Mar 23, 2011

To love or not to love: It isn't a question.

I recently submitted this as a paper to an ethics class:

Both the Old and New Testaments reflect the sad fact that the poor will always be amongst members of a humanity not in complete rightness with the Creator. Deuteronomy 15:11 states “There will always be poor people in the land…”. John 12:8 depicts Jesus as saying to his disciples “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Certainly we see the evidence of this truth today—one need only transverse a road in the downtown area of any major city in the world to see examples of the poorest of the poor, those whom society has apparently given up on. On the same street, however, one may also find a church. Given our temporal context, what does Matthew 25:31-46, a classic passage about ministering to the practical needs of the downtrodden, contribute to our understanding of responsibility to the homeless?

The first section of this passage paints a picture of God sitting on his throne, judging between people of “all the nations” (v.22) and separating the sheep from the goats. Those who are put on his right side, the sheep, are invited to accept the inheritance prepared for them, for they fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the prisoners, and tended the sick. They cared for the “least of these” (v.40) and each action is being understood as having been done to God as well. Those who saw the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, and infirmed and did nothing are cast as guilty of having ignored the LORD as if he himself were lying on the side of the road or in prison.

Many people justify their lack of action to end homelessness by saying things like “oh, the homeless could get a job if they really wanted to” or “they are responsible for the consequences of their addictions”. We conveniently forget that the homeless are fully human as well—people whom God sees and loves desperately—and many times life just kicks people in the teeth (for example, the thousands of displaced individuals in Haiti did not choose to have their homes leveled by a catastrophic earthquake). Is it ethical to explain away inaction in this manner? Note that Jesus does not ask how the sick became sick, or the hungry, naked, and thirsty lost the ability to provide for themselves. Nor does he say “visit the people in prison who are there for burglary, but leave the rapists alone”. Rather he says “the sick”, “prisoners”, etc. He does not seem to care how individuals took their place amongst the least of society, just that they are there and are in need of tending. Just because a lack of responsibility on their part may have contributed to where they sleep at night does not remove our responsibility in offering them service and care. (Also note that this passage does not command people to tend to the marginalized (this command can, however, be found elsewhere). Rather, it just provides an example of ‘here is what will happen if you do and here is what will happen if you don’t’.)
It is important to note the kind of care for “the least of these” being discussed in this passage. Jesus does not say “preach at them, but they get to worry about where food is going to come from” or “you should baptize them, but it is their responsibility to get to the doctor.” This passage depicts a Savior who is exquisitely concerned about the practical needs of the people. Preaching the Gospel and baptizing willing participants each have their place, are very good, and indeed can even be seen as commands in particular verses (ex: Mark 16:15-16), but one must attend to practical needs as well. After all, a hungry person is not able to focus on the Good News of the Gospel while their empty stomach is doing cartwheels, or if a fever clouds their thoughts. A prisoner does not care to hear about the love of a distant, not-always-tangible Creator when no one around them seems to care a whit. Abraham Maslow is well-known for his articulation of the human ‘hierarchy of needs’, namely that basic needs (e.g. food, water, shelter, safety) must be met before one can focus on so-called higher needs (e.g. self-actualization, abstract concepts of the world and God). Rare is the individual for whom the order is reversed. Practical needs must be met so the Gospel may be shared and heard in truth.

Notice that this passage also does not say care for the marginalized is reserved only for those who will accept the Gospel, as if we should hold food hostage until the person proclaims faith in the Lord and Savior. “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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (v. 35-36, NIV). Do you see a conditional phrase in that text? No—the state of being hungry existed and it was tended, same with the states of being thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Those who are able to tend these needs are not given license to ignore certain people because they are not pretty, the right age, height, or race, not ideally oriented towards receiving the Gospel, etc. These needs were tended simply because they existed. A similar statement may be made about the following verses:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (v. 41-42, NIV).
The aforementioned states of hunger, thirst, etc existed and damning guilt results from the fact that nothing was done. Voltaire once said “every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.” Combining this thought with the passage from Mark would make it seem we are morally required to do that which we can towards those who, for whatever reason under the sun, are unable to tend themselves.

On the other hand, what if this is a passage meant to be taken figuratively? What if Jesus was addressing those who are hungry, thirsty, and naked in spirit, those supernaturally imprisoned by the Devil’s grip on humanity[1]? Reading this passage figuratively does not release the reader from moral obligation. It would still seem we are morally responsible to and for tending to spiritual hunger and imprisonment just as if we were tending the physical needs of a body. If someone is spiritually hungry, feed them with the Word and by the Spirit. Clothe them in the armor of God. Direct them towards the well that will never run dry, the Son who proclaims freedom for prisoners and slaves.

By tending the needs of the marginalized, the sheep interact directly with God as he stands in solidarity with “the least of these”. Yet another implication of this Scripture is that God is often found in unexpected ways amongst those whom we would rather ignore. Trying to find God in the church, or in liturgy and worship, or even in debate has its place, but by interacting directly with the poor, one interacts with the Almighty. God sees the marginalized, relates with them, and has even placed himself within their shoes. A deity became a pauper so that we might experience his love. We reflect love back to God by tending his beloved in whichever way need is presented. Oh boy, we have a lot of work to do!

[1] Given other Scriptural references to being clothed in God’s armor, this reading does not seem entirely out of the question.