“The least of these my brethren”—as we define brethren.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 June

Matthew 25.40.

There’s some debate as to where out-of-context interpretations of the bible come from. Goes from the extremes of “Every single last one of them comes from the devil,” to “They’re honest mistakes—perpetuated by laziness, ’cause people should bother to double-check the context, and don’t.”

I would say the reality, most of the time, is somewhere in between the two. I seldom think these mistaken interpretations are honest mistakes. Though certainly honest mistakes can happen: You’ll get someone who’s trying to talk about an old biblical concept in a new and different way—which is fine, if you really are teaching the old concept, and not trying to claim the scriptures are saying something which no other Christian has ever noticed. But sometimes a listener will misunderstand you, repeat it to others but get it wrong, and wind up spreading a new, wrong concept. That’s an honest mistake. I’ve done that. (Sorry.)

Thing is, there are people who want the scriptures to say something entirely new. Something which might make their teaching ministry stand out—“Hey, come and listen to this guy who teaches stuff you’ve never heard before!” Something which gets ’em a little notoriety. It’s not about spreading God’s kingdom, but spreading their brand.

And a lot of these new ideas are designed to appeal to people. Specifically, to our flesh. It’s an interpretation which supports their own ideas and prejudices about power, sexual activity, propriety, money, greed, envy, anger, partisanship, separatism, addiction, personal preferences, and self-justification. ’Cause more often not, they were looking for a proof text to help ’em rationalize any of these bad fruits, and this one oughta do the trick.

“Okay,” you might say, “but doesn’t that fleshliness kinda come from the devil?” Perhaps. I tend to say if you’ve flipped the meaning of a verse a full 180 degrees from what the Holy Spirit intends it to mean, that’s a pretty good sign Satan’s mixed up in it. But some of us are plenty evil ourselves. We can go 180 degrees in the wrong direction without any help or temptation from the devil at all. We’re just that depraved.

Today’s article about context gives an example of that kind of depravity. It takes the point of Jesus’s Lambs and Kids Story, and flips it so we don’t have to do for “the least of these.” Well, certainly a lot fewer of them.

To recap: The Son of Man sends his holy angels to sort out humanity like a shepherd sorts lambs from kids (hence the story’s title) and addresses his lambs, “Enter the kingdom, because you did all this compassionate stuff to me.” They respond (because for some reason they’ve never heard this story before), “Wait, what? When’d we ever do for you?” Jesus continues—

Matthew 25.40 KJV
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Let’s pause the story, ’cause you might already know the rest; and if not, go ahead and read it. The point certain Christians wanna make is found in the three words τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου/ton adelfón mu, which the King James Version turns into two words, “my brethren.” We Christians talk about doing compassionate charity work for “the least of these,” but these other Christians point out, “It’s not just ‘the least of these,’ but ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Jesus is talking about charity for his brethren. Not just anyone.”

This is an attitude you’ll find in an awful lot of churches. Not just Jehovah’s Witnesses either; I’ve seen it in way too many Baptist churches, particularly the independent, culty kind. I’ve heard people preach this on the radio, on both Christian stations during preacher shows, and on conservative talk stations. It’s pretty much wherever people wanna justify non-compassionate conservatism. Maybe slip a little Objectivism into the mix. “Don’t give to them: They’re not worthy.”

Only doing for fellow Christians. Or fewer.

I’ve seen a church whose food closet is only for members of the church. If you want access to it—if you’re in need, and can’t get access to government services quickly enough—you need to be a member in good standing. You have to have good attendance, which means you need to have been to Sunday morning services in three of the last four Sundays. I’m not sure how they kept track—but they did.

I kinda understand why they have these rules: They don’t have much in the food closet! It’s greatly underfunded. It’s literally a closet; they moved the mops and brooms out of it, and moved in the food. Lots of cans from the last food drive, which means they’ve been in there for months, and a lot of times they consist of the cans people realized they’re never gonna eat. “Lima beans? Who in this family likes lima beans?” Very little thought and charity was put into the closet, so there’s a limited amount of charity to come out of it, and they have to be stingy with it.

I encountered the same deal in Mexico: When I was a teenager, we had a yearly trip to a poor church in a poor town, and we brought ’em clothes—largely our cast-off things, and hopefully in good condition. The first time we did it, the people of the town swarmed the church, got the clothes, but never bothered to attend the church. Their pastor grew frustrated with this: He wanted ’em to stay! So the next year, new rule: Only church members in good standing could get clothes. The third year, their clothes closet still had quite a lot of stuff in it, and we filled it to overflowing. The fourth year… we helped out another church. ’Cause we wanted those clothes to go to the needy, and they weren’t.

Stingy Christians don’t give. Don’t practice generosity, and don’t see the point. Too many of ’em think, “Well God gave me this wealth, and if he wanted to help the needy he could give them wealth too.” And various other things which justify their own greed—which might even make ’em feel righteous about not helping others. It’s the human self-preservation instinct, warped into preserving us from feeling guilty about evildoing.

I brought up Objectivism earlier. That’s 20th century pop philosopher Ayn Rand’s worldview: The world is made up of people who do things, and people who exploit those who do things. And doers owe exploiters nothing; they’re leeches; they’re scum. The needy are only exploiting our guilt—but why should we feel guilty? Because popular culture and popular religion tell us to? Bah; ignore that. “Do for the least of these” is for feeble-minded suckers. Don’t fall for that. Cling to your wealth proudly: You earned it, you deserve it—and they don’t.

Yeah, there’s a lot of explicit antichrist thinking in Rand’s writings… and there are a bothersome number of people who claim to be Christian, but love Rand. Who ignore their utter incompatibility; who pretend it’s not there, or nothing to really worry about. Which in their minds, it’s really not: They figure they said the sinner’s prayer, so Jesus oughta let them into heaven; but until Jesus shows up in person so they can follow him, they’re gonna follow Rand in the meanwhile. They’re gonna love what she loves, and hate what she hates. Love money. Hate “looters.”

For them, “the least of these my brethren” aren’t even fellow Christians, and definitely aren’t fellow humans. They’re fellow doers. They’re people who are productive, or who would be productive if someone only gave ’em a chance. They got potential. They’re good investments. Therefore worthy.

Everybody else? F--- ’em. They’re money pits. Wastes of space.

Now to what Jesus tells the kids.

In the parable, after the Son of Man addresses the lambs, he turns to the kids and tells ’em they’re now going into fire because they did none of the aforementioned compassionate stuff to him. They also reply, “When’d we see you but not respond?”—

Matthew 25.45 KJV
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

You may think I’m being redundant by quoting verse 45, but that’s only because you didn’t catch the difference between it and verse 40. In verse 40 Jesus says “the least of these my brethren.” In verse 45 he says “the least of these.” Doesn’t include “my brethren.” No, there’s no known textual variant in which Jesus does say “my brethren.”

Jesus brings up “my brethren” in his commendation. Doesn’t bring it up in his condemnation. Doesn’t need to. The kids didn’t do these things for anyone. They didn’t see the point. Those needy people were just wastes of space anyway.

Even if they did do stuff for their own—for their friends and family, or for their fellow Christians alone—it’s not like Jesus is impressed by this behavior anyway.

Matthew 5.46-47 KJV
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

In the Lambs and Kids Story, the Son of Man is judging all humanity. Mt 25.32 All nations are there; not just Christians. He commends the lambs for helping people; he condemns the kids for not. If he were commending the lambs for helping fellow lambs, what basis does he have for condemning the kids?—they don’t have any “fellows” they’re obligated to care for, unless of course we mean fellow humans.

Yep. Any rationalization which tries to limit who the “lambs” are expected to help, disintegrates when we look at verse 45. Jesus expects us humans to look out for one another. Because humans are his brethren. He became one of us, remember? And God loves all the world, Jn 3.16 not just the Christians. It’s why Jesus instructs us to love everyone as well.

Those who distort the Lambs and Kids Story have no interest in interpreting it correctly, and don’t care what Jesus means by it. They’re only looking for a loophole which allows them to do nothing and not care. They think they’ve found one. And if they follow it, and live by it, it’s exactly the reason why they’re gonna find themselves among the kids in the End.