How is this command of love often (usually?) communicated? How is it expressed in actuality?
[The Lord] has told you . . . what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
misguided reading of Matthew 25:31-46 is often (usually?) deployed here, especially 25:34-36:
‘Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”’
This is love, undoubtedly. It’s not for nothing that James writes:
Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. (James 2:15-17)
So feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked – all these are good things, essential things, which any local church worthy of the name of Jesus must do. This is how Christians are to love – and it shouldn’t need a misguided reading of Matthew 25 to justify this stance.
But is everyone hungry? Is everyone a stranger? Is everyone naked? How does the church love those who aren’t hungry, who aren’t strangers, who aren’t naked? What form does the church’s love take for these people? Are we meant to spiritualise the parable of the sheep and the goats at this point, saying that everyone is hungry – for God; everyone is a stranger – until s/he meets Jesus (and gets placed on a church rota); everyone is naked – until clothed with Christ? I don’t think so.
I don’t think that’s the right approach. But I don’t have any convincing answers. I believe in many respects it’s easier to feed the hungry than it is to discern and meet the legitimate needs of the person whose belly swells below a broken heart and a crushed spirit. And I also suspect that the way for the latter person to feel loved isn’t simply for the church to encourage that person to engage in varying levels of social activism – or even traditional evangelistic outreach initiatives – in order to love the former person so peace and contentment may be found through obedience to the gospel. But is my perspective here flawed? Here’s James again:
My brothers and sisters, when you show favouritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.’ But to the poor person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, sit at my feet.’ Wouldn’t you have shown favouritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? [. . .] But when you show favouritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:1-4, 9a)
I accept that the good news of Jesus Christ is biased towards the poor. Those who find themselves oppressed and suppressed by the uncaringly dismissive among the rich and powerful need the church – among other bodies, I should add – to fight on their behalf. I can’t stress this enough. But I do not accept that such a bias means favouritism. Let’s reverse James’s examples:
My brothers and sisters, when you show favouritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One is poor, is dressed in filthy rags, and hasn’t had a shower in days, while the other has an iPhone and fine clothes. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing rags, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here while we prepare a bath and a meal for you. And then I’ll listen to your life story.’ But to the other person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, let me deal with this person first, because I see you have a mobile phone, are well dressed, and probably have had a good breakfast as well. Or perhaps you can assist me as I see to our shabby friend.’ Wouldn’t you have shown favouritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
So let me ask again: How does the church show love to those whose needs are not obvious? What form does love take for those whose needs are not obvious? And is there a genuine difference between the gospel’s bias towards the poor and the church’s romanticised favouritism towards the poor?
(This issue must be a March thing for me – see here!)