A new study came out this week showing that the 20 richest Americans have as much wealth as the bottom half of the American population--20 people have as much wealth as 152 million of their fellow Americans. But I guess, if we believe Dr. Marshall, those 152 million just like being poor!
CCCUCC member and Emporia State University Political Science professor Michael Smith had a recent column about Rep. Marshall's quotation of scripture where he had clergy around Kansas weigh in. Make sure to take a look at it.
Unfortunately, even Matthew 25 has not been immune from bad interpretation. Erick Erickson, conservative radio host and Fox News commentator, apparently grew tired of people citing the parable of the sheep and goats to condemn the Trump administration's budget cuts to Meals on Wheels, so he decided to offer his own Bible study. According to Erickson, Matthew 25:40, in which the king says, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, [literally in the Greek my brothers] you did it to me," means the "least of these" in question are really Christian poor people and not poor people in general. So, I guess he means Christians should only help poor people who are also Christians.
Erickson's interpretation resulted in Christians launching a tweet storm refuting his reading of the verse. Scholar Diana Butler Bass offered a string of tweets noting that throughout Christian history some Christians did interpret this verse as referring to Christians only, but the consensus over time throughout Christian history has been the verse refers to all people who are "the least of these" no matter whether they are Christian or not. We can only speculate what Erickson's recommendations for government policy or even church practice might be based upon his reading. Should we make sure someone has accepted Christ as Lord and Savior before helping them? Should we check church attendance records before we feed hungry children? Should we make sure someone is baptized before we help them find a place to live? I'm not sure which Jesus Erickson knows, but his Jesus does not sound like the one I know.
Those who believe the fruits of society belong only to those who have clawed their way to the top by whatever means will always try to make Jesus into a product they can sell or an idelogy that benefits them only. Those who believe God's love extends to all and therefore each and every person is worthy of sharing in those fruits of society will see Jesus for who he is. Any Jesus who does not teach his followers to "love neighbor" and care for "the least of these" is a Jesus unworthy of following.
Grace and Peace,