Sometimes you can use Scripture to interpret Scripture and it can be very enlightening, but other times you can’t.
Case in point, Matthew 26:11 – “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”; cross-reference with this the previous chapter, Matthew 25, where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats, here v. 37-40 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
So we go from a transitive property of “least of these” = Jesus; to the statement that poor are ever-present, but differentiated from the real presence of Jesus. And I can resolve it by simply acknowledging that Jesus is distinguishing his presence in flesh, versus his presence through the poor. I get that.
But hopefully you sense my internal tension when it comes to how to care for, live, and help others. The hungry, stranger, poor and sick may not always equal the actual presence of Christ.
And even if you wanted to say the two are equivalent without question and qualification, I think there are some real problems there that still avoid the responsibility of thought and compassion. And I say that because I think compassion requires responsibility. Random acts of kindness are just random, not necessarily kindness. I’ve said that before, and I maintain that stance. Here’s an example of a problem that arises if you equate the poor to Christ unconditionally: if you provide for the poor to the point that they are no longer poor (again, a fairly indefinite demarcation), then do they lose their Christ-like status? When someone who was sick recovers, then are they no longer Christ? Also, if the poor are the presence of Christ, do we have an investment in perpetuating their condition so that Christ would be present? That’s ridiculous, right? Exactly my point.
The problem becomes more complex when you think about the larger economic system we participate in as churches and individual consumers/producers in the West. Everything becomes distant and disembodied, so that even our generosity and charity is separate from direct relationship with us. In other words, I can give money to a child on the other side of the globe, but have very little control and influence to what is actually happening. My act of kindness is disembodied, which means I didn’t do the least of these, I just gave off some of my disposable income and in some sense, maintained that which I perhaps consider less disposable – my time, comfort, personal space, routine, etc. Does that still qualify as kindness to the least of these?
These days, charity and help from Christian circles is under scrutiny. I’ve mentioned the books, Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts before, and I think we really have to question the ways in which we are still complicit with not only how we give, but how we consume. Because in a capitalist economic system, our consumption is being moralized, which somehow leads us to want to either increase our consumption or selectively bear the burden so that others might be able to partake. But still we help in part, but not the whole. There is something that deeply departs from a theology of incarnation if our charity continues to be unaccompanied by embodiment, responsibility, and relationship.
I know this is a bit outside the purview of Christian thinking, and filled with liberalist thinking, but the critique that Slavoj Zizek offers here by saying that charity is problematic can still be applied to help us think through what it means to give and give faithfully. What do you think?