The God of the Lesser Things: Denny Burk is Wrong About "The Least of These"
[Content Note: Some imagery and statistics referenced in this article may be disturbing for some readers].
In my younger and more fragile years, I was a huge fan of the Newsboys. I got pulled into their music around the time Step Up to the Microphone was released. The lead single from that album – “Entertaining Angels” – immediately hit all the sweet spots I was looking for in a good musical composition. It had interesting, poetic lyrics, a great violin riff at the beginning, and a great melodic chorus. Not to mention, to my evangelical brain and heart at the time, it spoke directly to the path I was trying to stay on.
In my evangelical world, the lines that struck me the most were the ones of overt praise – “By the time I fall to my knees, Host of Heaven, sing over me.”
But as I’ve moved away from evangelicalism and into liberation theology, embracing the social justice movement, activism, and feminism, this song has still stuck with me. Instead of the simple praise song I previously made it out to be, “Entertaining Angels” now has deeper spiritual meaning to me.
The title comes from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
The Newsboys song takes that idea and runs with it, so to speak. The song tells a story of a man who did not see the stranger in front of him as God’s beloved – he ran so far that he doesn’t know if God will take him back again. This is a man confronted and convicted with the guilt of failing his brother, God’s beloved, and the angels in disguise. Our apathy, our inability to act, the “light of our TV screens” distracts us from the mission of helping God’s angels, of helping those downtrodden.
The strands of caring for one’s neighbor that pervade the music legacy of many Christian artists have become more and more dear to me as I’ve come out of the closet, taken on new roles in my life, and learned to care more deeply about my brothers, my neighbors.
And it is in this context that I approach the recent writing of Denny Burk, pastor and Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College. Pastor Burk argues that the famous passage about “the least of these” in Matthew 25 refers not to the poor and the impoverished, but to the brothers of Christ – the disciples and those carrying the gospel message to the world. He extrapolates this exegesis out to every mention of “little ones” or “brothers” through the Synoptic gospels, arguing that the rejection of “the least of these” to whom Jesus is referring is never really about poor people at all. It’s really about those who carry the good news – a rejection of members of the Body is a rejection of the body as a whole. I believe my summary fairly represents the argument presented here:
This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ. It’s about disciples of Jesus having their heads cut off by Islamic radicals. In other words, it’s about any disciple of Jesus who was ever mistreated in the name of Jesus. This text shows us that Jesus will judge those who show contempt for the gospel by mistreating gospel-bearers.
Gospel-bearers, in his mind, are the bakers who refuse to bake cupcakes for a same-sex wedding. The florist who refuses service to the gay men next door. The multi-million dollar business unwilling to provide birth control for their employees.
In Pastor Burk’s eyes, these are the least of these. These are our persecuted brothers, the broken ones who need lifting up. These are angels who, if we do not entertain them, will go away hungry.*
It is interesting that the least of those to whom we are supposed to lend our hand are those refusing to extend their hands to others. It is even more interesting that the position creating a false dichotomy between LGBT people and the church has somehow become “gospel.”
Burk’s world, laid bare in this particular post, is one of simplicity. It is one in which Christ’s body protects its own, and Christ’s body does not contain those kicked out of their homes because they came out, those calling suicide hotlines desperate for help, those risking death every time they want to use the toilet in a public area. Instead, “the least of these” are those throwing the punches, those demanding the change, those contributing to homelessness.
What’s more is that the logical progression of Burk’s belief is that any who dare rebuke part of the Christian community – any who, say, write a blog post in response to someone who is acting as a representative of Christ – is acting not against man but against God Themself. This is the weight of his words – his yoke is hard and his burden is heavy.
Those made in the image of God are also bearers of the Gospels – the angels of God we may entertain without knowing, the neighbors he commands us to love. To twist and malign Scripture to support prioritizing a discriminatory hand that withholds good from strangers is to malign the eschaton, the moral arc of the universe.
The God of the Universe is not a closed fist, passing judgment on all who are different and outcast.
The God of the Universe is an open hand, begging for sustenance from those who turn up their noses and pass by.
*Despite Burk’s protestations in the comments that he’s only discussing “the least of these” as it appears in Matthew 25, his own work betrays him: “We know this because the terms “least of these” and “my brothers” appear elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, and in each case the terms specifically refer to Jesus’ disciples who have been sent out into the world to preach the gospel.” Additionally, Burk’s argument about the least of these ignores multiple statements about the poor that we find throughout the Synoptic gospels, challenging our interpretation of “the least of these” within Matthew specifically. In other words, the exegesis, on the face, is okay, but the application and widening of the lens is particularly bonkers.