Who are “the least of these”?
Martin Luther King Jr. asked this question of North Americans in one of his famous speeches in the civil rights movement. He was referring to Matthew 15 v 40.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”
The point is that, when Christians meet the needs of the poor, hungry, thirsty, marginalised and in trouble, they are ministering to Christ himself.
Now there is a tendency today to refuse to see our students as poor, thirsty, needy and in trouble. This is rightly seen as an old, “top down” view of teaching, and Henri Nouwen himself castigated teachers who see themselves as spreading a rich table of truths for the poor, needy students who come to them as empty beggars to receive. He was concerned to stress that students also come with great gifts to the teaching situation, in their own experiences of life and God.
And this is true but it is not the whole truth. Theological education is a complicated business and we need to hold a number of attitudes in tension. Eschewing the pride of the teacher which Nouwen was keen to combat, we can also say that students are needy, and our job is to meet their needs.
They need re-assurance that they do hold something valuable in the situation; they need guidance in their thinking; they need the raw material of what others have thought on the issues we are discussing; they need a good model to follow. Sometimes they get into difficulties with their faith and they need re-assurance and hope. Occasionally they need rebuke.
Then there are students with particular needs. Some struggle more than others academically, for instance, and there is a debate going on as to how far we should respond. After all, if we spend many more sessions with one student than others, are we not becoming unfair because they will all sit the same exam? Here surely pastoral responsibility must triumph over academic process (provided there is equality of opportunity to access all the help each student needs).
But the key issue before us is how we respond to what must surely be a startling truth of theological education.
Provided we relate to students as those in some way in need, which we must, then what we are doing for our students, we are doing to and for Christ himself.
How can we respond to that? With two things; with carefulness, to ensure that we do care and do act in love to our students, as Christ asks us, – and with joy. I am sure many Christians have dreamt of caring for the man of sorrows as he walked this earth. The theological educator can do this, for Jesus would say “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers, your students, you did it unto me”.
Now that is an encouragement with which to start the new academic year which will be, no doubt, full of “student problems”.