The title of the message, “Blaming the Victim” is the same as the title of a book I read in an undergraduate psychology class years ago. Recent social events and media advertisements called it to mind as I reflected on the gospel verses for today, and Jesus’ vivid description of the differences between sheep and goats.
Curious whether or not it was still in print I looked it up and was surprised to learn that not only is it still in print, but is considered as groundbreaking and relevant today as when I read it in the 1970’s.
This is the basic premise...
“The classic work that refutes the lies we tell ourselves about race, poverty and the poor. Here are three myths about poverty in America: – Minority children perform poorly in school because they are “culturally deprived.”– African-Americans are handicapped by a family structure that is typically unstable and matriarchal. – Poor people suffer from bad health because of ignorance and lack of interest in proper health care. Blaming the Victim was the first book to identify these truisms as part of the system of denial that even the best-intentioned Americans have constructed around the unpalatable realities of race and class. Originally published in 1970, William Ryan's groundbreaking and exhaustively researched work challenges both liberal and conservative assumptions, serving up a devastating critique of the mindset that causes us to blame the poor for their poverty and the powerless for their powerlessness. More than twenty years later, it is even more meaningful for its diagnosis of the psychic underpinnings of racial and social injustice.”
Two examples brought this book to mind.
The first is the trending of luxury Fallout shelters that I spoke about last week. Priced in the several millions of dollars, equipped with a workshop, rec. room, luxury living space and a car depot in case the earth is ever safe to drive upon again and you can find gasoline, the popularity and mindset of those who are purchasing these future homes driven by fear of nuclear war, climate change, or social revolution, blatantly illustrates the classism and unequal distribution of power and social value under which we currently live.
Despite research and books like, Blaming the Victim” myths and mindsets remain that the poor are lazy, that people depending upon welfare want to stay that way, and that anyone can raise themselves up with their own bootstraps if they just work hard enough.
The second example is the sale of a picture by Leonardo daVinci, Salvator Mudi, a painting of Christ as: Latin: Saviour of The World, c. 1500. The painting shows Jesus, in Renaissance dress, giving a benediction with a raised right hand and crossed fingers while in the left hand holding a transparent crystal orb.
Salvator Mundi, the long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ commissioned by King Louis XII of France more than 500 years ago, sold at Christie’s in New York last week for $450.3m, (including auction house premium) shattering the world record for any work of art sold at auction.
I want to reflect on each of these events in light of our gospel text.
Let’s begin with the painting; more than this, with the title itself: “Savior of the World.”
Jesus, this savior of the world painted by DaVinci, speaks to us today about the intricate connections between justice, mercy, and salvation.
In fact, one colleague notes:
Whatever one says about Matthew 25:31-46, one thing is certain: this passage is disturbing. Beginning with verse 31, reward and punishment dominate the scene. Instead of reading about mercy, people face retributive judgment for deeds done in their former lives. To press the point, it appears that salvation is by human effort, specifically by acts of kindness shown to others and not by grace.
Spending $450,000,000 to own a painting representing a Savior whose very words and life repudiate this kind of purchase speaks for itself. Turning a depiction of Christ as Savior of the World into a symbol of personal power, wealth, and exclusivity is obscene in light of this gospel passage.
The trending of Luxury Fallout shelters and Condominium complexes are equally obvious as examples of everything Jesus does not represent or teach as God’s vision for humankind.
We often talk about “social silos”, the various ways we tend to group ourselves with “people like us” and avoid anyone “different” or “otherwise”. Now we have moved to building literal silos to keep one another out, to hoard whatever we think we will need to survive nuclear war, or climate change, or a world pandemic- while the rest of the world and all of its people, “ go to Hell in a handbasket” (as my mother would say).
On this Sunday on which we claim Jesus as Sovereign, as Savior of the World, the is good news is that not everyone embraces these dehumanizing and profane values.
I went looking in my resources and found an example of someone who not only does not live by these debasing and dehumanizing social values, but who actually embraces the gospel vision Jesus casts in a profound wa, particularly the vision we have before us this morning in Matthew 25: 31-46.
Mohamed Bzeek is a Libyan-American Muslim living in Azusa, California, who for nearly 30 years has quietly cared for terminally ill foster children no one else would take. Mohamed does not consider himself an angel or a hero, but simply doing "just what we are supposed to do as a human being."
Bzeek was 23 when he came to America in 1978 to study engineering. Eventually he married Dawn who introduced him to the world of foster parenting. They shared a sense of calling to care for terminally ill children who were difficult to place. Since then, more than 40 children have lived under their roof. Ten children died while in their care, some of them in Bzeek's arms.
One child placed in their care was an 8-day-old girl with microcephaly, who was so tiny that she was dressed in a doll's dress and buried in a coffin the size of a shoe box. Later, the Bzeeks took in a 1-month-old deaf and blind, epileptic, quadriplegic girl with the same kind of brain condition. Doctors didn't expect her to survive past the age of 2. "These kids, it's a life sentence for them," Mohammed Bzeek said.
Yet in December 2016, she celebrated her sixth birthday. She would not have lived this long had it not been for her foster father's devotion, according to her pediatrician, Dr. Suzanne Roberts. "Her life is not complete suffering," Roberts said. "She has moments where she's enjoying herself and she's pretty content, and it's all because of Mohamed."
"I know she can't hear, can't see, but I always talk to her," Bzeek said. "I'm always holding her, playing with her, touching her. ... She has feelings. She has a soul. She's a human being. ... The key is, you have to love them like your own. I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God."
Bzeek plans to keep caring for these children as long as his health holds up. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2016, but had successful surgery and is now in treatment.
He collects $1,700 each month to care for his foster daughter, but he says he doesn't do it for the money. "To me, death is part of life," Bzeek says. He wants the children to feel they are part of a family and that they are not alone. And he wants to be there to love and comfort them when they pass from this life to the next.
Bzeek is not a Christian, but when he dies, if I understand the gospel correctly, shouldn’t he be welcomed into heaven?
We commonly read Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats as a message pertaining to Christians.
It has clearly motivated myriad acts of practical ministry; John Wesley and the entire Methodist movement was focused not only on spiritual vitality and growth but also on practical ministries like feeding the hungry, providing education to children and adults, health care and teaching First Aid classes, visiting the sick, the prisoners, and welcoming the marginalized into community.
John Wesley understood the gospel: for there is no missing Jesus' message embedded in this parable: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (N.I.V.)
In addition to understanding Jesus' statement as an instruction for ourselves as followers of Jesus, there are reasons to also hear it as a statement about non-Christians who follow gospel values as well.
For one thing, near the beginning of this parable, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, all the nations will be gathered. Biblical commentator Douglas Hare points out that while "all the nations" could mean "everyone," that's not likely here because if that had been the meaning, the Greek word used would probably have been pantes, which means "all."
Instead, the word is ethne, "nations," which Hare says had become a technical term in Jewish Greek to designate non-Jewish people. In fact, in Hebrew, it's rendered as goyyim, which by Jesus' lifetime, meant Gentiles.
Thus, this sheep-and-goat passage gives us a way to think also about those who do not profess to follow Jesus as the Christ, but whom we recognize as good people who do acts of kindness, compassion and mercy for others, people such as Mohammed Bzeek.
On colleague made the interesting observation that, “Though such persons are not intending to have a salvific relationship with Christ, their good deeds in fact produce one.”
The fact is, when you are in need and someone helps you without asking for anything in return, chances are you are not concerned about whether they are motivated by a commitment to Christ or human kindness or even something else entirely.
Several years ago, Colin Morris, who was a missionary in Zambia, pointed out that from the viewpoint of people who are hungry, anybody who gives them food, regardless of why they give it, is doing the right thing. He said that a Communist commissar may give bread to enslave people, a nationalist leader may give it to win their support and a capitalist may give it to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor. But in each case, people are being fed. From the victim's point of view, says Morris, "The Devil's name is Hunger and God's name is Bread."
This parable teaches us however, that the victims' collective name is "Jesus."
If caring for those in need is ministry to Jesus, then we who profess to follow Jesus should do no less.
This passage teaches us three important things, pointed out by the late Harold A. Bosley, a noted preacher of the last century:
God is good and wants from us a life of righteousness (Social justice, human empathy). God is not neutral about how we behave and how we behave toward one another.
God is not absent in daily life. No action is too small to miss; no bigotry too quiet to ignore.
The principle of judgment in the parable is based on love and helpfulness. Have we helped those in need? If so, good. If not, too bad for us.
Bosley added this: "Two strange and, in a sense, troubling insights are to be found in this parable: 1) some [people] discover that, although they have not known it, they have been on God's side doing salvation work, keeping the faith all the time; 2) others discover that in waiting around for some striking moment, some great way in which to demonstrate their loyalty to Christ, they have missed the only chance they would ever have to serve him."
As I said earlier, on the church calendar, this Sunday is designated the Reign of Christ, and that invites us to ask ourselves, "Does the Divine Sovereign, whom we acknowledge has a claim on our lives, have specific expectations regarding how we treat the least of these, and is there any judgment against us if we ignore the marginalized and maligned, justifying our lack of compassion by blaming victims for their own circumstances?"
This human tendency to “blame the victim” is not new, but it remains insidiously tempting.
In Herman Melville’s, "Poor man's pudding and rich man's crumbs," (1854) in The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860 (Northwestern University Press, 1987), 296 he remarks:
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.”
Jesus is explicit about our actions toward the hungry, the thirsty, the outsiders, the sick, those with insufficient protections, and prisoners, and I suspect that is a representative not an exhaustive list. Jesus was not trying to limit our help for others to only individuals in those six categories.
There is no ambiguity in Jesus' statement. Those who faithfully help the needy will be invited to "go away" into "eternal life." Those who don't, won't. And that invitation to eternal life will include even those who never professed the name of Jesus, but who, like Bzeek, cared for the least of these, and thus ministered to Jesus, to Salvator Mundi, a ministry more valuable than any portrait, and more secure than any luxury fallout shelter.