Saturday, December 18, 2010

Matthew 25, James 2, and the Homeless

I have been thinking a little recently about the church’s response to homelessness.  Inevitably a couple of “pretty clear” passages come up when discussing this topic.  One is Matthew 25:31-40 the other is James 2:14-17.  These make it obvious, or so it is thought, that the church is not being faithful to the gospel unless it is feeding the poor, clothing the naked, giving clean water to the thirsty.  But is that really what these texts are saying?

Consider Matthew 25:31-40:

[31] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. [32] Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. [33] And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. [34] Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. [35] For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, [36] I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ [37] Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? [38] And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? [39] And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ [40] And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
(Matthew 25:31-40 ESV)

There you have it.  If I do not give food, water, and clothes, to my fellow man then it’s just like I rejected Jesus.  I can firmly place myself on the side of the unbelieving community.  But if you notice in verse 40 Jesus says, “one of the least of these my brothers”.  This is talking about how we respond to the needs of believers.  This is not a blanket statement that you can put over all of humanity that says, “if you don’t give money or your home to a homeless guy then you don’t know Jesus”, or its less bold variations. 

Now Consider James 2:14-17:

    [14] What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [15] If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, [16] 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? [17] So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)

This verse is often thought to be saying that if you see somebody that is in need but you don’t meet that need then it is obvious that your faith is dead.  But is that really what this text is saying.  The key word here is, “So also” in verse 17.  This is an analogy.  A well-wish without action is not really a well-wish.  Just like faith without action is dead.  That is what this text is saying.  It may very well be that we can use this analogy and say that if we really want to care for the homeless of the world we will feed them and not simply pray for them.  But this is NOT giving an example of dead faith. 

So, as we continue to look at how we minister to the homeless and broken in our world let’s not do it with a faulty interpretation of these two verses…

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