Margaret’s Talk from the PV4J Breakfast at General Assembly
Second Person Plural
Biblical Ethics and Matthew 25
-Written for Presbyterian Voices for Justice-
Sisters and brothers, good morning! Before begin my remarks, let me acknowledge my gratitude to Presbyterian Voices for Justice for their invitation to speak this morning. I am humbled to stand where such enormously critical voices as Katie Cannon, Delores Williams, Rita Nakashima Brock, Joan Martin, Nancy Ramsey and Toddie Peters have stood, as a relatively new Presbyterian and a Teaching Elder half-way through my ninth year of ordered ministry. All of these women, of course, share the noble disciplines of theology and ethics. I am but a humble biblical scholar. I read ancient texts. I teach Greek. Nevertheless, I suggest to you this morning that the old, dusty, ancient worlds of the Bible might have something to say to us about justice in the twenty-first century.
We live, today, in a culture more obsessed with the individual than perhaps at any other time in US history. It is a culture of the selfie, the picture taken, usually on a cell phone or tablet computer with a camera that faces the holder, rather than the outside world. It is a culture in which the question being raised even about seminary education is not “what is its benefit to the wider society,” but “what do I, individual student consumer, get out of it?” And be clear, if I don’t get the tall steeple call with a salary well into the five figures it wasn’t worth it.
We live in a culture in which my right to hold a weapon outweighs the death of children slain by yet another white, male, misogynistic killer; or for that matter, by the hundreds of other killers of all colors and genders who insist that gun ownership is an axiomatic right of the individual. This is a culture in which the Cliven Bundies and the Donald Sterlings and the use of racial epithets for the naming of pro-sports football teams is chalked up to the “rights of the individual”; a culture in which a white, male Princeton freshman can argue that, because he happens to be descended from Holocaust survivors he has no white male privilege, as if his family’s descent has any impact on the way he is racialized and the privilege he is awarded in light of that (http://theprincetontory.com/main/checking-my-privilege-character-as-the-basis-of-privilege/ ).
Yes, sisters and brothers, this is a self-focused, self-absorbed, self-ish culture in which we live, and the argument that lies at the heart of this culture is this: I am a good person. What does any of that justice stuff have to do with me?
This morning I have come to argue that as Christians, we are called to resist the culture of “self-centeredness” and “self-absorption” as one antithetical to a biblical ethic. Since I only have 20 minutes, I have chosen to explain this argument by calling our attention to the great judgment scene in Matthew 25. My argument, sisters and brothers, is that the force of this passage is not just found in the list of ethical actions it requires. A significant aspect of this passage is something that contemporary English masks. It is presence of what we call in grammar the second-person plural.
For those of you who have forgotten your grammar, let me remind you what the second person plural is. By second person, I mean the pronoun that refers to someone that is not the self. There are two such sets of pronouns – in contemporary English parlance: “you” and “it” or “they.” “It” or “they” are the third person; these pronouns refer to something or someone outside of the immediate conversation. Second person pronouns refer to the one or ones to whom the conversation is directed. Today we say, “you,” whether that person is singular or plural, unless, of course one lives in the south as I have for the last fourteen years. Then the distinction between you and y’all becomes clear. For those of us who can manage the Shakespearean English of King James’ version, second person singular is readily distinguishable: “Thou” is easily distinguishable from second person plural, “you.”
The truth is that most of us rarely consider the second person plural when reading the Bible. So, we turn to Matthew 25 and we read “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” and so on, and we hear a message directed to individual persons. We hear “Thou” when the text is saying “You.” We hear a call to the self when Jesus is issuing a call to collective action and collective responsibility. Today, I am encouraging us, indeed urging us as a denomination, to a counter-cultural stance. I am urging us to hear, once more the call to the collective in Matthew 25 as we gather as a whole denomination to pray, worship and deliberate together. For, I argue the second-person plural in this and many other biblical passages challenges our increasingly atomizing society, calling us back from self to community as a faithful response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we take the second-person plural in this text seriously, we see that the judgment envisioned in this apocalyptic text is not of individuals but of those collective bodies called nations, people or ἐθνή as the Greek states. Matthew 25:32 thus reads “And all the nations will be gathered together before him and he will separate them from each other just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” It is the nations that will be judged collectively, according to this text, not individual persons. Some nations will be on one side – those nations that did not tend to the hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked, sick and imprisoned. Those nations who did tend to these most vulnerable among them will be on the other side.
And to those on his right, Matthew testifies, the Son of man will say (and here I am using the modified Southern US version of the text): “Come, y’all who are blessed by my Father” (and yes, the Greek says “father” – that’s a different talk for a different day). “Come, y’all who are blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for all y’all from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and y’all fed me; I was thirsty, and y’all poured tea. I was a stranger, and y’all welcomed me. I was naked and y’all put clothes on my back. I was sick and y’all came and saw about me. I was in prison and y’all didn’t forget about me.” – second-person plural.
Now, in Matthew’s day, this vision would likely have been heard as a searing critique of the Roman Empire, given its treatment of the poorest of the poor. But today, our temptation is to read it as a litmus test for individual piety. Yes, we say, I feed the hungry– Tuesday mornings at 10 am. Yes, I quench the thirst of the thirsty, every June at the water table for the Pride March. Yes, I welcome the stranger – I’m the chief greeter at my church. Yes, I clothe the naked, every month when the Kidney Foundation picks up donations. Yes, I visit the sick once a month with the deacons. Yes, I come to the prisoners, once a quarter with the church van that takes families down to the prison to see their loved ones.
And, if this text were about your individual piety, this would be an admirable demonstration of your faithful response to the unearned, saving grace of Jesus Christ. But this text is not about individual piety. This text is about collective responsibility. This is group work. What this means is that we are to be held responsible not for our individual actions alone, but for how those individual actions comprise a collective response to, or collective ignorance of the problems of the most vulnerable around us. What Matthew is trying to teach us is that we will be held corporately responsible for our treatment of the hungry and thirsty. We will be corporately responsible for our treatment of the stranger. We will be corporately responsible for our treatment of the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. The judgment here is not of “thou who art blessed” but of “you who are blessed” – second-person plural.
Now let me be clear: I like selfies and the millennial generation that enjoys posting them. The culture of selfies is a culture that contains the possibility of leading one to self-reflection, to self-examination, and to self-empowerment. Further, I would challenge anyone who might mischaracterize these remarks as arguing against individual responsibility. Rather, I draw attention to the presence of the second-person plural in this and any number of other biblical passages to remind us that the Bible, and the Triune God to which its writings testify, frequently makes responsibility collective and not merely individual. For many of the biblical passages about ethics and justice, it is not enough for each of us to try to live good, Christian lives on our own. The witnesses of the Bible call us to collective responsibility for the common good, particularly for those whom Jesus called “the least of these sisters and brothers of mine.” And, according to the biblical witnesses, we are judged on the level of collective culpability, national culpability – of how whole nations, whole peoples, whole groups act toward the most vulnerable in our society.
In other words, I am not arguing against individuals going on mission trips; I am arguing for congregations paying their full per capita to denominational centers so that we, collectively, can do the work we, collectively, are called to do. I am not arguing against personal repentance; I am arguing for collective repentance, the kind of collective repentance that leads to reparative justice and reconciliation. Friends, I am not arguing against individual relationships with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; I am arguing for a collective will to tend at the very least to those whom that same Jesus Christ called family, those who were most vulnerable in society, those whose treatment, according to the gospel of Matthew, will bring judgment not on mere individuals but on entire nations.
So, what are the implications of focusing on the second-person plural for this gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), this General Assembly? Let me, in the time remaining to me, suggest a few ways in which focusing on the second-person plural might inform our deliberations.
Consider, for instance, white privilege. It is tempting, a young man from Princeton proved just a few weeks ago, to argue “this is not my problem. I’m a hip majority person. I hate racism. Besides, nobody privileges me, ever.” However, a turn to the second-person plural reminds us as individuals that ultimately it does not matter how anti-racist any single one of you is; y’all are called –and y’all will be held responsible by the Triune God, for our treatment of those whom our society stereotypes and alienates, racializes and estranges because of language, or color, or national origin or ethnicity. Not only this, we as a nation, we as a church, we collectively are responsible to God for how we live into this reality. Clearly this suggests that we, collectively, should be about the business of making sure we, collectively can confess with the global Reformed Church which once gathered in Belhar, South Africa “we reject any doctrine which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church” (Belhar Confession). But my friends, collective responsibility does not mean simply increasing our Book of Confessions.
Collective responsibility for racial and ethnic privilege, for white racism and its ideology among us requires that we, collectively, create and distribute resources to the vast majority of our churches which are still overwhelmingly white churches to equip them to welcome and celebrate people of color as members, ruling elders and yes, teaching elders within their congregation. This is not merely a matter of denominational survival, although certainly in a majority white denomination within a quickly browning nation, we must do it if we mean to be around in the future. Rather, this is a matter of collective just action, the action for which the “y’all” in Matthew 25 are praised – second-person, plural.
Likewise with women, #yesALLwomen, we as a church must stand against the pervasive rape culture in this country that penalizes women for having bodies and daring to dress them as they please, blames them for not observing some unwritten curfew, and dismisses their complaints as hysteria and histrionics as though female anatomy affects one’s sight, hearing and sense of touch; all the while downplaying the misogyny of a white male killer as mental illness. But collective responsibility means that we must do so with more than words.
Collective responsibility requires that we examine and dismantle our participation in that culture, how we, collectively, treat women as a congregation, members and elders alike. Collective responsibility requires that we consider how we make our congregations, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our suburbs safe for women, yes all women, regardless of their religious confession or lack thereof. Nor can we cast our gaze on other nations as though, because women here are not regularly faced with gang rape and hanging, or acid thrown in the face, we have no reason to be concerned that our bodies and what we do with them are constantly seen as appropriately adjudicated by anybody but us. And it goes deeper. We cannot speak about becoming a peace church, with regards to our stance on war, without becoming a peace church in our homes, in our schools, in our congregations, and in every other way we manifest ourselves in the world. Again, this is not a matter of denominational survival, although women are at least fifty percent of the population. Rather, this is a matter of collective just action, the action for which the “y’all” in Matthew 25 are praised – second-person, plural.
For many of us in this room, “mawage is what bwings us togewer today” (Princess Bride). (I’ve always wanted to use that line in a speech). So let’s talk about marriage, not as a sacrament, because it is NOT a sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) the last time I checked my polity. Let’s talk about marriage as an economic boon to two people, a way to reduce for many couples and their families that hunger, that thirst, that nakedness and that alienation of which Mathew 25 testifies. Civil marriage, thus, becomes an economic issue for which we, collectively, are to be held responsible. For surely, denying the right of civil marriage to any two consenting adults regardless of gender puts the “y’all,” puts us, on the left side of this argument – increasing the pain of those that Jesus calls “the least of these.” Surely ensuring civil marriage rights for all is a matter of collective just action.
And what about pastorally? For some in our church, the marriage between two persons of the same biological or perceived sex is anathema and the move of our church toward that end would make them feel alienated from the body; and friends, they must be heard. For others, it is one of the more profound ways that the church can pastorally stand with and welcome those whom we together have systematically estranged and alienated, bearing witness to their vows taken before the living God within a congregation that stands with them to support them; and friends, they pastor in 19 and counting states that now allow them to do legally what they are not allowed to do pastorally – they must also be heard. What if the collective just response to stalemate is the Jerusalem solution of Acts 15, the handshake of peace between Peter and Paul, the intentional creation and practice of welcome for all of God’s children who feel alienated from and by the church? What if the we, the y’all, from each group of Christian believers set out intentionally to welcome and work with those who consider themselves part of that other group, as an act of welcome – not conversion – trusting that God is still sovereign and welcome is still our call, the call to the y’all of Matthew 25, the call in the second-person plural.
For you see, sisters and brothers, fighting over the wedding ceremonies held in our churches – or not held in our churches – is a convenient distraction. This is a way for us, all of us, to collectively ignore the hungry and thirsty in our cities and suburbs, rural areas and small towns. This is a way for us to ignore, collectively, our declining dollars for mission to the naked and the sick and the imprisoned and blame “the other side” for impoverishing the church. This is a way for us to ignore the warming earth because we are so concerned with who gets to have what kind of worship service within the walls of which congregation. And I’m here to testify today, with the Reformed Christians who gathered in Accra, Ghana, that our infighting about transgendered, lesbian, bisexual and gay Presbyterians and their place in the church is a convenient distraction from neoliberaI economic globalization. And that system of neoliberal economic globalization in which we all participate, whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, justice-seeking or Bible-based (as if those things are opposites), that system for which we are, in part, culpable, creates more hungry, thirsty, naked, estranged, sick and imprisoned people than any marriage ceremony ever could (Accra Confession). And Matthew 25 tells us that we will all be judged for it together, collectively, regardless if we are denominational or post-denominational, Reformed or always-Reforming, transgendered, bisexual, lesbian, gay or straight – the judgment is collective – y’all let this happen while you were bickering with each other about non-essential tenets of the Reformed faith. All of y’all – second person plural.
Do not misunderstand me. I think that all pastors in consultation with their congregational councils should have the ability to perform wedding ceremonies for all of their congregants, as long as they consider those weddings to be viable and sound. But if we think that the most important thing that brings us together today is whether or not two people can have a church wedding, we are not hearing the point. Matthew does not testify that our collective judgment will come from whether or not we perform weddings. Matthew says that our collective judgment or vindication will be based on our collective just action regarding the least of these. So, yes, we should allow pastors to do what is pastorally appropriate in their own context, but for the sake of the least of these, can we please stand together against American companies whose products are knowingly being used to cause hunger, thirst, nakedness, illness and estrangement in the land of Jesus’ birth? Yes, we should fling open the church doors so that pastors may do whatever we deem pastorally appropriate in line with the essential teachings of the Reformed faith with regard to a covenant between two individuals, but can we please stand together to find a way to make these electronic devices on which we rely as just and equitable as the T-shirts and tote bags of this assembly and assemblies past, so that we do not foster the kind of wars that lead to hunger, thirst, nakedness, estrangement, sickness and imprisonment in part of the African and Asian continents? Yes, yes, yes, I do know marriage matters. I’m a black immigrant woman married to a white immigrant man who has adopted a white male American child (we call this an international adoption) in a nation in which all of those actions were once illegal. I really, really get it.
And I get this also – that I have colleagues who will stay in this denomination and will never perform a same-sex marriage and colleagues who have already performed same-sex marriages -- who are fighting together to end the exploitation of children in sex trafficking, fighting to save the lives of young black and Latino men on the poor side of town, fighting for just immigration laws, and fighting alongside their sisters and brothers on the so-called “other side” of the fence for sensible gun laws and the end to systemic gun violence. In the deep south…the center of that word y’all – second person plural.
At some point, sisters and brothers, this is where we must get to as a denomination. We must get to a place where those outside of our walls look us and say – y’all feed the hungry and deal with systematic food injustice, second person plural. Y’all give the thirsty something to drink and deal with water rights and water justice systemically, second person plural. Y’all clothe the naked and address the injustices in the entire system that leads to the manufacture of clothing, second person plural. Y’all welcome all who are estranged by racism, sexism and heterosexism, classism, ableism, immigrant status, ageism and all other systemic forms of privilege and power – second person plural. Y’all visit the sick and work for access to safe, affordable, adequate healthcare for all people – second person plural. Y’all visit the prisons and work for the dismantling of the New Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex – second person plural.
For, we may live in a selfie culture, but we serve a God who holds us collectively responsible to be salt and light in this God-beloved world. Friends I urge you, especially if you are commissioners to this assembly, reclaim the sense of y’all in all of the Bible’s commands for justice. For the truth is, the only way we can do any of this, even by God’s grace, is if we work together. And most assuredly, says Matthew, we will all be held accountable, regardless of our personal piety, if we cannot find a way to work together. Let us find a way to reclaim that space where sisters and brothers could disagree and still work together, that space first occupied by the earliest church. For the alternative is that we, all of us, collectively, will one day hear this said of us: “For I was hungry, and y’all did not feed me; I was thirsty, and y’all didn’t even give me clean water to drink. I was a stranger, and y’all closed your doors to me. I was naked and y’all laughed in my face and made me an internet meme. I was sick and y’all blamed my lack of faith. I was in prison and y’all treated me as less than a human being.” – all of y’all, second person plural.
The Mission of Presbyterian Voices for Justice
We are a playful and passionate community
of women and men in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
who are called to proclaim the Gospel vision
of God’s extravagant love and justice
in church and society.
We seek the wisdom of the Spirit for following Christ’s example
and for living into the hope of sustained gender equality,
racial reconciliation, full human rights for LGBT persons,
economic justice, environmental wholeness,
an end to war and all forms of violence,
and a justice-loving shalom over all the earth.
We commit to risking the transformation of our own selves
and our organization
to live into this vision,
even as we invite both church and society
to meet this challenge.
Presbyterian Voices for Justice is the result of a merger between the Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia.
For histories of the two predecessor groups, click HERE.
Let your voice be heard!