The Hypocrisy of Treating Jesus with “Tough Love”: Here’s a Riddle for You . . . (Sunday Homily)

the least

Readings for Third Sunday of Advent: IS 35: 1-6A, 10; PS 146: 6-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121513.cfm

Recently, Mary Shaw contributed a well-received article to the pages if OpEdNews (my favorite online news source). The article was called “American Hunger and the Christian Right.” There Ms. Shaw pointed to the irony of predominant elements within the GOP adopting as their two main goals cutting social services such as Food Stamps and eliminating labor unions while at the same time calling themselves “Christian.” In Ms, Shaw’s analysis, such inconsistency does not jibe with the personal poverty of Jesus himself, or his concern for the poor manifested in mass feedings on more than one occasion.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, I would go even further and argue that the GOP position flies in the face of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition expressing (as it does) God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed.

In that macro-context, the “tough love” concept of the Christian right is actually a slap in the face to Jesus himself. That’s because (once again) in today’s readings, the recipients of God’s special concern turn out to be (in Jesus’ words in our gospel reading) not only “the least,” but in their collectivity, the very Jesus whom our sisters and brothers on the right aspire to accept as their personal Lord and Savior.

The vehicle for today’s version emphasizing Jesus’ identification with the poor is a riddle. It’s found at the very end of that reading from Matthew. Matthew has Jesus posing it by saying:
1. John the Baptist is the greatest person ever born.
2. Yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.

That leaves us with the question: How can this be? How can “the least” be greater than the one identified by Jesus himself not only as the foremost prophet of the Jewish Testament, but the greatest human being who ever lived?

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, the answer is the following:
1. Jesus is the one far greater than John. (As the Baptist admitted in last week’s reading from Matthew, John was not even worthy to loosen the straps on Jesus’ sandals.)
2. But Jesus identified himself with “the least.” Recall that in his parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25), Jesus says, “Whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did to me.”
3. Therefore the “least” as identified with “the greatest” (Jesus) is greater than John and should be treated that way – as Jesus himself.

Riddle solved. The rest of today’s liturgy adds the details as it develops the theme: recognize the least as God’s favorites – as Jesus himself – and treat them as the most important people in the world.

And who are these “least?” According to Isaiah in today’s first reading, they are the blind, deaf, lame, and mute. They are foreigners living in exile. The psalmist in today’s responsorial, widens the list by adding the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, and immigrants. He includes single moms (widows) and their children.

In today’s gospel selection, Jesus recapitulates the list. For him “the least” (who are greater than John) include the imprisoned (like John himself sitting on Herod’s death row). They are (once again) the lame, the deaf, the mute, and lepers. They even include the dead who are raised to life by Jesus.

Do we need any more evidence to support the claim of God’s “preferential option for the poor?”

Does the Christian Right believe the teaching contained in Jesus’ riddle? Do they really advocate treating him with “tough love?”

Not when you put it that way, Jesus!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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