There has been ample opportunity in recent months and years to talk about wealth, inequality, and a whole host of things around these issues. It has been front and center in conversations about race, about tax policy, about healthcare, about abortion…frankly, if you name an issue, you can probably find a way for it to connect into the discussion about inequality. And let’s be honest: inequality exists. We shouldn’t use Jesus’ statement in Matthew 26.11 (“For you always have the poor with you”) as a prediction of the inevitability of this (to do so is to miss the context and the point Jesus did make), but so far the poor have always been with us. There are those who never seem to lack for anything they desire, but there are also those who seem to have to struggle for even the most basic of needs.
In the last couple of posts, we’ve been discussing the value that God has placed on human life. In considering that, we need to consider this area in which probably all of us could stand to do at least a little better in valuing the life of others: in considering those whom Jesus called, “the least of these.” That is, those who were the least in the view of society. That includes the poor. That includes the widow and orphan. That includes the stranger (i.e., the foreigner). God has placed on them the same value that He has those who are the greatest in society. All of us, no matter where we fall in the spectrum, are valued by God as being worthy of His Son sacrificing His life for the hope of us being with Him in eternity.
When you read the Old Testament, one of the things that pops up over and over is that the treatment of the least in society—as exemplified by the widow and orphan—is a benchmark for determining the righteousness of the nation of Israel. This was enshrined in the law of Moses both generically (“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child,” Exo 22.22), and in specific provisions, such as not fully harvesting a field or vineyard. In Deuteronomy 10.18, it is said of the Lord, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” In Isaiah 1.17, when God was telling the people what they needed to do, He told them, “Bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” A few verses later, He condemns the rulers by saying, “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
God’s attitude toward the poor didn’t change in the New Testament. While there are certainly lists of sins like adultery and murder and so on that appear in the New Testament as things that will keep one from dwelling with God for eternity, one of the most familiar scenes of judgment mentions none of those things. Instead, the righteous are told that when Jesus was hungry they gave Him food, when He was thirsty they gave Him drink, when He was a stranger they welcomed Him, when He was naked they clothed Him, when He was sick they visited Him, and when He was in prison they came to Him. And that they did all these things to Him by doing it “to one of the least of these [His] brothers.” Matthew 25 by no means sets this out as the only standard of judgment, but it did provide some needed refocusing for disciples who could be preoccupied with being “the greatest” in the kingdom.
The message of Matthew 25 is reinforced in James 2, where James says that partiality—in context, looking down upon a poor man or giving excessive deference to a rich man—is just as bad as any other sin. He calls the love of neighbor as self the “royal law” and the “law of liberty.” In verse 13, James writes that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This verse has been used to talk about how we should act with people who disagree with us on doctrinal issues or who struggle with sin, but that isn’t what this verse is about in context. We will be judged by God on whether we have shown mercy to the poor, the widow, the orphan—the least of us. Mercy—doing good to all regardless of circumstance or ability to repay or human ideas of “worthiness”—triumphs over an attitude of judgment that looks down upon those we do not consider as good as ourselves or who we do not consider to be “worth it.”
But it isn’t enough merely to talk about doing good for the least among us. We must do something about it. James 2 began by warning against holding the faith in Jesus with partiality, and the second half of the chapter comes back to this by saying,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
It is well and good for us to talk about what “ought” to be done. We can even have philosophical discussions about the role of government and the church in doing the things that ought to be done. But once we figure out who ought to be doing what, we need to do our part. I need to do my part. What have I done with the opportunities I have to take care of the least of these? That’s the question God is going to ask me. I may not be able to donate large sums of money to charity. I may not be able to travel to distant lands. There is something—there is always something—I can do. There is always an opportunity for me to do good. I just have to be willing to do something about it.