Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Least of These

"as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me..." said Jesus the judge portrayed in the Last Judgment parable from Matthew 25, the parable of Jesus for Christ the King Sunday for next Sunday.  Jesus painted a picture of the final judgment when the great king would separate the nations, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  One group on the left and one on the right as the king makes the judgment about their eternal destiny.  To the one group, the sheep, the king tells them to enter into eternal joy because they fed him when he was hungry,  gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison.  The sheep responded, when did they do all those things for him?  And he responded that when they did those things for the least of these, you did it to me.

Then, the goats on the left are told to go to eternal punishment and the reason why is that they did not feed him when he was hungry or give him water when he was thirsty or clothes when he was naked or care for him when he was sick or visit him in prison.  They too questioned when they did not do those things for him and his response is when they did not do it to the least of these, then they did not do it to him.

The parable takes the issue of Christian Commitment to the level where it involves action rather than just words.  The meaning of the parable is that people who truly say they follow Jesus have to show their allegiance in the way they treat those around them who are in need.  Just telling everyone that you are a Christian is meaningless in the world of Jesus as King.  Doing what Jesus had been teaching in his years of ministry is what truly separates the sheep from the goats.

Who are the "least of these"?  Is it the man holding the sign on the corner when we go to the city, the man we look at and judge thinking that if we gave him a dollar he would just spend it on booze?  Is it the homeless person laying on the sidewalk whom we walk around or on the other side of the street to avoid because we think we may be in danger if we do not?  Is it the man or woman with all the piercings and tattoos that we see and we cannot stomach how they look much less understand why they would do that to their body?  Is it the woman with several children whom we see in the grocery store line using the food stamp card to pay for groceries and we silently pass judgment on her because we make assumptions about the person we think she is?

The "least of these" could be any or all of these and many more multiplied millions of persons in the world that we choose to avoid because the thought of their plight overwhelms us.  We have no idea how to solve their problems or make them feel better or meet their needs.  So, we would just as soon ignore or overlook them entirely. 

We do act to feed people through our local food pantry.  We do give water to the thirsty by giving to causes that bring clean drinking water to the poor throughout the world.  We do clothe the naked by donating our used clothing to charities that provide reasonably priced clothing in good condition to those who need it.  We also help those who are ill to become well again by supporting hospitals and charities that offer low income families reasonably priced health care.  We visit those in prison by writing to them or supporting prison ministries offered by many denominations and spiritual groups. 

So, we do act through society in many ways to alleviate suffering.  But before we begin patting ourselves on the back, perhaps the real meaning of the parable has to do with whom we see worthy of receiving our care and whom we would rather dismiss because they are not part of our particular group based upon a number of factors.  Do we include non-Christians, members of minority groups, illegal aliens, and persons from countries which our government has declared "enemies of the state" as worthy of receiving compassion?  Do we consider getting involved personally in the lives of some who are needy or put aside those thoughts in favor of doing the other options listed above? 

Amy-Jill Levine is a Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  She spoke at a conference I attended many years ago.  I was very impressed by her biblical knowledge and the fact that she is a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament.  I wrote to her asking her about how to reconcile John 14:6 ("I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.") with the inclusiveness preached by our churches that God will accept all and not just Christians into eternal life.  She wrote back to me and used Matthew 25 as her text of reply.  She said that she did not discount John 14:6 and agreed that no one would go to the Father except through Jesus but she said this did not mean that one had to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior but they had to act as Jesus instructed them to act.  Her use of Matthew 25 is that God will judge us all on the way we act rather than the words we say.  Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring healing to the ill, and visit the imprisoned?  Did we act on behalf of Jesus who taught us the way to live or just speak word of affirmation saying we believed in the way of Jesus?  That answer made a lot of sense to me. 

There are many religious groups that demand confession in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and he is to many who call themselves Christians.  Jesus, himself, however did not tell his followers to speak words of support to his heavenly cause but to act in ways that would demonstrate the love of Christ to all in our world.  The King will be the Judge of all and the King will judge fairly and rightly and in love.  Jesus is the King and he is the only one who can truly serve in that role at the end of the age.   

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