Matthew 25:14-30, Psalm 82, Deuteronomy 15:8
By Rev. Don Ludwig, August 30, 2020
Each according to their ability
There is an old story once shared on a Galilean hillside by a man named Jesus bar Joseph. It was one of the last three stories that Jesus ever told—recorded in Matthew 25: 14-30. Three servants received large amounts of money from their master. Two invested their allowance, doubling the return. One dug a hole and buried an opportunity to exercise his gifts.
One of the key verses reads that the master gave talents to his servants “…each according to his ability.” This phrase—”each according to his ability”—contains a liberating message for the poor, and also for ourselves. On the one hand, all of us have value and gifts to use for ourselves, our families, and our communities. We must not dig a hole and bury our gifts. But perhaps most importantly, this parable suggests that we must recognize that the poor have value too and can be empowered to tap their own unique gifts and abilities to create a better life. In order to do that, we must create systems that promote fairness for all.
As a Sociologist, I like to look at peer-reviewed research. Not many are aware of this but the fact is that the number of millionaires in the United States under Barack Obama’s first four years as President, increased by 1,100,000. Let me say that another way. In Barack Obama’s first four years as President, the number of millionaires in the US increased by well over a million. At the same time, the number of people on food stamps increased by 33%, and very few people were lifted out of poverty. In other words, under Obama, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer! And this problem has only gotten worse under Trump. This shows us that this problem is not easily fixed and will not go away by electing a new President or keeping the old one. This is a systemic problem. This is an American problem.
What does the bible say about poverty?
So what does the bible have to say about poverty? Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and founder of an inner-city ministry in Washington, D.C. wrote a best-seller book in 2005 entitled, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Don’t Get It. In it, Wallis explains how he attended Trinity Divinity School. While there, he and a group of friends doing fieldwork in inner-city Chicago became interested in what the Bible has to say about poverty. So they did a study and discovered that one of the defining characteristics of ancient Hebrew religion, Judaism, is the attention it pays to the poor, the weak and vulnerable, the stranger. Here is some of what they found:
- The heart of the law is Deuteronomy 15:8 “Do not be hard-hearted toward your needy neighbor; rather open your hand.”
- Psalm 82 is a prayer for the poor, weak, orphans. It’s built into Israel’s social and political structure, even agricultural policy: a corner of every field is to be left unharvested so the poor have something to eat.
- Wallis and his friends discovered that one out of sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor and care for the poor.
- In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), one out of ten verses is about poverty. In the Gospel of Luke, it is one out of seven.
Poverty is not a liberal Democrat, mainline church issue; it’s a biblical issue. Then Wallis and his friends decided to emulate Thomas Jefferson, who cut out of the New Testament all the passages he didn’t like, and they carefully, tediously cut out of the Bible every reference to the poor. What’s left of course is a fragile book full of holes. Perhaps this is why we call it a Holy Book. In fact, Wallis still has that Bible, takes it with him on his many speaking engagements, likes to hold it up and say, “Here it is. This is the American Bible, full of holes.”
A Holy Book. Is your bible full of holes? Matthew 25, and most of the bible for that matter, as we have seen over and over again this month, teaches us that we are accountable not so much for believing the right doctrines, belonging to the right church, espousing the right opinion on social issues, but by the way we treat the poor.
Lord, help us to treat you well!
Wallis tells another story about a woman named Mary Glover. Mary Glover is a volunteer at the weekly food distribution at the community center that operates in Washington, D.C. Mary is poor herself, but she is there every Saturday to help. In fact, Mary says the prayer for the volunteers before the center opens. She prays like someone who knows to whom she is talking. It’s worth getting out of bed on Saturday just to hear Mary pray. Wallace says, with a long line of hungry, needy people waiting outside in all kinds of weather, Mary prays, “Lord, we know you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.” And then Wallace responds, “No scholar gets Matthew 25 better than Mary” (God’s Politics, p. 209–218).
Reading Mary Glover’s prayer again this week reminded me of our current calamities that have emerged as a result of this pandemic, but also as a result of our broken systems in America. Most, but not all of us at Southminster are not economically impacted by this financial collapse in our economy—at least not gravely impacted. Yet, there are millions of people out work, groves of families who can not pay the rent or purchase food for their children. This is on top of those who were already left behind (pre-pandemic) in an economy that benefits wealth.
Time to Get Political
Jesus said, “All the nations will be gathered at the judgment throne.” This is not only about individual accountability and responsibility; it’s about nations—it’s about the call to churches to challenge our unjust systems that allow the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer—to speak out about the lies that dominate the political narrative of so many—to prepare ourselves to go to war over this issue. There’s no way to avoid the complexity and controversy of politics in Matthew 25. Nations are judged, and this includes you and me, on how they deal with their own weakest, most vulnerable citizens—the least of these.
Matthew 25 is a call for us to get political. As we face economic uncertainty and a divisive political warzone this Fall, let me remind you, whether you are a Republican or Democrat, it is a Christian responsibility to remember the least of these: the single mother struggling to make ends meet, the families who lack access to technology that is needed for their children’s school success, the parents with a sick child and no health insurance, the black and brown Americans who experience racialized trauma on top of economic inequities on a daily basis, the poor black man who may find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, the millions of Americans who find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own.
In telling one of his last stories, Jesus reminds us that we—all of us—are responsible—for each according to their ability. Friends, a preacher is not supposed to be political and use their bully pulpit to persuade members to vote red or blue. But if Trump can get political on the white house lawn, I guess it is time for us to get political and do whatever it takes to challenge the economic disparities in our country!