October 10, 2019
By Matthew Myer Boulton
At the very outset of the New Testament, Jesus’ public teaching begins in earnest with the Sermon on the Mount, the lovely “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5:3). But some twenty chapters later, after countless parables and maxims, healings and disputes, Jesus gathers his disciples for one more session, one last lesson before he turns toward the cross.
The moment demands a closing summary, an iconic “what’s-it-all-about” distillation of his teaching, a final argument to the jury – and Jesus does not disappoint. Matthew 25:31-46 is today one of the most well-known of all his teachings, routinely cited by politicians and popes, philanthropists and community organizers, Christians and non-Christians alike. If Jesus begins his public teaching ministry with the “poor in spirit,” he concludes it with the materially impoverished, “the least of these” – and the necessarily tangible, incarnate reality of love.
What he doesn’t say is telling. He doesn’t conclude his years of teaching by saying, “When the last judgment comes, the distinguishing mark between the sheep and the goats will be that the sheep have all the right theological opinions,” or that “the sheep attend church twice a week.” Instead, he says they do six specific things.
First, they feed the hungry. Second, they give drink to the thirsty. Third and fourth, they welcome strangers and clothe the naked. And finally, fifth and sixth, they care for the sick and visit those in prison. At the end of the day (indeed, at “the End of Days”!), that’s what it looks like to be sheep, to be people who follow the Good Shepherd.
What Theology and Prayer and Church Are For
Not that theology and prayer and church are unimportant – on the contrary, as the previous chapters in Matthew make clear, Jesus approves of all such things. But what theology and prayer and church are for, he insists, their proper purpose and goal, is to help us become sheep: eeding, giving, welcoming, clothing, caring, and visiting.
That’s the indispensable idea with which Jesus leaves his disciples as he turns toward the cross. According to Matthew, those are the resonant “last words” Jesus wants ringing in our ears as we turn toward living out our own lives of faith as best we can.
God saves us by heavenly grace, yes – and thereby enlists us into the divine mission of tangible, gritty, down-to-earth love. Playing our part in that mission is what vital, genuine faith is all about. As Jesus puts it at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the key isn’t just to hear his words, but also to “act on them” (Matthew 7:24).
What action can we take today? As it happens, with respect to the two moves at the top of Jesus’ list – feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty – we’re living through one of the most astounding transformations in human history. Since 1990, the global number of people annually dying from hunger has been cut in half, and experts agree it is now conceivably in reach to end world hunger by 2030.
Global Nutrition Challenge
But in the last few years, this astonishing progress has begun to falter; the annual numbers of those dying from hunger have begun to increase again. And so the opportunity before us is twofold: to reverse this short term backsliding, and to continue the long term eradication of global hunger, a goal reachable within a generation. But none of this will happen without United States leadership – and that’s where things get even more tangible, gritty, and down-to-earth.
Funding for global nutrition in the present U.S. federal budget (fiscal year 2019) is $145M. To put that in perspective, just 1% of the entire U.S. budget is devoted to improving global health, and funds for global nutrition in particular make up just 1% of that 1% – an extremely modest amount, given the urgency of the challenge and the opportunity for world-changing progress.
The time is right to increase this investment substantially, with faithful boldness and vision. The 2020 federal budget is now under consideration by Congress. Imagine if Christians from all over the country wrote simple letters to their national representatives and senators, calling for global nutrition funding to be increased to $250 million in fiscal year 2020 – the amount supported by the country’s leading nutrition advocates, including the 2030 Collaborative, among others.
Given the numbers of Christians in Congress and among their constituents, such letters could very well help tip the balance. But no matter the budgetary outcome, such letters will undoubtedly help us live more faithfully and walk more closely with the Shepherd we seek to follow, who cares most for the “least of these,” and whose last words – above all, “feed” and “give” – ring out today more clearly than ever.
Matthew Myer Boulton has taught theology at Harvard Divinity School, served as president of Christian Theological Seminary, and currently is Creative Director at SALT Project.