TO COMPARE IS TO DESPAIR
31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
For me, this is one of those passages that requires stating what it does not mean in order to get at what I believe it does mean. There are two common foci which I consider red herrings. This is not about judgement and punishment nor is it a ‘to do’ list for good Christians.
Judgement and Consequences
At first reading, this passage seems more divisive and threatening than reconciliatory and invitational. The sheep and the goats are divided—the righteous off to eternal life and the goats doomed to “go away into eternal punishment.” These words sound threatening and are difficult to reconcile with a forgiving God. I would like to suggest however that these words might be frightening but they do not have to be seen as threatening.
If I tell you that you will die if you jump off of a ten story building onto a concrete sidewalk, am I threatening you? If I tell you that you can live a long time on Doritos but you will finally die of malnutrition, am I threatening you? If I tell you, failure to exercise will significantly diminish your mobility as you age, is that a threat? Each of these are obvious consequences of pretending we are immune to basic laws of physics and biology. Any caring person would attempt to teach the ‘ways of the world’ that work and to warn of dangerous consequences.
But when it comes to guiding people to a meaningful life, the ‘rules of life’ are harder to discern. There are lots of ways to orient our lives. We can spend our lives seeking security, accomplishment, and approval. We can seek to acquire status, position and power. If we are fortunate, we will be comfortable, well fed and secure. Surely, that is a good life. In fact, this is what most of us do most of the time. But no matter how self reliant or accomplished we become, we cannot keep what ‘rust and moth consume.’ There is nothing wrong with any of these things, they just don’t last. I liked reminding the Sunday School classes that if we are going to spend our lives based upon secular values, it was important to time your death while you were on the upswing and before you’ve started the inevitable sequences of losses that come with aging.
The Christina faith claim is that the life that has meaning and lasting value is a life of humility, gratitude and mindfulness of others. And further that a life that does not include love and regard for others is a dead end life. The language of the text is very dramatic but at its simplest, Jesus offers the way to a life that means something and offers us a life that has meaning beyond time— and beyond the memory of our names. In its most basic form, it is no different than warning us that gravity can be dangerous.
There is judgement in this passage but it is a judgement against judging. Pay attention to the phrase ‘the least of these.” For some, the least of these refers to people who need special notice because they have less. This is at the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry. For others, the least of these refers to people of lesser status who can be ignored because their lesser status becomes a statement of their worth. It is necessary to make judgments. There are people who have less and others who have more. The sin is in thinking either those of us who have more or those who have less have any greater value in the sight of God. When we make comparisons and worry about our ranking, we miss the point of the gospel. We spend our time pointing out how hard we worked—which no matter how true— does not acknowledge the gifts we received as accidents of birth.
‘TO DO’ LISTS FOR CHRISTIANS
Each act of care in this passage—feeding the hungry, offering water to the thirsty, hospitality to the stranger, clothes to the naked, visits to the sick or imprisoned—are examples of mindfulness of the needs of others. They are all very important but we can easily take this list too literally as a ‘to do’ list by which we can determine if we are a sheep or a goat. In doing so, we miss the larger point. This passage is far more about an attitude of care than a test to be passed or a measure of our comparative goodness.
Please notice that neither the sheep or goat recognize God in the face of the ordinary person next to them. Both ask the same question: “When did we see you….” Neither the righteous nor the accursed realized where to find God. God is in the face of the person next to you. When you are aware that you belong to God and recognize that God is in the ordinary, you cannot treat yourself or others in the same way. We can only view others as equal when we realize how much we have in common. We must look to see what connects before we focus on how we are different. That requires recognizing the times we have felt diminished, hungry, exposed and vulnerable. The beginning of compassion is ‘feeling with’. If you see the least of these as fundamentally different from yourself, you will start making comparisons rather than seeing need. At best your care will be condescending and at worst, you will withhold care based upon self serving and entitled rationalizations.
Such thinking is a great values divide. One way leads to life—the other, a dead end. This is not a natural way for us to think. We like to talk about how we are all children of God but we act like we have to earn status and are terrified we are not good enough. We almost always think of God as up there somewhere, not a God who is present in every relationship we have. The paradigm shift is almost incomprehensible but if received, it leads to an entirely different way of connecting with each other. Jesus goes so far as to say that choosing this path leads to God.
We are being called to a higher standard where we commit ourselves to trying to understand before we try to prove we are right. It is a demanding way to encounter one another and I assure you, most of us will fail more than succeed in the effort. But our individual limitations are far less important than our faith claim that we are all children of God and that we should treat each other that way.
Such an effort requires focus, intentionality and faith. We need to be reminded of the gospel promises and we need to be reminded of our mission. And finally, we need to faithfully struggle to discern how each of us can participate in building God’s kingdom. The particular responses will be very varied but the direction of our effort is common to all who call ourselves Christian. It is called Faith in real life. It is that joint mission that leads to congregational vitality.
Try something in the coming weeks. Take one step outside of your comfort zone. Choose to connect with someone, focus upon curiosity and sharing—rather than ‘helping’. When you call, simply claim your need and desire to have more contact. Discover what you have in common and notice the ways you are both unique. This style of relationship takes practice but especially in the time of Covid, it meets a deep need for both parties.
Give us the courage to acknowledge the ways we have been hungry, thirsty, a stranger or in prison. May we seek gratitude, grace and new ways to connect. It is the way to new life. Let it be so.
PS This passage is the foundation piece for our church becoming a Matthew 25 congregation. This is a national movement within the Presbyterian church to use scripture to focus our local mission responsibilities (congregational vitality) as well as looking beyond our doors to confront social issues that undermine and diminish people (structural racism and systemic poverty). That will be the focus of the next two weeks.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.