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The Least of These

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“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“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.’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40; 45

There is this interesting passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches about the Kingdom using a parable. He talks about His second coming and the end of the age. At the end of the age he will separate the “sheep from the goats.” The sheep will enter into the inheritance of the Kingdom while the goats are told to depart from him to the eternal fire prepared for Satan and his demons.

This is one of those Jesus passages that is a little sobering. It confronts us with the reality that there will be some who enter into the “inheritance prepared for them” and others who will be sent away from God’s presence. What is more interesting is that he says to the sheep, “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” (v. 34-35). The conjunction “for” is important to note. He does not say, “Take your inheritance for you believed the right doctrinal statements and said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ at the altar.”

Now, I believe the “sinner’s prayer” is helpful for leading people to making a first time commitment to Jesus, and I believe sound doctrine matters. But it is clear from this passage that Jesus cares a LOT about how we treat people. Specifically, how we treat those who are oppressed, hungry, different from us, poor, and even in prison.

I think it is interesting that a lot of Christians seem to have absolutely no reservations about the goats being separated from the sheep. Some Christians seem to be really fixated on who exactly is going to hell and who exactly is going to heaven. I have a hunch that a lot of people who might be ok with the part about the sheep and goats because they believe they are one of the sheep actually have a problem with Jesus’ “do unto the least of these” bit.

Some of Jesus’ teachings are not very practical. We are pragmatists, and we often skirt around some of Jesus’ teachings because it wouldn’t be practical to actually live that way. Example: “Love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you.” We’re ok with that in theory, but when it comes to actually loving our enemies through actions we hesitate.

Or, take this Matthew 25 passage for example. People who are hungry, thirsty, and in need of clothes are often poor. I have heard a lot of justifications for not helping the poor: “You can’t just give them money, they might use it to buy booze or drugs;” “If you’re poor in the land of opportunity it’s because you’re lazy and unwilling to work,” “Their choices got them there—you reap what you sow!” Or, what about that stranger segment Jesus talks about? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Christians close their ears to the supposedly more “liberal” positions on immigration and the refugee crisis by using this argument: “Do you lock your doors at night? Would you just invite a stranger into your house?” (Now, a side note is necessary here. I am not advocating a political position. I do not presume to have answers for how our immigration system should work or how to help refugees in a way that also preserves our national interests as a nation. I simply want to point out the discrepancy in our thought patterns when we line them up next to Jesus’ words about welcoming the stranger.) Jesus also mentions someone who is in prison. The idea of someone being imprisoned is that they have indeed committed a crime. They are a convicted criminal. They’ve broken the law. Yet, Jesus calls us to treat them as if they were Christ himself. That’s convicting.

Please think about the implications of this passage for a moment. In this teaching, Jesus says that the sheep are characterized by how they treat the marginalized, oppressed, outcasts, and downtrodden. The goats are characterized by how they didn’t treat them. “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (v. 40). Read this passage and then read the parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This is a classic “heaven and hell” passage, but people seem to gloss over the introduction of the parable: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores…” This passages reminds me of Ezekiel 16:49, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The contrast is almost exact: rich luxury right next to a world of debilitating poverty.

Read Luke 4:16-19. This is the passage where Jesus talks about being anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free. After seeing Scripture through this lens, you will notice that Jesus lives out these ethics as he interacts with the socially unacceptable, the unclean, the ethnic enemies of Jews, the diseased, the sinner, and a whole host of marginalized, not-good-enough sorts of people. Read the Gospels through and watch Jesus break religious and social taboos in order to communicate the love of God to people. Then ask yourself, “Does my Gospel look like this?”

Think about your typical disposition towards people who are hungry or in need of clothes. What stereotypes or assumptions come to mind when you consider their situation? What about strangers? How do we typically regard strangers? Or, criminals in prison—what attitudes do we have towards them? If our understanding of the gospel is not concerned with loving people, and particularly those whom society has cast aside, then it is an inadequate understanding of what Jesus taught when he taught about the “gospel” of the Kingdom.

“What is true in the position of the social activists is that a Church which exists only for itself and its own enlargement is a witness against the gospel, that the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and that it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

“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’” (v.40).

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