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Sunday, November 1, 2020

Matthew's Social Mandate


Often I’ve heard the Luke described as the ‘Gospel of Social Justice.’ Based on the recurring themes found there, I think it’s an apt description. At the same time, I think there is definitely something to be said for the Gospel of Matthew in this regard as well. Although I won’t go in depth here, I’d like to share something I’ve noticed about the structure of the book.

Let’s start with the ‘Sermon on the Mount' found in Matthew 5:1-12*


1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.


2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:


3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.


5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.


6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.


7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.


8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.


9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.


10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.


12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  

 

In this sermon Jesus lays out his vision for the reign of Yahweh. It’s all promises, but no real program. Jesus is saying that good things will come to the salt of the earth folks, but he provides no step-by-step explanation for how these things will occur. It is simply assumed, I believe, that God will intervene.

Note that from verses 1-10 it’s all about ‘they.’ From 11 on it switches to ‘you’ (plural). Read in a certain light, the first set of verses could be a call to action. The ‘poor in spirit’ bit evokes a cowering beggar (Hart, 2017). The verse about mourning seems an exception, in that I can’t imagine people seeking a reason to mourn, and I haven’t seen anything indicating that the word indicates something else. This is a condition that happens to someone against their will.

The Sermon on the Mount can be considered a call to goodness and an assurance of reward for faithfulness. For more on that, let’s fast forward all the way to Matthew 25:31-46 (skipping quite a bit because, as I indicated, this won’t be comprehensive).

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


Once many years ago I preached on this at a church retreat. I had a pretty good cadence going in that sermon, and I emphasized that by taking care of others we were serving God. Then, right of the bat during Q & A after I spoke, one knucklehead spent a full five minutes ‘correcting’ me with the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. That was not what my message was about, and certainly can’t be found in this passage from Matthew. I seems to terrify some evangelicals to think that they might be expected to be compassionate, caring human beings. Their faith is a matter of head knowledge, not the condition of their inner being. I think that for many sensitive souls this has to do with being honest and knowing that they (like everyone) falls short. For others, it’s about having fire insurance against their selfishness and cruelty.


The writer of Matthew closes out his book in chapter 28 with words that have come to shape the baptismal tradition of Christianity through the ages. As I noted recently, the Roman Catholic Church is still fussing over it, invalidating baptisms that don’t match their favored wording.


19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.


For evangelicalism this mandate has been reduced to a glorified multi-level marketing scheme. Become a disciple, then go out and make disciples, who in turn with themselves go out and make disciples. It’s all about growing numbers. The point being missed here is that, per everything that came before this in the Gospel of Matthew, discipleship isn’t about going an merely making coverts. It’s about changing the world for the better. It’s feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving shelter to the homeless. It’s looking after our human siblings. This requires profound social change that begins in the heart. Matthew would have the disciples enact the justice and peace of God on earth, looking after those oppressed and on the margins, and lifting them up. 


And yet, so many Christians today reject the path of peace and justice.


Consider the following from the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. 


People generally are ignorant of the UDHR, and Christians in the United States would likely oppose it if they knew about it, crying that it’s an endorsement of ‘socialism’ and ‘one world government.’ However, I argue that seeking to make real what is described in the UDHR is the modern translation of that ‘disciples of all nations,’ reign of God vision. Now, instead, it’s a commonwealth of humanity that we should be seeking, with pluralism, multiculturalism, and unity in our shared human condition. 


It’s been said many times that his declaration ‘failed.’ In truth, the nations have fallen well short of its lofty goals, and some openly flout it despite being signatories to it. Still, that in no way invalidates the vision, and instead should stir us up to promote this vision all the more. As a matter of fact, notice how the commitment is phrased in the portion I quoted above: ‘every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education.’ 


So what if Russia and China are on the United Nations Human Rights Council? Just because individuals and institutions fail to embrace hope doesn’t mean that everyone should. For this world to be better, some hardy souls are going to always have to be willing to be in the vanguard, calling for what is truest and best for all.


References

Hart, D. B. (2017). The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.