Sunday, July 26, 2009

The least of these

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

- Matthew 25:31-46

This passage is interesting to me for a number of different reasons. There is first of all the quality of mercy that is stressed here. We are not alone in the world; there are those around us who may have need. It is quite obvious that the world around us is always in need of mercy; there are inequalities, emergencies - no life is without its need for help, for love or care, for compassion.

But there are other things that run a little more deeply under the surface in this passage. There is first of all the notion that Christ is speaking of compassion on the "members of his family." From Mark 3:35 (see passage of July 18) we understand Jesus to teach us that "whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother." So we immediately have understood that Jesus is speaking of a spiritual connection that unites members of his family. They are all related through the Father of all, by seeking to do his will. This is a spiritual connection of kinship, and it confers a relatedness that determines where and how he shares His Person, and in that sense, what is done to or for them is also done to or for him.

There is also something to read into this passage that reminds me of the issues of jealousy and competition raised in yesterday's. There is a sense in this passage of the notion of competition as it works in its negative form. When Jesus speaks of the least of these, he's referring to a social rank. People who are strangers, hungry or thirsty, sick or in prison, we can think of as pretty likely to also be of low rank in a society. If we are good only to those whose rank is high in the society then perhaps there is something quite different from charity going on. I'm not really speaking of people we respect necessarily for their character or good qualities, but there is a notion reflected here that we care about or notice those of a particular rank. The people questioned in this judgment are shocked to understand that they could have neglected the king. But this king refers to those whom he considers his kin that may go unnoticed, are insignificant in social status, of little or no rank. And so Jesus once again in some sense introduces the idea of rank - and, it seems to me, introduces a notion of rank based upon a spiritual connection of faith, of the choice for good, for God who is love. There is a spiritually unhealthy form of competition which invites jealousy, and demeans those who are not of a particular status in a social hierchy, and there is the notion of doing the best one can. I think Jesus' "equalizing" notions lead us to this understanding that separates the two different ways in which we may look at life and how we live it and what guides our choices. I've seen such "rankism" alive and well in churches as well as anywhere else. But I think it would do us well to understand Jesus' notion of relationship and significance and think about how it would teach us to live our lives. May mercy and blessings be yours today, as well as the insight to be gleaned from all His teachings.

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