Who are “the least of these”?

 

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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”.

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3 Comments on “Who are “the least of these”?”

  1. dburke2012 Says:

    Oh wow … that’s a left field perspective there and a challenging word. More generally the ‘battle belongs to the strong’ as we teachers favour the academically able who reinforce the teacher’s self-image. Its easy to see the struggling student as a time-consuming distraction but they are also the ones who can be gold in ministry.

  2. Jim Murdoch Says:

    A great word for all of us who are involved in teaching. What a privilege to teach others that they too might teach. Our aim must never be to seek mere academic results, but to lead our students on the path to maturity in Christ. We too, must rejoice in learning from them, as learning must be life-long learning.

  3. Drew Gibson Says:

    Thanks for this, Graham. WWJD becomes WWIDIIWJ (What would I do if it was Jesus) It runs quite contrary to much that I read of teachers being co-learners with students. I understand the democratising of education implied by the co-learners idea and, obviously, it is necessary to retain a humility that will allow us to learn as we teach.However, if we don’t have something that students don’t have, what’s the point? One beggar telling others where to find bread? You are not denying that teachers are still learners but we are learners at a different level. Paradoxically, while, by definition, we are more academically advanced than our students we may be the intellectual inferiors of some and also the spiritual inferiors of some. So, while I agree that we do treat all of our students as ‘the least of these’, I would make two qualifications.

    First, this is not a universal ‘leastness’ that closes us to learning from our students. We are open to hearing God speak through them. Second, I think I would part company with dburke2012 above. I don’t think you are looking only at the weaker students; an academically strong but arrogant student has a significant weakness. Also, I don’t think that most of us ‘favour the academically able’ or find the struggling student to be ‘a time-consuming distraction’,

    I know that I’ve carried the odd student over the line in the past, usually in dissertations, and I wonder if this is helping the weak or failing to be strong enough to allow academic weakness to run its course to failure. The tension between pastoral care and maintaining academic standards is, for me at least, emormous. I do favour the notion of a ‘bias towards the poor’ that is close to your ‘least of these’ thinking but it’s the practice that I find difficult. I wish I had clear guidance as to where grace becomes weakness, even cowardice. For me the great dilemma is the godly student from the Majority World, whose church and family have made great sacrifices to send him to the UK to get a postgraduate degree, so that he can return to be a theological teacher, but he just hasn’t got what it takes. What do I do when I mark his work? I’m open to all suggestions. WWIDIIWJ?


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