Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Uses and Abuses of Matthew

Anthony McCarthy cites a few passages from Matthew 25 and then admonishes fellow liberals:

It’s too bad that pride and antiquated conformity keep liberals and leftists from pointing out these things. Can’t understand why we shouldn’t. Like it or not, it makes no difference, Christianity is the equivalent of a natural force in our political life. We’re not under any constitutional prohibition from citing whatever furthers our purpose.[enphasis in original]
If you accept the premise that tendentious cherry-picking of Bible verses (or any other text) is a valid move in the game of politics, and further recognize that plenty of self-labeled Christians want to associate themselves with the warmer fuzzies of the Gospel of Matthew, I suppose there's something to this.

So I guess I take the cold pricklies side of this -- or "pride and antiquated conformity" or whatever -- when I decline. I decline because this seems like a cynical and dishonest use of the text, and more fundamentally, because the text in question is not worthy of its reputation. Here is the passage from Matthew 25:31-46 as quoted by McCarthy:
Jesus said, "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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.' 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 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.' 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.' 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?' 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.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
The apparent niceness of this comes at the price of not asking any detailed questions about it.

To wit: were there, perhaps, legitimate reasons that the 'goats' of this parable -- the ones Jesus is planning to cast into eternal hellfire -- declined to give comfort to strangers, visit prisoners, or hand out food, water, and clothing to everyone who claimed to need it? I hate to be the pooper of this pity party, but I need to know more about the situation before I can get dewy-eyed and nod along with Jesus's vision of charity as set forth here.

It does happen from time to time, despite Jesus's tacit admission that the moral order of the world he supposedly created is so fucked up that "the least" should be assumed to be the innocently wronged or the blamelessly luckless, that the least actually deserve to be the least. Once in a blue moon -- and more often than that when we really try at it -- just desserts are allocated right here on Jesus's own cracked world.

To pick some obvious cases, I see no duty to visit child molestors, rapists, and murderers in prison unlesss it's to verify that they're locked away securely, suitably miserable, and, where possible, on the path to contrition and amends. I don't feel badly about what finally became of Saddam Hussein or his blood-soaked sons. On the other hand, I have donated to the Innocence Project and strongly support their work because the innocent should be truthfully distinguished from the guilty, after which the innocent should go free and the guilty should be punished in some proportionate manner. This is justice. The guilty and the innocent deserve to be treated differently, Matthew 25 notwithstanding.

As for dealing with strangers, befriending everyone and assuming the best about them is a proven method for getting swindled, brutalized or killed. A healthy skepticism of strangers is simple prudence, and yes, it does entail an unknowable number of 'false positives.' If Jesus disagrees, Jesus is wrong.

I'm less skeptical of giving water, food, and clothing without being so very particular about the recipients, although it would be irresponsible to pay no attention to the circumstances.

So back to McCarthy's proposal to make use of a text such as this one: thank you, but no. We have better books. Pretending that bad and vague books are not bad and vague only enables the failure to ask necessary questions about right, wrong, charity, and justice.

Here is some excellent further reading on the Gospel of Matthew by Edmund Standing, "The Gospel of Matthew: A Book for Today?" -- well worth a slice of your time (I kid you not).


Edmund Standing said...

You may enjoy my article The Gospel of Matthew: A Book for Today?



Dale said...

Edmund, I have and I do! This reminds me to throw in a link to that article -- something I planned to do and then forgot to do.

Are you reading my mind or something?

If so, please tell me how. It is a power I would enjoy and would almost always use for good. ;-)

Edmund Standing said...

Yes, it's called the power of Jeeesus! :-)

Thanks, by the way, and nice blog.

Dale said...

Edmund, many thanks! And right back at you.