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On the Least: Singular and the Systemic


Much of what the Adult Bible Study Guide presents this week speaks to the issues of our day. Examples from the stories of Job, Zacchaeus, the rich young ruler, and Jesus all provide helpful lessons on what Christians often call charity. At its core, the lesson draws on Matthew 25 and helpfully applies those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” to our world today.

The strangers of Bible times were individuals who had to leave their homeland, perhaps because of war or famine. The equivalent in our day could be the millions of refugees who have become destitute because of circumstances that they did not choose.

The fatherless are children who have lost fathers through war, accident, or sickness. This group also could include those whose fathers are in prison or are otherwise absent. What a broad field of service is exposed here.

The widows are those, who for the same reasons as the fatherless, have lost their spouses. Many are the head of a single-parent family and could use the help that the church can provide.

Sadly, this somewhat parallels the reports of international humanitarian crisis watchdogs like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, and UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency). The IRC Emergency Watchlist’s nine recommendations for 2023 include the following two on war and conflict:

Re-establish people’s right to aid. As parties to conflicts weaponize and politicize access to aid, the establishment of an independent organization, such as an Organization for the Promotion of Humanitarian Access, could document the denial of aid and speak truth to power.

Empower women in peace and security efforts. The role of women should be centered at every stage of conflict. This includes providing greater funding to women-led organizations, empowering women in peace processes and supporting programs to address the disproportionate impact conflict has on women.

Sure, the poor will always be with us, but should the suffering be growing? Like the lesson notes, the connection between mass violence and mass collateral human suffering is direct and against God. There are at least 20 countries right now that are “speaking like the dragon” to their vulnerable populations. Showing how local conflict and economic turmoil impact the least of these, the IRC report provides a helpful example:

The ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on global food and fuel prices, and long-term impacts of COVID-19 are putting necessities out of reach for many. Seven Watchlist countries imported an average of 66% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine—with this percentage rising to 90% in Somalia.

Why children are starving to death in Somalia is connected to the systems that connect our world. Unfortunately, the Sabbath school lesson focuses tightly on the individual and misses this bigger picture. In the Teacher Comments, those of us who feel the need to help are given these as the top two options:

Church members may adopt a personal support plan to assist someone in need. They also may work together to volunteer in an educational project run by the church to help the needy with life skills and personal development.

Each member may set aside a dedicated amount or percentage from the family budget to regularly assist people in need, as well as to contribute to the welfare and development projects run by his or her church.

This is all fine. But it really focuses the moral duty on the individual member and the already taxed local church. There is something askew with the way that the lesson frames this important topic. God bless the Adventist church that runs programs to feed the hungry and temporarily house the unhoused. But how come every time so-called “President of the Adventist Church” Ted Wilson speaks out, he’s not showing how the machinery of the organization he leads focuses on these real needs? Millions of tithe dollars will be spent this year on travel budgets and unread publications while Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 remain a singular duty. Right now, Wilson is traveling in Africa for the next three and a half weeks. According to the IRC, it’s the continent with 12 of the top 20 countries with conflict-related humanitarian crises. Will he speak to this? When now-Executive Secretary of the General Conference Erton C Köhler oversaw the welfare of the church in Brazil—the country with the most Adventists in the world—did he embody Matthew 25? According to this article, he made repeated public statements siding with the political elite against the plight of the poor. 

Why is the lesson so focused on telling us—those not called “elder” at church meetings—what to do with the resources God blesses us with? Doesn’t Matthew 25 apply to the mission of the whole church, not just the local congregation or you and me? Most of the lesson this quarter seems focused on reminding us of our duty to fund a denominational hierarchy as well as care for the least of these. In addition to charity, perhaps we should be equally emphasizing the radical concept of hospitality. At their best, these Christian virtues combine the singular and the systematic. Hospitality is at the center of the gospel, states Christine Pohl in a talk on the church in troubled times:

Offering hospitality to strangers was a distinctive feature of ancient Christian life. The biblical texts and tradition, Jesus' practice and explicit teachings, and the needs of the ancient church and world combined to make hospitality a central aspect of Christian discipleship. In the last 500 years, transformative understandings of hospitality have been mostly lost, and with them, some crucial insights into Christian witness, social ministry and congregational life. Giving fresh attention to an ancient practice allows us to see the close connection between theology and everyday life, and offers promise and challenge to the contemporary church.

Pohl is a professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Asbury Seminary and the author of the 1999 book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. She argues that hospitality is a way to help create systemic national—and hopefully global—change and resistance.

Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive countercultural dimension. ‘Hospitality is resistance’. Especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves. They point to a different system of values and an alternate model of relationships.


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Immigrant family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island, by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1905 (public domain).

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