Craig Keen leads us through one of the most powerful passages in scripture, as Jesus tells us “as you have done unto the least of these, you have done to me.” We do not have an audio file of this sermon, but we do have the transcript:
Matthew 25:31 ‘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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And 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.” 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.” 44Then 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?” 45Then 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.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”
The passage for today is another favorite of preachers and theologians. If you aren’t familiar with it, that’s certainly okay, but if you hang around churches long enough, you will hear it referenced again and again. Its punchline is stated positively and negatively. Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And he says, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” It is one of the most emphatic declarations of the whole Bible. But what Jesus means when he says this is not entirely clear. There are some people who maintain that the passage is directed to the national powers of the world. It is said by these people that the powerful leaders of the world and their nations will be judged according to how well they treated the members of the church. Indeed, Jesus begins here by saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . [a]ll the nations will be gathered before him.” And those whom “the nations” have treated well, to be fed and clothed and visited, or badly (when they are not clothed or fed or visited), Jesus calls, “members of my family.” It is a fairly easy conclusion to reach, then, that Jesus (“the Son of Man”) is standing in judgment of the Roman Empire and of later empires, including the American one, and examining their treatment of the church.
I don’t think this is what is going on in this passage, however. I think that when Jesus calls together “all nations,” he calls together all people, not merely their leaders or representatives. This passage declares how everyone, inside or outside state power, inside or outside the church, is judged. And they are judged according to how well or poorly they have given themselves to others, especially those who are having a hard time, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison. And, of course, this is a list of examples; more than these could be added, though they, too, would be examples, not items to be checked off in some desperate attempt to get a big reward or avoid a big punishment. He is speaking of the demand that we give ourselves utterly to one another, especially when Jesus’s brothers and sisters, the members of his family, are having especially hard days. And he is not demanding this simply of the powerful or the rich, folks like Donald Trump and Bill Gates. The hungry and imprisoned are to feed and visit the hungry and imprisoned, too.
But, we might ask, why are these the examples? Aren’t we all in some sense hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned? Are these such abstract examples of suffering that we can ignore empty stomachs, bodies ravaged by disease, bodies ravaged by state power and its for-profit prison system? That question, a very important question it seems to me, is answered by the gospel of Matthew—and it is answered by Matthew already, before we ever get to chapter 25.
Matthew 22:35–40, says this: “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” What Jesus says that God commands is what Jesus himself has been about throughout the story Matthew tells. When Jesus turns to anybody near him, beside him, pressing in on him, calling out to him, begging of him, lamenting in his hearing—whenever Jesus turns to the unclean to eat and drink with them, to touch them and be touched by them—whenever Jesus loves, he loves to such a degree that he lets the suffering lives of those he loves, his neighbors, mingle with his own life. Jesus loves his neighbors in such a way that there is no longer any clear line of separation between who they are and who he is.
Consider this, from Matthew 8:1–3: “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” These are the verses that immediately follow the Sermon on the Mount. This is the first thing Jesus says and does after he has laid out in three chapters an astonishing picture of what it is to await the coming of God’s Reign, God’s Kingdom. I want to tell you a little something about what Jesus does here, when he touches this leper.
The people of ancient Israel were protected by God, the Old Testament and New Testament tell us. God protected them and prospered them and kept them safe and healthy. God did that in large part by providing them with the law. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and in the presence of Yahweh was given, carved in stone, an account of the way that Israel was to live. The law of Moses (as it was called) was ancient Israel’s way of life, literally. It was the way by which they were kept safe and whole. Indeed, that law was all about keeping Israel and its children safe and whole. That is why Paul calls it a “disciplinarian” in Galatians 3. It holds Israel together and carries them into the future of promise.
Much of law of Moses concerns what the law itself calls “purity.” Purity is “wholeness,” “integrity,” “well being.” Purity, according to the law, does not make a person holy. Only entering into the disclosure, the coming, of the holy God can make a person holy. And it is holiness, not purity, that saves, the law of Moses says. Still, there is no saving entry into God’s sanctifying coming, the law says, unless one is pure. The impure who presume to approach God will meet only doom. Therefore, it was extremely important before entering the temple precincts that everyone be examined by priests and certified “pure.”
Purity was so very important that the children of Israel were commanded to keep themselves separate from anything and everything that might in any even symbolic way defile them. There were certain kinds of meat of some land and sea animals that they were not permitted to eat, certain kinds of fabrics that they were not permitted to wear, certain sexual practices that they were not permitted to engage in, and especially importantly, certain kinds of people—those who were themselves unclean—that the faithful in Israel were not permitted to touch. [Pause] To touch a corpse would make you impure. Not only to be, but also to touch a menstruating woman would make you impure. To touch a pork-eater would make you impure. To touch a person with a disease, say, a skin disease—say, leprosy—would make you impure. If you contacted such persons and were made yourself impure, you would have to follow certain complex purification rituals before being allowed to enter into the temple precincts and thus into God’s holiness. To enter the temple and the holiness of God while you were impure would be to step into the destroying fire of God’s wrath—God, whom the law of Moses made clear would not tolerate contact with the unclean.
Again, consider the opening verses of Matthew 8: “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” [Pause] This is an astonishing passage—and not chiefly because Jesus has performed a spectacle, a sort sideshow act. It is astonishing because Jesus has touched an impure man and not only has Jesus not himself become impure, unclean, by doing so, the impure man is purified! Again, by touching this leper, Jesus is not infected by him, but instead the leper is infected by Jesus, he enters into the holiness of Jesus and thereby is made “clean,” “pure.” “Purity” in this moment ceases to be the ticket for admission to God’s holiness, for salvation. Here being pure does not provide one with a special privilege before God. The impure are not barred from, but are welcomed into, the holy temple of Jesus’s body, the salvation of Jesus’s body.
That is, Jesus declares just as strongly as the law of Moses that to touch another person is to let that person into your life and to let your life into that person. In fact, he declares that there is no keeping the other person out of your life or your life out of the other person. Jesus declares that this is good news and we are to rejoice in the fact that the other person is there to love; the other person is there not to avoid, not to keep out, not to separate from, but to let in. You are to love your neighbor, Jesus says, as your very self, as inseparable from your self, as entangled in your very life. There is no you without her and him. There is no her or him without you. Jesus declares that his life is completely and utterly entangled in the lives of all the people he has met and thus also in all the lives of the people they have met. Jesus declares that his life is entangled in the lives of everyone else. Jesus so loves the world that there is no world without Jesus.
But the love of Jesus is not a human sentiment or feeling. It is his entry without restraint into the love of God. Jesus empties himself of everything but God’s love for the world. Jesus loves the hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and imprisoned, because God loves them. In fact Jesus loves them all just because Jesus empties himself of everything in order to be consumed by God’s holy love. He loves us all and calls upon us to travel with him to those otherwise impure, unhealthy, broken, self-destructive, enslaved, heavily burdened persons—among whom are we ourselves are to be counted.
Understand, God wants us all to be whole, to be well and strong and pulsing with life. However, if this meat grinder world that we live in has so harmed you (with or without your cooperation) that the likelihood of your recovery is slim, God loves you no less and invites you into fellowship all the more with Jesus—who is God with us. And in Jesus there is a life, a wholeness, a strength, that is not weakened by any harm this world can do—not even mutilating and humiliating death. In Jesus there is a “peace that passeth understanding,” a peace, a shalom, that walks out of the tomb on Easter Sunday still mutilated, still crucified, but shining now with the light of God’s glory, of God’s holy love.
So, what is it that Jesus is saying in Matthew 25?
He is saying that if in spite of yourself, you love Jesus, if you have left all to follow Jesus, if you have given yourself to love the God Jesus loves and love those God loves, then you when you turn and see someone nearby, someone at hand, someone along your way, someone on the street or in your living room or at the store or in line at the DMV, you will from time to time remember that you are seeing someone entangled in the life of Jesus, someone with whom Jesus lived and died. Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, in particular to one of the least of these, you have done it to Jesus.
There is one more point to be made and in some ways it is the most important point of all. It has to do with the way this parable ends, an ending very similar to the endings of the preceding parables: Verse 46, speaking of those who did not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit those who were sick or in prison: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” What are we to say of these people, these “goats,” as the parable calls them?
Of course, we could point out that they get exactly what they deserve. God is just and the unjust must not get away without punishment. Still, aren’t all or at least many of the people listed among “the least of these,” people who deserve what they have gotten? Are we not called to feed and give drink to and welcome and clothe and visit those who deserve their hunger, thirst, strangeness, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment? Of course, we are. And in case there is any doubt, even with all the predictions in Matthew of the damnation of the unfaithful, there is only one person in the whole of the gospel who goes to hell—and that is Jesus. In the agony and humiliation of Good Friday, Jesus plummets into hell—and dies there and lies dead there all Holy Saturday. Jesus’s life is entangled in the lives not only of the living, but also of the dead and damned. If I may put it strongly, but I think no less truly: inasmuch as you have rejoiced in the demise of anyone, you have rejoiced in the demise of Jesus. You and I, regardless of our socio-economic status, are called with Jesus to live and die and be damned with the lowest of the low and with them await the love of the God who did not leave defiled Jesus, God’s own beloved child, to rot in death and damnation, but embraced him, saturating him with the light of God’s very holy life and love. And when God embraced Jesus—cold, dead, and mutilated in the depths of hell—God also embraced the five foolish bridesmaids who ran out of oil, the slave who out of fear did not invest his master’s money, and even the goats who had turned a cold shoulder to the Jesus who is entangled in the lowly of this world. When God says, “Yes!” to the mutilated body of Jesus, God says, “Yes!” to us all. Our task is to learn how to rejoice in that good news!