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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

That Guy Outside Starbucks is NOT Jesus’ Brother

God bless the poor.

In fact, I don’t even have to ask him: we’ve been told he will; at least inasmuch as their poverty is primarily one of the spirit.

But we should pray for the poor, of course, and share as we are able. We should care, we ought to avoid partiality and we need to act. Our faith does not amount to much if it does not make us compassionate in a very practical way toward those in need, and toward those who may have started life at a huge disadvantage, or have encountered trials and troubles we have never experienced.

But that guy outside Starbucks, the one with the tatty green or brown jacket, bad breath, body odor and uncomfortable social habits who invades your space, while he may be made in the image of God and deserving of whatever we are able to do for him for that reason alone …

Sorry, that guy is just not Jesus’ “brother”.

Now Before I Get Everybody All Riled Up …

Let me explain that a bit, if it sounds like I’m being unduly harsh. I’m not down on the poor.

But the verses so frequently quoted to encourage us to greater acts of social justice don’t mean what those who use them say they mean. They are being yanked out of context, drained of the Lord’s intended import and misemployed in causes that, while certainly worthy in a limited, earthly way, have nothing to do with the priorities of the Saviour.

As I have many times written, the Lord Jesus was no social justice warrior. He did not come to reclaim or reform society, or to make the world of his day a better place. He came to reclaim and reform men. He moved through the Roman world and left it largely untouched in any visible way. Sure, what he did in the human heart changed the course of western civilization — one might well argue that it made western civilization possible — but that was very much a byproduct, not the Lord’s primary purpose in coming.

Looking for the Glimpse of Christ

Mason Slater appeals to us to look for the “glimpse of Christ” in the face of the guy outside (or inside) Starbucks:
“In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus even goes so far as to say that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me (Matt. 25:40).

What we do for the least of these, what I do for the bearded man in the cafĂ© — somehow we are doing that for Christ.

I believe this is where the best Christian reflections on poverty have always begun: rooted in the acknowledgment that all people — no matter how broken they might seem to us, no matter their station in life — are made in the image of the Triune God. And we are called to care for them as brothers and sisters.”
This certainly sounds kind. It sounds compassionate. It sounds like great motivation for the Christian to engage in good works.

But I may stand and stare all day at the man outside Starbucks without seeing Christ, not because I’m a bad Christian or an unspiritual person, but because Christ is not there to be seen.

There is a vast different between being made in the image of God, and being in the image of Christ. These terms are not synonymous.

The Image of God

The image of God is something in which we are all made, and that image remains faintly visible however debased we may allow ourselves to become. We do not achieve it or merit it. We do not rise to it. We are born in his image and live in his image, whether we recognize it or not. Each of our fellow men and women, whether or not we observe it in them, reflects his image in some way.

Men and women have all been created in the image of God, and it is this which distinguishes humanity from all other created beings. That fact is stated in Genesis of being true of both sexes, and Paul reaffirms in 1 Corinthians that it is true of men in some additional way.

Being made in the image of God is what gives all human life value, and is the rationale God gives for the institution of capital punishment, something that predates the Law of Moses. Whatever good reasons we might produce for its abolition, our failure to prioritize the value of a victim is very much a comment on our failure to value the image of God.

Obviously the image of God is not a tangible thing. God is spirit, unlimited by a physical body. This image is also not reflected merely in the possession of a personality. My cat has a very distinct personality but she is not made in the image of God, however pretty she may be. Being made in the image of God has less to do with intelligence, rationality and the capacity for choice than with creativity, moral responsibility, spiritual capacity and the potential for fellowship with our creator.

The exact way in which we are a “facsimile” of God himself, however blurry and indistinct it may be, has long been explored and debated, but we can be sure of this: the guy outside Starbucks was definitely made in God’s image, no matter what life has made of that likeness.

The Image of Christ

The image of Christ, however, is something to which we become conformed, not in which we are made. It is a choice, not just a birthright. Being like our Saviour, in one sense, awaits his appearance when we will finally see him as he is, or so says John:
“… we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
In the meantime, to have genuine fellowship with Christ, to seek and see and know him, is to begin to become conformed to his image. Paul says that “… we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”. This does not mean, of course, that all Christians ultimately become indistinguishable. Rather, while retaining our individual personalities, experiences and distinctive qualities, our mindset and character becomes increasingly and gloriously like that of the Lord Jesus (and therefore more and more like one another as well).

Ultimately and thankfully, it is God who is responsible for this transformation. Paul says:
“I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
So while we can claim no credit for our ultimate likeness to the Lord Jesus when it is finally achieved, we can certainly mar, delay and thwart its realization in the present as we await the return of the Lord.

All to say, our friend outside Starbucks may be made in the image of God, but he is certainly not in the image of Christ. I know poor Christians. I know Christians who live with the poor, live like the poor and care for the poor. It is these who are in the image of Christ, not folks who are just looking for a quarter and a warm place to sit.

Seeing the Potential

Of course this does not mean the man outside Starbucks has no value. Those of us who are truly compassionate, as the Lord was, will always see the potential for the image of Christ in any life we encounter. And we ought to do everything we can to encourage that possibility.

But potential is not the same as the realization of potential. Stalin’s mother, I’m sure, thought he had potential, and he did. But the worth of any life is not ultimately judged by what we might have done, but by what we actually do, say and think as we move through the world.

That should matter to us, just as it matters to God. Because though he certainly values the poor, who are made in his image, and though terrible circumstances can often make it easier to rejoice in and accept the gospel, in the end there is nothing intrinsically redemptive about poverty itself.

There are wicked rich people and there are wicked poor people

Who are Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters?

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. Are we Jesus’ brothers and sisters, as Mason Slater contends, simply by virtue of being made in the image of God?

There is a sense, certainly, in which we might say that since Jesus was absolutely and truly man, all men are therefore his “brothers”. He is our “brother” in a laid back, hippie-fied, “brotherhood of man” sort of way. This is not the sense in which the scriptures ever use the expression, however. It is a philosophical conclusion, not the teaching of the Bible.

In fact, it is a conclusion the Lord specifically repudiates: “Who are my brothers?” he asks. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

If his own brothers and mother were used as a contrast to those who were truly his, claiming kinship with the Lord on the basis of our common humanity is not going to get us very far.

Disinheriting Those Poor, Godly Jews — Again!

In his earnest social-justice-y way, our friend Mason Slater has managed to entirely overlook the context of the passage he quotes, a fairly impressive accomplishment considering it’s a full two chapters.

Actually, it’s more than two chapters. Matthew 23 ends with the Lord’s declaration that Jerusalem (and Israel generally) have missed their opportunity to repent and embrace their King and the kingdom he offered. This is the end. He tells them, “You will not see me again …”

This might have been the end of his commentary except that the disciples, perplexed, confused and probably distraught, posed this question: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The Lord responds to this throughout chapters 24 and 25 with a series of references to Old Testament prophecy combined with parables and new revelation about the destruction of the temple and, in effect, the setting aside of Judaism that would eventually result in the blessing of the Gentiles, of which we are all beneficiaries. This is still his subject in chapter 25 when suddenly, right out of the blue in verse 40 (or so Mr. Slater would have it) the Lord mysteriously puts the brakes on his discourse in order to digress about the importance of caring for the unsaved poor throughout human history.

Or not. Really, not.

It should be extremely clear to any careful reader of these three chapters of Matthew that when the Lord uses the word “brothers” in verse 40, he has in view the Lord’s believing Jewish “brothers” in times of persecution for his sake, not our poor homeless friend from Starbucks.

Those poor, godly Jews are always getting disinherited this way, so that we can co-opt the scriptures that speak of their destiny in order to talk about ourselves and our society and its little issues.

Okay, human suffering in general is not a “little issue”, I agree. But it is definitely NOT the Lord’s subject here.

What the Lord is saying here is that he will, one day, judge the nations with respect to how they have treated his faithful Jewish brothers; those who have been called by his name, and have suffered because of their identification with him. The nations will give an account to him for the way in which they have treated these fellow Jews and will be judged accordingly.

In Summary

Taking care of the poor is a good thing. A great thing, even. I do not, in the least, disparage it. May we all do more of it.

But let’s not go appropriating scriptures that have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject in the interest of trying to motivate people to do what Christians should do anyway.

Sound reasonable to you?

2 comments :

  1. Tom, I agree in certain respects and disagree in other descriptions.

    The SJW's of this country want to protect the liars and fakers. They want the government to fully support anybody who CHOOSES to sit out in front of the car wash or liquor store and get one or more free checks every month. In my opinion, we would have plenty of resources to ASSIST, not totally support, those poor souls like your photo describes out in front of Starbucks or Circle K. The poor/deceived by the enemy that are in a state of despair and in need of Christian help, both spiritual and monetized, I believe. I think you agree with me in that the addicted, abused and mentally/physically handicapped that are in need ARE Jesus' brothers and sisters. Maybe not in the rigid structure of the lone scripture you provided, but nonetheless applicable to Jesus' teachings both elsewhere in Matthew and all through the New Testament.

    SJW's are a secular and ungodly group that have zero knowledge of what Jesus says about work, marriage, love or any other bond He commands us to uphold. So while I agree to a certain extent, I believe you described two different classifications of people.

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    1. Micah:

      Agreed, but even within the category of the legitimate poor, are we still confusing two rather distinct things? I mean 1) those to whom we, as Christians, have a moral/ethical responsibility to show compassion, and 2) those whom the Lord Jesus Himself explicitly identifies metaphorically as His "brothers," and hence to whom the metaphor accurately applies?

      And could a person be in category 1) without being in category 2)?

      I think so.

      And, as you rightly indicate, there's a category 3): namely the SJW's and general slackers with no particular interest in deserving help or working, but with an ideological and pragmatic interest in claiming handouts.

      But they don't get off the ground as "brothers," I think. And I see you'd agree.

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