Boyce College Professor Denny Burk Says Using “the Least of These” When Talking About the Poor Is a Classic Case of “Right Doctrine, Wrong Text”

Denny Burk
Denny Burk

The “least of these” in Matthew 25 refers not to the poor but rather the Christian baker and florist persecuted because of their Christian faith, says a Southern Baptist Bible scholar.

Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a May 13 blog the phrase routinely used in discussions about poverty is taken out of context.

“This text is not about poor people generally,” Burk said. “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.”

Burk said virtually every speaker at the May 12 faith-based poverty summit at Georgetown University used the phrase “least of these” to refer to citizens who live in poverty and need help.

President Obama said he believes that even his political foes are sincere in wanting to help “the least of these.”

“I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor,” Obama said. “They exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do.”

“And then there are those on the left who, I think, are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.”

Burk said it wasn’t surprising to hear the panelists speak that way, because that is how the phrase is commonly understood. In the context of Matthew 25, however, he said what Jesus was talking about is the final judgment when it will become plain who are “sheep,” those who will inherit the Kingdom, and “goats,” those who are condemned.

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SOURCE: Baptist News Global
Bob Allen