Jesus Represents a God Who Feeds People
The ongoing farm bill negotiations in both the Senate and the House, like so many issues in American public life, involve complicated calculations—especially for Christians. Those who claim to follow Jesus Christ are faced with the problem of translating his perfect love into an imperfect public sphere, one with diverse textures, concerns, and challenges. What exactly does Jesus Christ’s love look like in terms of the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized? Was Jesus for these people or against them? In looking to what Jesus did and said in the scripture, Christians can find direction for more modern political decisions.
Those who wish to do nothing about the poor or the hungry often go to Matthew: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11, NRSV). On a superficial reading, this seems to be a blanket endorsement – from Jesus, no less! – of the plight of the poor in human society. Yet a deeper reading reveals quite the opposite. The preceding verses in Matthew tell of a woman who had applied an alabaster jar of ointment – quite a costly gift – to Jesus’ head, and how the disciples criticized her. These pre-Resurrection disciples did not yet fully understand the significance of Jesus Christ. They certainly did not understand the second half of that verse: “You will not always have me.” This is not a call to inaction: it is a call to value Jesus Christ more highly, in that very moment, than any social cause. This does not mean that Jesus trumps engagement for the poor, however. Who is this Christ if not one who stands entirely with the poor?
The key to reading this passage comes just a chapter earlier in Matthew 25:40: “[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (NRSV). With these words, Jesus reveals that he shares a mystical union with those people who, quite arbitrarily, occupy society’s lowest classes. He speaks not just about individuals, although the least of these certainly are individual people with their own integrity, hopes, dreams, and worth. Jesus speaks about a class of people – one that is worthy of kindness in very abstract and very concrete terms. Not only do the least of these deserve the same respect that richer and more powerful people enjoy, they also deserve to have their very immediate human needs satisfied: their shelter, their hunger, and their thirst. Anyone who gives to the least of these in this way gives also to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most-cited verse against feeding the hungry comes from Paul or one of his followers: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, NRSV). This seems to be an early Christian endorsement of the modern pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. In Paul’s time, this might well have been a pressing problem: people using the Christian community as a way of avoiding work while still claiming social benefits. In our time, however, the problem has shifted drastically. Not only are we faced with the problem of unemployment versus employment; we also face the issue of underemployment. Even those who can find jobs don’t always make enough money to feed their families. This is not an issue of rich versus poor; it is an issue of hard-working Americans not being paid enough for their honest labor in a national system that falls tragically short of Jesus Christ’s ideals for a loving society.
Time and time again, Jesus reveals himself as a prophet in the Old Testament sense, one whose concerns center on the widow and the orphan, the most marginalized people of his time, those without the social support systems enjoyed by wives who had husbands and children who had fathers. Jesus represents a God who feeds people regardless of who they are. Jesus gives food to all, without asking whether they have jobs, believe in what he’s saying, or go to church. Jesus represents the God whose love comes to each of us, regardless of our social station.
Dan Rohrer is a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary.
Photo: A woman praying during Bread for the World's 2011 National Gathering at American University.(Laura Elizabeth Pohl)
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