“…for I was hungry, and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;
“I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?
“When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?
“Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”
And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it unto Me.” [Matthew 25:35-40]*
In this new series, I plan to look at scriptures which are taken out of context, misquoted, and otherwise distorted in their presentation with the result that they are twisted and distorted in their interpretation and application. What makes this even more reprehensible is that some of the worst offenders are people who otherwise seem to be quite accurate and responsible in their presentation of Scripture.
I will not be talking about such cultic twisting of Scriptures such as the utterly false presentation of John 1:1 by the Watchtower Society [aka Jehovah's Witnesses] or their New World [mis]translation of the Bible, or the even more fantastic inventions added to the Bible by the Independence, Missouri, branch of the Mormon church called the RLDS [or Community of Christ, as it prefers to be known now], via their so-called “Inspired” ["Invented" would be a more accurate adjective] Version of the Bible.
No, what I will be looking at will be passages which are misquoted, misinterpreted, and misapplied by Christians who consider themselves to be conservative, Bible-believing, evangelicals.
The first passage for this series is the above-cited passage in Matthew, with emphasis on verse 40, and its analogous antithesis, Matthew 25:45.
Whether cited by Mother Theresa, Samaritan’s Purse, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, Compassion International, Teen Challenge, JPUSA, or a lot of well-meaning pastors with poor exegetical skills, the common [mis]interpretation and [mis]application of the passage is taken as a command that all believers are required to expend massive outlays of resources on the unredeemed to relieve any and all financial distress. Some further add that it is un-Christian to qualify or impose any conditions for such aid—that because God freely bestows His grace on all, we should be equally free in dispensing our finances without qualification, condition, or examination as to the “worthiness” of the recipient.
The fact of the matter is that when one examines not merely this passage, but other passages which speak to the issue of what is the relationship of the believer and charitable giving, one finds a vastly different view than what is promoted by most charitable organizations and ministers.
I am sure what I say will strike some as being rebellious, heretical, or callous, but I ask you to hear me out, search the Scriptures, and examine the Scriptures in light of what the text ACTUALLY says and not merely take it for granted that simply because some publicly noted Christian celebrity, televangelist, or minister espouses some view or another that it must be right. And it does not matter if 10,000 ministers gainsay what I write, the standard for formulating our doctrine and practice is God’s Word as it actually reads, not what 10,000 ministers claim it reads.
POINT 1: Jesus never imposed a general obligation on His followers to aid all poor people everywhere.
In the passage cited above, the Scripture twisters interpret and apply the phrase “the least of these” to mean whoever is in those conditions: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, sick, and imprisoned. But is that really what Christ said?
When one looks at the phrase as it is found in Matthew 24:40, the clause is qualified with the phrase “My brothers.” The qualifier does not appear in Matthew 24:45, but that is not a cause for concern. The lack of the qualifier is viewed by most commentators as an elision, an omission which is understood from the previous usage in the same context. Therefore we have to understand the phrase in accordance with the qualifier and any interpretation which ignores the qualifier is twisting the Scripture.
Those who do attempt to deal with the qualifier while still twisting the Scripture make the attempt in one of two ways. The first method is to change the usage of “my brethren” from a qualifier to a vocative. This argument is not merely poor exegesis—it is dishonest and manipulative. The Greek construction of the phrase is in the genitive case in every manuscript, while a vocative is always, ALWAYS, in the nominative case. A more accurate [and clarifying] rendering of the phrase “the least of these my brothers” would be “one of the least of these brothers of Mine.” [HCSB]*
The second method is to fall back on a heresy called universalism, in which the qualifier is basically ignored or reinterpreted according to liberation theology, in which the phrase is interpreted as being a reference to all who are in physical poverty. [This interpretation is offered in the pseudo-evangelical commentary The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, pp. 998-999.]
Whichever method is used, the result is the same—an interpretation and application which is based in eisegesis—reading a meaning into the text according to the biases and prejudices of the reader—instead of allowing the text to speak for itself according to the rules of grammar for the original. And the worst “translation” when it comes to abusing and twisting this passage [as it does with the entire Bible] is The Message.
Allowing the text to speak for itself, we must ask ourselves, what did Jesus mean when He qualified the phrase “the least of these” with “my brothers”? Some commentators, writing from the theological perspective of dispensationalism believe this judgment occurs at the onset of the millennium, immediately following the Second Coming. In this judgment, all who are alive are judged immediately and are either granted eternal life, or consigned to eternal punishment. According to such interpretations, the sheep and the goats refer to Gentiles—since they described in v. 32 as being from “the nations,”–a term which is never used in Scripture except in reference to those who are not physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“My brothers,” according to these commentators, then refers to Jewish people who became believers during the seven-year tribulation. “The sheep” are those Gentiles who also became believers during the tribulation and did what they could to help their Jewish brothers in the faith. “The goats” are the non-believing Gentiles who tried to play both ends against the middle. They did not accept the mark of the beast or worship the anti-Christ, but they were never followers of Christ either. This is the interpretation offered in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (II:81), the Believer’s Study Bible (p. 1382)]. Such interpretations take into account the overall context of the passage [the events immediately following Christ's return] and therefore do not see this as an absolute, general command for believers to devote themselves to the alleviation of all poverty.
While I believe there is a more general application than that indicated by some of the dispensational commentators, I do not believe there is a universal application which directs Christian efforts towards the alleviation of all poverty. In Matthew 26:8-10, Jesus had to rebuke the apostles for thinking there was some general obligation to alleviate all poverty. This is further reinforced by Acts 5:4. Even though this appears in the context of judgment being meted out on Ananias, the point is clear and simple—Ananias had no obligation to rid himself of wealth in order to give to the poor. His sin was in lying about the amount being given. Had he sold the property and told Peter, “I wish to give a portion for the care of the poor,” there would have been no problem. The sin was in keeping back a portion, while publicly claiming to be giving all.
POINT 2: Jesus’ use of the term “My brothers” is highly restrictive, and does not apply to humanity in a universal sense.
Those who believe otherwise, need to be able to provide proof from Scripture. To understand Jesus’ use of the term in this context, we need to ask if there are any other instances in which He used the term. The answer is yes—but only once. And there His use of the term is restrictive, not universal. That incident is recorded in Matthew 12:46-50 and Jesus states succinctly that only those who do the will of God are qualified to be called His brothers. In one of the parallel passages, Luke 8:21, He said His brothers are those who hear the word of God and do [obey] it. This is highly restrictive in that those who have never acknowledged the Lordship of Christ cannot be considered as having heard the word of God and obeying it. Hebrews 2:11 further clarifies this distinction—that His brethren are those whom He has sanctified—no one else. So there is no universal obligation to aid the poor which can be justified according to this passage of Scripture.
So when we are helping others, we are only obligated to aid those in need who are: (1) who have professed belief in Christ, and (2) whose lives demonstrate it by their actions. [For example, see 1 Timothy 5:3-16.]
POINT 3: Therefore, it is only to those whom are considered Jesus’ brothers that we have any obligation to provide aid according to this Scripture—not to those who by their attitudes and actions have displayed nothing but rebelliousness and contempt for the things of God.
But, I hear someone say, what about Jesus’ command to the young man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor? [Matthew 19:16-22] The point might be valid—except for the fact that this is an instruction given to one person at a particular point in time for a particular purpose. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the young man went away with no intention of obeying Christ. There is nothing in the passage which indicates that this was a universal command—any more than Jesus’ command to Peter in Matthew 14:29 is a general command for all believers to walk across bodies of water without the use of conveyances such as bridges or ferries [or, in some cases, tunnels].
As I alluded to earlier, if Acts 5:4 indicates that what we have acquired through the fruits of our labors is ours to retain or dispose of as we deem appropriate, then we cannot make Matthew 19:16-22 a general obligation for all believers, either by direct command, necessary inference, or approved precedence, because it was instruction given to one individual, only one time, and in a particular set of circumstances.
Scripture is full of references which point to the believers’ obligation to engage in labor, industry, thrift, and commerce to secure their economic well-being. One example is 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, in which the apostle Paul states that he provided for his own needs through his own labor and that this was an example for the Thessalonian believers to follow. He concluded by noting that the Thessalonians were not to keep company with any so-called believer who rejected his teaching.
POINT 4: If there is any obligation to assist those outside of the faith, that obligation is situational, based on extreme emergency, limited in duration, and entered into voluntarily by the donor.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:30-37], the Samaritan’s aid for the man beaten by robbers was situational, based on extreme emergency, limited in duration, and entered into voluntarily. He did not undertake to support the man for the rest of his life, his aid was limited to the victim’s recovery, and the only compulsion he had was his own conscience. Moreover, had the victim been rendered permanently unable to work, he would have been required to locate to one of the Levitical cities for subsistence from the tithes and offerings brought to the Levites, he would not have been the responsibility of the Samaritan.
This is unlike the assistance programs operated by our government, which are open-ended and make no requirements of the recipients apart from some generalized, extremely lax job search requirements. At one point, thirty years ago, work requirements were proposed by the federal government, but the courts quickly overturned these requirements stating that welfare is a right [which is why welfare programs are called “entitlements”] not a gift, or a privilege. “Workfare” was deemed to be a form of involuntary servitude, instead of people earning their subsistence.
James Madison, who is credited with authoring our Constitution once noted: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on the objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” In other words, the author of our Constitution stated that there is no power vested in the Congress [where spending bills originate – not in any other branch of government] which gives authorizes them to take money from working citizens to give to people who either cannot or will not work. This is the original intent of the founding fathers. Madison rightly understood that works of charity, or benevolence were the domain of the churches and those who wished to do so voluntarily.
POINT 5: Poor planning on someone’s part, does not make it an emergency on my part.
While such a view may seem callous and trite, it basically follows common sense and represents the Biblical view which encourages labor, ingenuity, and thrift. When someone chooses to do poorly in school and drops out, or chooses not to extend his or her education beyond high school, thereby becoming unemployable for anything other than minimum wage jobs, or someone chooses to expend his or her income in a prodigal or wasteful manner [such as tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, or some other such nonsense]–it does not become my responsibility [or the church's] to bail them out should they not have sufficient funds to cover their needs until their next paycheck or to support them in a “better” economic lifestyle.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scriptures designated as HCSB come from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers.