Toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 25, Jesus gives this long speech to His disciples. This speech comes immediately after Jesus foretells the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in chapter 24. Jesus speaks to His disciples concerning the end of the age and in chapter 25, verse 31, He begins speaking about the Son of Man on the throne. The Son of Man separates His sheep from the goats, putting His sheep on the right and the goats on the left. Jesus distinguishes these sheep by their care for others.Those who follow Jesus feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40). Those on His left, the goats who aren’t described as having any of these qualities, are cast away. Often when we think of people who consider themselves Christians, we think of those who profess Christ as their savior and believe He resurrected from the dead. Though these beliefs are at the core of what it means to be a Christian, they are not the only ones. In this passage Jesus uses a different standard of how He will judge His followers. I think Matthew recognizes Jesus’ gospel as having a major concern for those who are in need of help. This is the type of justice we see in the gospels.
Google defines social justice as:
“Justice In Terms Of The Distribution Of Wealth, Opportunities, And Privileges Within A Society.”
When I think of those who fight for social justice, I think of those who fight to make right the wrongs that have been done to people in terms of (how google describes it) distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege. For years it has been recognized that things such as racism, sexism, and extreme poverty are results of both oppressive institutions and people who are unwilling to sacrifice their own pleasures for the help of others. One of my favorite quotes concerning social justice comes from Theodore Roosevelt. He once said “Justice consist of not being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.” Staying neutral in matters of oppression does not bring us closer to justice, rather we just become a part of the injustice.
Though I truly believe social justice is a crucial aspect of the Gospel, this humanitarian influence in Christianity did not start with Jesus. One of the biggest themes, if not the biggest theme, in the Bible is that of caring for the poor. Caring for the widows, orphans, foreigners, and those who are oppressed is one of the most consistent messages throughout Scripture. The book of Deuteronomy, a.k.a “The Law”, is often recognized for its humanitarian perspective on obedience to Yahweh. Though Deuteronomy is filled with verses concerning how a person should treat someone who is in need, I want to focus on Deuteronomy. 24:14-22. In this passage the people of Israel are told how they should treat the oppressed. Israel is told not to withhold wages from the poor, but rather to pay them before the sun sets, “because they are poor and their livelihood depends them” (Deuteronomy. 24:15, NRSV). Deuteronomy. 24:17 strictly commands to not withhold justice from the widow and the orphan. When the Israelites reap their harvest they are told to leave some extra for the foreigner. They are not to strip the land of all its food and then profit off it at the expense of these strangers. The Israelite wrote it into their law that people need to give generously to the poor.(Deuteronomy. 15:10-11).
When it comes to our major prophets in the Hebrew Bible, many of them view lack of care for the poor and for the foreigner as a crucial part of Israel’s sin. In Isaiah 1:10-17, the prophet describes God as being disgusted with Israel. Yahweh no longer enjoys their animal sacrifices or is pleased by their temple offerings. All of the religious rituals of God’s people mean absolutely nothing in the face of God and in fact become burdens to Yahweh. He tells them to stop their evil works and wash themselves clean. How does He tell them to do this? “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
Later in chapter 58, God tells Israel what He finds delight in.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:6-9a, NRSV)
Our next major prophet continues this same message from Yahweh. In the book of Jeremiah, the oppression of the poor and the foreigner is what keeps God from returning to Israel (Jeremiah 7:5-7). It is injustice against those who can’t help themselves, that is despicable in the eyes of God and causes Israel turmoil. According to this passage, God won’t even return to His people until this oppression ends. In chapter 22, the prophet says this concerning Israel’s restoration:
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation. (Jeremiah 22:3-5, NRSV)
Every time I read verse 5 a shiver runs down my spine. “But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, say Yahweh, that this house shall become a desolation” (Jeremiah 22:5). God has no small concern for social justice. Oppressing the aliens, orphans, and widows is a big enough concern to Yahweh that He is willing to make Israel, His chosen nation, desolate over it. The prophet Ezekiel show no sign of slowing down in his highlighting of Yahweh’s concern for justice. In listing Yahweh’s judgments against Israel, Ezekiel includes the judgment against Israel for extorting the foreigner and wronging the orphans and widows (Ezekiel 22:7). Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all show Yahweh as bringing upon judgment to those who partake in the oppression of the helpless. The poor, the orphans, widows, and foreigners are not to be mistreated and oppressed, but rather shown justice and mercy.
Paul, our earliest Christian author, considers caring for the poor to be a crucial part of his ministry. In Galatians 2 Paul describes himself as having some sort of dispute with the rest of the apostles. Both parties are preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ but they seem to be doing it slightly different. Paul’s gospel differs significantly from what Peter and James were teaching in Jerusalem concerning Jewish law. Paul believed that he was an apostle sent to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8). Peter and James led a gospel that still placed a very high importance on upholding Jewish law where all Christians were to follow Jewish eating practices and circumcision rituals. As we know now, this small dispute over Jewish law ended up becoming a major divisive point in the Church which led to both parties leading their separate gospel missions. But what I want to show you with this passage is not that they were divided, but what they agreed upon. In Galatians 2:7-9, Paul writes that both Peter and James recognized the grace that was given to Paul and that they were to both lead their separate missions, Peter and James to the Jews, Paul to Gentiles. When Peter and James, the pillars of the Church, approved of Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles, they asked of him only one thing.“They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Mind you once again, these are Jewish leaders in the Christian Church. Peter and James preached a gospel that was inherently Jewish and obeying Jewish law (as we see in next chapter) was a necessity. But what was the true focus of the gospel? What was the only major concern they had that Paul do in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Care for the poor.
As Christians we must help establish justice in this world by recognizing the injustice happening around us. Where do you see injustice happening in America? Is it in the fact that Flint, Michigan[+] has not had clean drinking water for over two years? Or maybe it’s in the fact the Native Americans at Standing Rock[+] in North Dakota are currently fighting for their right to maintain clean water and not have their burial sites destroyed by American businesses. I haven’t even began to include the lack of concern among Christians for the rights of individuals based on race, sex, religion, or gender. How many black unarmed males have to die at the hands of law enforcement before we recognize that a change in policing needs to take place? How many women will have to be sexually assaulted before we recognize that the kind of language that promotes this type of behavior will not be tolerated, especially by our nation’s leaders? At what point will the LGBTQ community receive fair and equal measures of love and commitment from our Christian churches? At what point will we recognize that rejecting refugees from other countries out of fear that they will harm us is a rejection of the gospel? (Matthew 5:42, Job 31:32, Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 25:35, Hebrews 13:2).
I urge you to scroll back to the beginning and read Matthew 25:34-40 again. It is not those who simply claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior who end up on His right side. Those who are on the right of Jesus and spend eternity with Him are those who fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, and welcomed Him when He was a stranger. How does Jesus identify Himself? “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Who are the least of these that surround you? Is it the homeless in your area? Is it the immigrants who get treated as if God had not given them equal dominion over this earth? Find those who need help in your community and help them. If you see our government being used as a tool of oppression to others, become active in politics. If you see people who do not look like you being unfairly treated, do not ignore the problem because it does not directly affect you. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, our King, identifies Himself with the least of these. Therefore their problems are your problems. I urge you to follow Christ and identify yourself with the least of these. Be a proponent of the gospel and work to establish justice in this world. Put the welfare of others before yourself. I pray that one day we will all recognize each other as children of the Father in hopes that we can then build love and community in the place of hate and separation. Go and follow your King.
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