Food for Thought

by Eric Hamilton

I recently heard an interesting discussion of Matthew 25.
Conservative readers would likely be surprised to learn that I heard (or rather, saw) this discussion on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, between Colbert and Democratic Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown. It was a beautiful meditation on the meaning of Matthew 25, and proof positive that one doesn’t have to be politically conservative in order to be a person of faith. However, ultimately, I disagreed with the conclusion that Senator Brown reached. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here—I should first tell you what Mr. Brown’s conclusion was.
Obviously, the senator, like most Christians, finds these verses inspiring:
‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ These verses are some of the most powerful instructions on how to be a Christian, exceeded in beauty (in my opinion) only by the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in Heaven.’
Incidentally (and as I’ve pointed out in a previous column) nearly all such verses have, at one time or another, been directly contradicted by one or another of Donald Trump’s public statements. But I digress.
Sherrod Brown loves Matthew 25. However, as he told Stephen Colbert, he has always disliked the usual translation of the parable’s climax: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.’ Rather, the senator prefers a different translation, which reads ‘Whatever you did for one of those who appeared to be less important, you did for me.’ He doesn’t like Jesus’ use of the word ‘least’, thinking it implies that some people are better than others.
I respectfully disagree with the senator.
Let me say up front that I’m NOT accusing Mr. Brown of ‘playing fast and loose with the Bible’. Jesus was likely speaking Aramaic, so a truly exact translation probably isn’t possible. Translators have wiggle-room, and the translation that Sherrod Brown likes couldn’t possibly be more inaccurate than the King James’ Version (which is nonetheless beautiful). No, I disagree with the senator for different reasons.

First of all, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these’ is beautiful, poetic. It flows like music. I’m a writer. I like that. However, I think Sherrod Brown’s preferred translation also fails to capture Jesus’ style.
Jesus is subtle. He often doesn’t say exactly what He means, and just as often He imparts several meanings…some of which are packed ‘in-between the lines’.
‘Least’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘least’, when Jesus says it.
‘For he who is least among you all, he is the greatest.’
Jesus is constantly challenging his listeners, making them uncomfortable, forcing them to think. The meaning that Sherrod Brown wants to hear is right there in the traditional translation, packed in-between the lines. You’re supposed to dig it out for yourself, and when you do, it means more—like a diamond mined from deep underground. Whereas, Sherrod Brown’s translation flings the diamond right at your head; nothing is left in-between the lines. And then there’s another problem.

Sherrod Brown’s translation has only one possible meaning, whereas Jesus probably has several.
Maybe ‘least’ ALSO literally means least.
Sherrod Brown seems to be worried about only the virtuous, overlooked people who merely SEEM to be less important. But what about people who might be accused, RIGHTLY, of being less? What about the people who take without asking; the people who never give; the people who strike you on your right cheek? Aren’t we supposed to turn to them the other cheek, also? After all…
‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.’
Those are words to remember in times such as these—words to remember at ANY time.