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Who Are “The Least of These”?

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There is a terrifying passage for Christians found in the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew where he recalls the words of his teacher, Jesus.  In it Jesus describes a time at the end of the world as we know it where “the King” of all creation judges the people, distinguishing those who go into eternal life and those into eternal death.  The test of destination and identity (sheep or goats respectively) is by how each person, throughout the course of their life, treated people that Jesus refers to as “the least of these.”  

 

Given the literal eternal ramifications of these interactions, who then are “the least of these”?   

According to the passage the least of these fit into at least 6 categories.  They are those who are:

  1. hungry (v. 35)
  2. thirsty (v.35)
  3. stranger (v. 35, greek word xenos – meaning foreigner)
  4. naked (v.36)
  5. sick (v.36)
  6. in prison (v.36)

All 6 of these categories describe people who are in great need.  

There are interpreters who qualify that “the least of these” is only referring to needy disciples of Jesus, not needy people in general because in verse 40 Jesus calls them “the least of these MY BROTHERS” (emphasis added).  Purporters of this view make this claim because Jesus is talking to his disciples in this passage and earlier in Matthew 12:46-49 Jesus calls his disciples his brothers.    

Here’s a number of reasons why I think “the least of these” can be interpreted more broadly than just disciples:

1. In the context of this passage

Jesus speaks of “all nations” and “people” (v.32) being present at the great judgement where this scene is described.  The condition of each person’s separation, one from the other, is how they treat “the least of these.”   If the least of these were only disciples of Jesus in need there are at least a couple issues. What would happen to those who do not live amongst or come in contact with disciples of Jesus (the modern mission movement exists because there are still populations of people for which this is true), let alone a disciple in need?  Wouldn’t it be likely that those that are not in contact with the disciples of Jesus would be those who are in need?

 

2. In the context of this gospel

If we are going to use Matthew 12 we must also look at the other uses of the word brothers (adelphos) in the book of Matthew.  When speaking to “the crowds and to his disciples” in Matthew 23:1, Jesus broadens the definition here that they should reckon each other all as brothers in 23:8 (disciples and non-disciples alike).  In the “sermon on the mount” no less, recorded earlier in the same book, Jesus teaches that an identifying mark of being “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45) are those that EXPAND the circle of whom we love and that to greet only our “brothers” (adelphoi) in the limited sense would make us no different than unbelievers (Matthew 5:46-47).  It seems strange, and a little suspect, to turn around and insist then that our definition of care for our “brothers” in Matthew 25 then ought not expand to include others in need…which Jesus is constantly challenging his disciples to do (Matthew 4:24, 5:3, 8:16, 9:12, 11:5, 14:14, 15:32, 19:21).  So it seems we may not truly be the “brothers” that we think we are if our love is so limited.

 

3. In the context of the rest of scripture

There are too many passages to name here that affirm God’s identification and concern for the poor, the needy, and the stranger that the weight against a contrary interpretation is revealing (just for starters: Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 10:18, Leviticus 23:22, Psalm 140:12, Proverbs 14:31, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:16, Acts 10:2-4, Galatians 2:10).

 

4. Even if the interpretation is correct that the least of these is limited to the disciples of Jesus, the irony is that the vast majority of the disciples in the world are more likely the poor, the needy, and the stranger anyway. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2016/may/26/the-world-is-getting-more-religious-because-the-poor-go-for-god

 

Like the lawyer, seeking to justify himself before Jesus in Luke Ch.10, I wonder if we as interpreters of the bible want to make the circle of “the least of these” smaller because we hope to limit our responsibility…we want a more comfortable religion?  But isn’t what we see in Jesus the opposite? He’s constantly flipping our expectations (responding to the lawyer’s question with the story of the good Samaritan) and breaking through our carefully crafted barriers.

 

Jesus, help us to love the least of these…to love you.  

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2017: A Year of Lament…and Deeper Healing

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excerpt from my end of the year letter…

This was a hard year in many respects: nationally (increasing natural disasters, divisive politics, senseless deaths, policies further marginalizing the poor), locally (sharp rise in homelessness and the housing crisis in LA), and as a church family (more uncertainty for our undocumented siblings, tragic deaths, marriages in crisis, and chronic illness taking out local leadership).  I’ve had to learn how to lament (about 40% of the Psalms are lament): to cry out to God in the midst of pain.  We like celebration.  We don’t like lament.  But God’s been showing me that lament is God’s invitation into a relationship so intimate that He wants us to process our pain with him, not a kind of relationship that only allows us to speak when it is in praise.

Yet, He has opened my eyes to the work He is doing nonetheless.  We’re seeing favor in our community like never before, our attendance numbers are slowly increasing, our discipleship has multiplied, but most of all God has been doing deep healing.  Our life groups have persevered through the storms.  We are working on better structures to care for the church community.  Although circumstances may not have changed drastically, many of our local folks are in a much better place with Jesus than they were a year ago.  A handful of key local leaders even preached during Sunday services for their very first time!  God, in his love, has brought many difficult issues to light.  But it’s only through this process that we can see more clearly and the work of deeper healing can take root.

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 7: It is a Reversal of Status

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Final Part 7 of 7 in a series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

7. It is a Reversal of Worldly Status

In all the talk about who is great, who we want to make great again, and who is the g.o.a.t. (aka greatest of all time), God’s view of who is great is completely the opposite from the world.  To God, whatever is highly valued by the world is detestable to Him (Luke 16:15) and whoever is considered least in this world are the ones who are great in His eyes (Luke 9:48).  God’s Kingdom is the complete reversal of the world’s kingdoms.    

How do we know that God does indeed have special favor and esteem that He bestows on the “least of these”?  It is through something that this world can never give…intimacy with Him.  Think, in the bible, to whom and when God personally appears and shares special intimacy with people: an old childless nomad in the desert, a shamed bi-cultural stranger in a strange land, a little boy born of a barren mother who was raised in a temple, a runt of the litter shepherd boy, and a virgin teen girl from a poor neighborhood, just to name some.  In my experience too, the people i have come to know who have had the most amazing supernatural revelations and experiences of intimacy with God are people that this world overlooks.  

Gus came from a family of 8 siblings, growing up in poverty in a rough neighborhood.  He is someone that society has overlooked.  He doesn’t have any advanced degrees.  He was notoriously violent and struggled with substance abuse.  That was until the Lord met him about 7 years ago.  Since then God has been transforming him and he has a relationship with God that i’m jealous of.  

About a year ago our church was doing a bible study in the book of Daniel. Daniel himself was not someone “great” before God stepped in; essentially he was a trafficked teenager who was enslaved and likely castrated in service of a foreign king in a foreign land.  One of the first and most miraculous ways God revealed Himself to this boy was to not only interpret this mad king’s dream but to reveal to Daniel what the king dreamed BEFORE the king even told him what the dream was.  This is an impossible task, for anyone could come up with an interpretation for a dream once they hear it, but who could possibly know what another person dreamed before they even heard it from the dreamer, except God alone?  And, come on, that’s a silly story in an ancient text that doesn’t happen today, right?  Wrong.

During the weeks of our bible study in the book of Daniel, God gave Gus a vision of a woman walking down the street and then hands came up out of the ground and started pulling her down.  

Gus asked God, “Who is this word for?”   

God replied “No. This is someone’s dream.”  That following Sunday, Gus saw a young adult that has been a part of our church for years.  She too was raised in this poor neighborhood and was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her 4 children.  God told Gus “It was her dream.”

Gus hesitantly approached this young lady and shared the vision that he had seen.     

She immediately asked “Have you been talking to so-and-so?  I just told her that I had that dream.”

Gus answered “No. God told me.”

This young lady’s jaw dropped and she went on to share how she was going through a lot of struggles and that those struggles were holding her down.  For those who may still be skeptical, God revealed yet another dream in detail to Gus and it turned out to be a different dream that this same young lady had!  

You see God lifts up “the least of these” in this world to show us true greatness, giving them insight that no human could possibly know…even to lift up others who also don’t have much in the world’s eyes, in order to demonstrate that HE sees them.  

In God’s Kingdom, HE makes the least of these the great ones among us.  

What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like (in Real Life)? PART 4: It Is Good

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(from L to R: Gus, Dorothy, George, and Isabel)

Part 4 of 7 in an ongoing series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

4. (of 7) It is Good

Again, i don’t mean good in the sense that it makes everyone feel nice but good in the sense that the Kingdom of God does right.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood in her song to the good King that His Kingdom lifts up the lowly and brings low the lofty (Luke 1:46-55)

It is indeed rare to see good in this broken world.  It is even more rare to meet someone who inhabits the goodness of His Kingdom.  

That is why I have been blessed to have met a woman by the name of Dorothy Mathieson.  We received word that she is dying of cancer and it’s only a matter of days left of her life here on this earth.  Dorothy is a sweet old self-deprecating Australian woman, and she has become like an abuela to many in our community, even though we only spent a short time with her.  

Australia!?!  Yup, that’s right. That’s the kind of influence this woman’s life has.  

Dorothy is so humble it took some work to find out more about her life.  She is so ready to listen to others, shares their stories, and empower them in God’s presence that it’s easy to forget to ask about hers.  Dorothy gave at least 40 years of her life to God’s work: decades in the slums of Manila, Philippines.  Then with international students from countries that want to kill Christians, and then with overburdened and worn out pastors. She was single for much of her life but later in life she met George who had the same heart as her.  She went back to school and, together with George, that’s where she sharpened how to practice the presence of Jesus and hold on to Him through all manner of pain and trauma.  And then she turned around and gave away what she learned.  Through it all she NEVER gave up on Jesus.  

On top of this she was one of the sweetest and most joyful women you’d ever meet, that you’d never know all that she had been through.  She’d seen so much pain and injustice she should have been a bitter old person.  Yet, she chose to let the Prince of Peace rule her.

She taught us how to hold onto Jesus, like koalas from Australia.  She has been instrumental in bringing many key folks in our church community into the presence of Jesus for significant inner healing.  Her ministry has deeply changed the way i mentor, counsel, and disciple people.  She called us in LA’s Eastside, rascals though we are, some of her favorite people.  And made it a point to drop by on her occasional visits to California.  

Anyone that’s met her wants to be like her when they grow older.  I want to be like her when I grow older.  

THAT is what a life immersed in the goodness of the King and the Kingdom looks like. THAT is what it looks like to finish well.  THAT is a life that held onto God’s Kingdom and it made ALL the difference.

Will we walk in the goodness of the Kingdom?  

What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like (in Real Life)? Part 1: It’s a Treasure Worth ALL

in my last post i shared with you my findings of what the Kingdom of God looks like according to the bible.  i realize that that post title was misleading in that some, including myself, want to know what the Kingdom of God looks like…unfolding in the 21st century, in the here and now…in real life.  my friend A.R. reminded me that those stories would be helpful examples.  with that in mind, i hope to take the 7 aspects of the Kingdom of God i (re)discovered and “flesh them out” with what i have witnessed myself of the Kingdom of God breaking through in our midst.  halfway into drafting the first “story” it dawned on me that this task may be more than 1 post could handle so i plan to publish a total of 7 posts over the course of the next couple months for each principle and its corresponding true story from my experience that illustrates the principle.  

here goes the 1st: so what does the Kingdom of God look like…in real life?  

#1. (of 7) the Kingdom of God is a treasure worth giving up ALL else for

for me discovering the value of the treasure of the Kingdom was a process.  i received the King into my life around 7th grade.  the deeper understanding of the Kingdom and its worth, especially the giving up stuff, came after that.  there have been different things and relationships i’ve had to lay down in order to “seek first the Kingdom” and, i suspect, i will continue to this side of heaven.  

but the most significant thing that comes to mind that God led me to give up, in my journey thus far, was the security of my job.  i was 8 years into my career as a public high school teacher when my wife and i sensed God calling us to move into the inner city for the work of His Kingdom.  it was not a decision we came to easily, but it was confirmed by multiple convictions and events.  we had no idea what this ministry would really look like and what exactly God was calling me into but, one thing was clear, i would have to leave my job and the security my salary represented.  i had to take a step of faith into the unknown because Jesus, my King, was calling me to move out of what was familiar to me.  i put in my resignation at locke high school in the spring of 2011.  i joined an unpaid internship to learn about living amongst the poor that fall.  we found out that my wife was pregnant.  i was unemployed for months and could only find a job as a substitute teacher.  it was a humiliating step down for me who used to be a full time teacher.  

then in the beginning of 2012 i sensed God was calling me to be a pastor of outcasts full-time.  but to be a pastor in the neighborhood i now lived in meant that i would need to fundraise my salary (which at most would only be half of what i was paid as a teacher), not only because our church could barely pay the rent but because anything raised by our church we believe should go to a local leader that is raised up, not a “relocator” like me.  then my father-in-law saw my fundraising letter.   he was furious.  he could not believe what i was doing and what i was about to put his daughter and his grandchild through.  he yelled “are you a beggar?”, “you are a fool to think people would support you in this work!”  needless to say, the Kingdom of God did not feel like a treasure to me at that point.    

so, i prayed, “God, if this is the work you want me to do, please provide the $2000 of monthly support our family needs within the next 6 months.  please vindicate me.”

and He did.  and then some.  

you see, it was not just the money he provided to meet that initial goal  (which God provided within 6 months!) through generous supporters who believed in this work of expanding the Kingdom of God; he was giving me and my family so much more than we had imagined.  what we give up for the Kingdom, we get Kingdom treasure in return.  i had left my locke II community of teachers, one of the most amazing staffs I have EVER had the privilege to work with.  we had left our church community at wlah, who commissioned us with such grace, love, and support (they are still our biggest supporters).  we have now gained spiritual family i never would have gained, if we had clung to our familiar comfort.  spiritual family members that come from different backgrounds, social classes, and races than my family.  spiritual family that prays for us so faithfully and with so much more faith and desperation (with tears) than we have.  spiritual family that God speaks to with things for us that we never even told them.  

you see, we may have thought we were moving into a neighborhood to help those in need but God was moving us into the neighborhood for our growth, for our healing, for our wholeness.  we think we are making a sacrifice to serve others but God uses that process and those in need to turn around and bless us with what no money can buy.  it may not come in the timing or manner that we may expect but, in God’s Kingdom, the blessings go ALL around and are shared with ALL.  

you see, Jesus was telling the truth that what we give up for the Kingdom is not worth comparing to what we gain in the Kingdom.  it is something that rewards “many times more” in this life as well as the life to come…indeed with his Kingdom, we’re still witnessing the treasure unfold.   

nothing that we could ever own nor any intimate human relationship we could ever have surpasses the Kingdom of God in worth.  

Every Tribe and Tongue…

This past month each of our discipleship school students stepped out of fear and into taking risks with and for the Lord to love others.  

There was so much that our Lord showed us on our week long mission trip last week but, for me, there is one lesson that sticks out: EVERY person in Jesus has something to contribute in reaching out to others.  

Our first outreach in Santiago, Dominican Republic was at Leon Jimenez Park.  The outreach small group that I was made in was made up of me, Obadiah* (son of the lead pastor at New Life Church in Lincoln Heights), Anita* from Hope Church (in East LA), Enrique’s (son of the lead pastor at Hope Church) 6 year old son Isais*, and Jonas* a Haitian brother in the Lord from Iglesia Comunidad Multicultural (the host church that led us during our week stay in the DR).

At the park, we came across this young couple that seemed to be having a date.  The woman was a Venezuelan and the man was Dominican and French.  We asked about the young woman about the crisis happening in Venezuela and could tell she was sad with her family still there. Jonas preached and prayed for her to find the hope of God to be lifted up as well as to lift up her town and country.  I got a sense from God for the man that God wanted to fill him up with God’s oil so his light would not go out.  Up to this point the man didn’t really seem that interested but he perked up as Josiah translated some of the words of the image I got into Spanish and asked “How do I get this oil?”  Anitia jumped in to share her story of how she learned that she needed her own personal relationship with Jesus instead of just going to church with her mom.  Isais shared that in prayer he saw a tree made out of the number 3.  The man shared that his favorite number was 3.  This young couple was touched to know that God saw them and knew them.  

But for this moment of the Kingdom of God to break through, it took everyone to contribute: a Japanese-American man, a half-Caucasian half-Chinese teenage boy, a Salvadorian woman, and a half-Caucasian half-Mexican 6-year-old, and a young Haitian man living in the DR to all work together in Jesus.

It was a beautiful glimpse of heaven, where every tongue and tribe will be lifting up Jesus together.  So you see, EVERY person in Jesus has something to contribute.  

We don’t need to wait till we get there…may we practice that good of eternity today.  

 

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*names changed for privacy 

Our sister church that hosted us in the Dominican Republic is doing such amazing work in their community.  One of which is their building of community center (we got to pray at the site of the foundation that is already being built) which will provide a place for a school for the many Haitian children who are not allowed in public schools in the DR!  Please consider investing in the Kingdom of God in this way!  

I pray that we all follow Jesus into putting ourselves out there this day with His love.

From Chola to Christ

i realize a lot of my posts on this blog have been theological in nature, especially as of late.  I do see the great need for more holistic theology but i also realize there is a need for more concrete examples of what that theology looks like played out in the lives of real people around me.  in my study of the Kingdom of God, i see that in scripture there is not only a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God but a demonstration of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  the world is hungry not for more people who “talk the talk” but for more of those who “walk the walk.”  

one thing i have learned by living amongst the urban poor in LA is the power of stories to draw people into an experience of a truth. it is something that those of us who are “educated” or from a middle or upper class background can come to underestimate when we are too much in our own heads, experiences, and theories.  with this in mind, moving forward and as i am able, i hope to share more stories of God working in and through the “least of these.”  or, if you will, for these truths of God’s kingdom to “take on flesh” (adapted some from the monthly updates i send to my supporters.  feel free to email me at david dot kitani at servantpartners dot org if you’d like to receive these monthly updates).  with that said, i’d like to share with you a story of a sister in Jesus from “the hood” that i’ve gotten the pleasure to get to know more through the discipleship school that i help run at our church.  she inspires and challenges me in fresh way.  

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irene* was basically raised by the streets of los angeles. she was a hardcore “chola” gangster that has been notorious in our neighborhood.  she has been in and out of prison and has had multiple near death experiences.  she swears like a sailor, she’s straight up, and she is known to instill fear in people (and strangely enough she’s found my wife to be a kindred spirit ;).  but God’s hand is on her life.  she’s been wanting to join our discipleship school for a while.  we had our reservations but it was clear God was directing her this way.  

and it’s been amazing.  

she’s talked about Jesus to friends and family a lot before but now she is starting to submit her life to Jesus’ Lordship.  people are noticing.  in the middle of a family birthday party her hardened adult niece, struggling with leukemia, challenged irene to pray her.  irene reluctantly did.  then irene “got touched” (her word for crying when she feels the presence of God, because she rarely allows herself tenderness) and her niece was moved.  so moved that she dragged irene to pray for her mom too.

irene was baptized this past april along with her daughter who has been moved by the change she sees in mom.  irene, me, the rest of the d-school, and some of our children are going to head to the dominican republic to our sister church there (the same one we went to last year) to see and participate in His Kingdom come across the sea in a couple weeks from 6/16-6/23/17.  we need to raise $31,000 as a team of 21 people.  

once irene heard the challenge for us to fundraise for the mission trip (and in her case not just for her but for two of her own children she is bringing along), this former gang member stepped out with incredible faith.  she randomly asks folks that she comes across to “sponsor” her mission trip…she’s gotten donations from her husband’s supervisor, the pest control man in her building, and even a random person from georgia that she emailed through craigslist (please, i didn’t tell students to do this)!  last week she asked her insurance agent to support the mission trip and he broke down and asked for prayer for his twin brother (who was standing right next to him) who is going through health issues.  she prayed for them right there in the office.

this past tuesday we went out in the neighborhood to offer to pray for folks at a local park.  she challenged me with her boldness to offer to pray for people and even reminded me to “go for it” when i was hesitant in approaching some.  through our time praying for people together a women felt the “warmth” of God as irene prayed for her breathing issues and another woman was completely healed of knee pain from her chemotherapy (from pain level 8 to 0!).  this woman was so shocked and full of joy as she was moving her leg back and forth.  irene found herself hugging these strangers, something she would never have done before!

irene’s faith, and folks such as these in our working class community, puts me to shame.  irene not only knows the King but is now submitting herself to His Kingdom…and its awe-inspiring!  

 

if you want to join in on this work God is doing in and through the urban poor donate here toward their mission trip and don’t miss out on the Kingdom breaking through right in our midst!

 

*name changed to protect privacy