How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

7 thoughts on “How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

  1. The only caveat that I’d give (and you gave an EXCELLENT exegesis of the Matthew 25 passage and the 1 Thess passage) is that, when it comes to the state, we have a problem. What we have is an organization that is more organized around maintaining their own power and control and less about following Jesus. So, it’s pretty obvious that they don’t have the same goals in mind as a Jesus follower does.

    While programs like SNAP and others are good in what they achieve, I have a slight problem with them in that they effectively send people to be dependant upon the government as a distant benevolent father and giver of all good things and less upon the communities where they live. The challenge I have for the church is that would debates like what you described be even HAPPENING if, in the church, we were doing what we were supposed to be doing?

    We should, certainly, advocate for reform in the government, being a prophetic voice of God… but I would think that such a prophetic voice would have a lot more weight behind it if we could point to our own actions within our faith communities as examples. So, while we speak to the government, perhaps we should be aiming to make programs like SNAP obsolete? What if our communities took care of each other like described in Acts 2 and Acts 4? What if we invited others into our communities centered around Jesus so they, too, can participate in Acts 2 and Acts 4? Would we need SNAP? Would we need Medicaid/Medicare? Or would the communities of the faithful suffice?

    This is the prophetic word that I see, honestly, in our country. It does no good to expect those who do not acknowledge our Lord to act like it. Praise them when they do, but don’t expect it. In the meantime, we have a job to do in order to a) fulfill things like Matthew 25 along with other passages (Amos 2, anyone? Aimed at Israelite Religious systems) and b) allow us to be able to, then, stand before the state as true witnesses to Jesus, not just in our words, but in what we do in our communities.

    I know… a long caveat… but it is one that I think is important. To quote John Howard Yoder, “The church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church” (quoted by Mark Thiessen Nation in Radical Ecumenity, 2010, “The Politics of Yoder Regarding the Politics of Jesus”)


    1. Let me add that I think that the church has a responsibility to the poor and such outside of their community as well. Feeding our own orphans and widows is not exhibiting Christ’s love if others are left to starve as well. Again, Jesus example, he didn’t wait for people to “believe” before he healed, fed, or ministered to them…


    2. Your caveats are pretty much always good ones to take to heart, and this is no exception.

      I’m torn b/c I agree with you that the state is usually more interested in maintaining power for itself than in protecting the welfare of its citizens (much less non-citizens who reside within its borders). But I also believe the state has a legitimate role to play in the alleviation of poverty & injustice. And I think the church (not to mention society in general) would be better off if it prophetically called the state to this task, instead of pursuing political power for itself.

      I also agree that if the church devoted more of its own resources & energy to the alleviation of poverty, we might be able to make some government assistance programs obsolete and unnecessary. But I don’t think we could ever eliminate the need for government intervention. The church can’t deliver quality healthcare for everyone (probably); it can’t maintain infrastructure (necessary for economic development, equal access to markets, etc); it can’t by itself guarantee equal rights for women, minorities, or other vulnerable populations. In other words, the church alone can’t address all of the structure and systemic factors contributing to poverty and injustice. It can and should be a prophetic voice calling governments and societies to action — while at the same time doing all it can to render government intervention unnecessary where possible.

      And I wholeheartedly agree that the church has a sacred responsibility to serve the needs of everyone — not just members of its own community. Even though I think Matthew 25 is focused on caring for oppressed followers of Jesus, I think there is plenty of other biblical material calling on God’s people to engage in the renewal of all things, in building an environment where all people can thrive.

      Love the Yoder quote. Reading The Politics of Jesus had a big impact on me when I was a political science major in college…


  2. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. It’s not just the great and good who are habitually taking Bible passages out of context – Christians are happily doing it all over the place. In the age of the informationmegasuperhighway where we are increasingly trying to absorb only bits of information which fit into 140 character blocks, we’re forgetting that we are trying to apply a book that was written in a different culture, country, language and time to our own – and it’s only with careful study of the context that we can work on what on earth it really says.


  3. I find this an excellent post on context and agree with most of it, except that you _kind of_ argue against yourself when, right after talking about the context and real meaning of Matthew 25, you state,

    “Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).”

    Isn’t that taking Scripture out of context? And by Jesus Christ himself, no less.

    I think we have to recognize and discuss the context, but we also have to realize that many of these statements do have a broader meaning and purpose, too. If we confine Matthew 25 only to its context, does that mean it is no longer applicable? The apostles are all long dead, after all. Or do we get to expand it at least to modern disciples of Christ, which would be you and me?

    Then, adding in “Love your neighbor as yourself” and Love your enemy… do good to those that persecute you,” where does “the least of these” really stop?


    1. These are great questions.

      When it comes to Isaiah 61, you could argue that Jesus is being faithful to the broader context of the book, particularly the second half. While chapter 61 is addressed to the exiles of Judah, Isaiah and the other prophets expand the promised restoration restoration of Israel to include the whole world.

      So in one sense, Jesus is arguably tapping into the broader meaning and purpose of Isaiah 61. In much the same way, I think you have a valid point about Matthew 25 and how it might speak to us today. The key (for me anyway) is that we start with an awareness of the original context so we can wrestle with the text’s implications for today. I think that’s what’s missing for a lot of people…because of the piecemeal way in which we tend to read scripture, we don’t always have an awareness of the original context.


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