Denny Burk has written a piece that people seem to care enough about to respond to. It has angered people that he dared to suggest that the least of these is not the poor existing outside the church but rather those who face persecution for the sake of Christ. He writes,
This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ.
Andy Horvath, writing several months before Burk and without the assistance of the Right’s boogey-man (President Obama), says,
The “least of these my brothers” are the disciples, followers of Jesus who carry his message. Jesus’ “brothers” in the Gospel of Matthew are always his disciples (12:48–50; 28:10). That specific language is used of no one else.
Burk uses Matthew 18 while Horvath uses Matthew 10, primarily. Both of these supposed parallels may provide clues as to Jesus’s original meaning — yes, the Matthew of Jesus is using “least of these” to suggest the Church help its own first (Horvath over Burk) — but what both fail to do is the first Protestant clause: Scriptura Scripturae interpres to understand the passage within the whole of the New Testament.
The New Testament is not only one level of Tradition. It is not that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all wrote independent of one another or of Paul. It is not that the Pseudo- and Deutero-Pauline authors wrote independent of the Synoptics or of Paul. Even Revelation quotes other books of the New Testament. The New Testament canon as we have it is a multi-level Tradition even. It begins with Paul, moves to the Synoptics, then to the extra-Pauline canon, then to the catholic epistles, Hebrews, and on… with each making use of what came before. I am not one who believes the Canon is a political document, rather, I believe it is a logical one based primarily on a literary resemblance.
However, the whole of the New Testament is still Scripture.
So, rather than letting Matthew dangle out there by himself, I think we should see what literary Tradition from within the New Testament has to say.
I think there is a significant parallel in Hebrews 13.1–3
Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.
This brotherly love may indeed be limited to Christians, something we will answer later, but as we can see the basic rules in Matthew 25 is here in Hebrews 13. We even get to see the turn of phrase by this author, drawing out Matthew 25.40. Jesus says that when we do these things to the “least of these” we do them unto him. The author of Hebrews says that we should do these things because we may actually be serving an angel. Yes, there is a flashback to the story in Genesis of Abram and the Angels, but I think there is equally the connection to Matthew 25. Granted, Hebrews may have been written first, which means the lesson of “brotherly love” was an initial part of the community or it. Either way, this is meant to serve as an example of how one author deals with a previous author’s work from within the canon.
Is this a solid parallel? We can use parallels all the day long to build our case, but what we need is a good lexicon.
I want to turn to Luke who seems to have at his focus the economics of Jesus. While Matthew seems restrictive with his family terminology, we know from Luke that he was quite the expansionist in his understanding of the mission of Jesus’s disciples.
Simply, when I read Matthew 25, I read it through the lens of Luke 19.25–37 and Mark 12.31. In the first passage, Jesus expands neighbor past that of one’s natural kin and makes it a verb. In the second, we see the rank of neighbor elevated to that of kin! Think of it is this way. Throughout Scripture, we read of houses expanded by taking the stranger in. These adoptions erases the genetic line and made something new. If we first read that we are to be kind to our family (fellow-Christians) then we read we are to love our non-family like we love our family, then what else can we do but see the admonition in Matthew 25 as one that is expanded past the original intent and now includes even those outside the Church?
Indeed, because we see the understanding of the mission of the Church grow past the earliest accounts and into something universal — and all within the same book — we must read the least of these as something more than merely treating the poor of the Church properly. Rather, the least of these are now those we must find and become neighbors to!
And who is our neighbor? The outcast, the poor, the cripple. This is too the commandment of Christ from Luke:
Then he said to his host, ‘When you are having guests for lunch or supper, do not invite your friends, your brothers or other relations, or your rich neighbours; they will only ask you back again and so you will be repaid. But when you give a party, ask the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That is the way to find happiness, because they have no means of repaying you. You will be repaid on the day when the righteous rise from the dead.’ (Luke 14.12–14 REB)
If Scripture interprets Scripture, then we do not merely see Matthew’s passage alone, but through the lens of Hebrews and more, through Luke…though the developing story of Jesus.