TO: Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
FROM: The Faith on the Fringe
SUBJECT: Christian messages like yours contribute to the decline of Christianity and the increase of non-believers.
I intend this in the broadest sense of Christian love and charity, but as a former non-believer, I feel God calling me to try to help you understand what non-believers see when you write things like your blog post of May 13, and the subsequent explanatory notes.
In full disclosure, since you didn’t cite the Greek words for your many, many scriptural examples, I didn’t look them up. My Greek is nearly non-existent, and for me a humble Christian blogger to double check a college professor would be a long waste of time. So I’ll take your word for it, Professor Burk. The words mean what you say they mean.
I admit you opened my mind to who “the least of these” are in the metaphor Jesus was using – they aren’t the general population of poor, sick, thirsty, and imprisoned. The common understanding of this metaphor is mistaken. Those of us who believed that Jesus’ story applies to all the unfortunates were wrong. As you say, the “least of these” in the metaphor applies to the men Jesus sent to spread the good news. Matthew 25:40 Specific people. As you cite in the example:
“Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
‘The least of these” are these same brothers, you say, men Jesus literally points to and says, “my brothers.”
You’re showing us that “the least of these” is a strict, literal interpretation that applied to real men. Men who long ago returned to our God, their bones long since faded to dust.
To use your logic and word choice, If you say that Jesus’ literal conversations to and about his disciples only applied to his disciples, then, “do this in remembrance of me,” at the last supper wasn’t a message to followers through all of Christianity, it was only for the dozen men in the room, Jesus’ brothers. Right?
The sermon on the mount? Only applied to the people listening, at that time, in that place, because the metaphors don’t extend beyond that hillside.
“Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” doesn’t metaphorically mean that we should all be careful who we accuse, because we, too, are guilty of something. It means that those men, gathered around the woman and Jesus, at that time, in that place, were the only ones he was talking to. That’s a relief.
But, if we today say the teachings of Jesus were for a wider audience, not just the people he spoke to in person, then why doesn’t the message of Jesus apply just to Jews in the Middle East, not to a white, male, conservative, American college professor with a particular agenda he’s trying to advance while twisting Scripture beyond all recognition?
When and how, non-Christians ask, do verses get translated and applied literally and when are they simply rhetorical devices?
Instead of trying to open scripture up and make the message of Jesus more accessible, you’re closing it off, and saying it only applies to some people – the people you decide it applies to. Non-Christians have a problem with this.
In your blog, you’re taking the “least of these” metaphor away from the common understanding of the poor, applying it strictly to the men Jesus spoke to, face to face, and then reapplying the metaphor again to modern Christians. You write:
“This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.”
It doesn’t work this way. You can’t say a metaphor isn’t a metaphor, it’s literal, and then turn around and reapply the words metaphorically again to a new group of people of your choosing.
Metaphors are either metaphors that can be applied in different ways, or they are literal, not justification for extremists who confuse bigotry with proselytizing.
It’s this sort of disingenuous verse-picking that non-Christians see right through. Sermons like this, messages like this, drive people away from churches. Just ask them, and they’ll tell you . . . oh, wait, we can’t ask them, because they’re gone.