{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

The Real Meaning of Matthew 25:31-46

“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” (Matt 25:40b). These words of Scripture have surely experienced their share of analysis and proclamation over time. I was surprised to learn this text (Matt 25:31-46) is the Gospel passage for all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary on New Year’s Day. What does this mean to make it the text for all three years? And why for New Year’s Day? One must wonder if this is a subtle effort to call people into new attitudes, in the name of Jesus Christ,¬†towards those who may be different. And what better time to do so than when people are making New Year’s Resolutions and analyzing their life in a more conscientious way than they might do any other time of the year? I would like to offer a couple of concerns over the interpretation and application of this passage in the modern, American church. In other words, I wonder if we get it a little wrong every year.

It goes without question that for many this passage is a call to arms for everything from political policy which benefit the poor to calling the church to be more active in charitable giving. I think this is a very effective and right use of this passage. This is especially so for Western and, more specifically, American churches where our addiction to consumption all too often invades the Church from the outside in. We need to remind people that God wants us to do something for the poor. We need to be reminded that God has a special place for those who help the poor. But this, I fear, is as far as we are willing to take this passage. “Help the poor and you can gain eternal life,” we say. ¬†“If you want to be part of the Kingdom then do something for the least of these,” we preach. The recurring theme here is, at its very core, self-serving in nature. The poor become nothing more than a pawn in my pursuit of eternal life. I don’t care about them any further than offering something to drink or giving them some clothes from time to time. After all, my place with God for eternity is what’s at stake here. Helping the poor are but a means to that end.

This leads us to wonder: what if this were a parable about God and not about us? What if this this were a story where we get a glimpse into the kind of God we are dealing with and not about a prescription for us to gain eternal life? In other words, what if, at the heart of this story, we find God and not ourselves?

A couple of things jump out if we look more carefully. First of all, the statements of the king being “hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison” were not mere metaphors that lead us to a deeper truth. They are factual statements about Jesus. Too often (as I have argued before) we, in the West, try to disconnect Jesus from his actual status as a homeless Jew from Nazareth (see Matt 8:20). It’s almost as if we can’t comprehend or even stomach the fact that Jesus was not at least a middle-class guy who had the same hopes and dreams as middle-class people trying to get ahead today might have.

This leads to a second observation, one that does have a call to response for the reader. We are to do more than reach out to the poor-we are called to invite them in. We often leave the message at reaching out because then we can preserve a safe distance from those who may be different and still feel as though we are living up to the call of Christ. But we find here this passage is more than a mere call to increase charitable giving. This is meant to mean more than inspiring a little more of a giving attitude after a holiday season centered around consuming as much as we can. Now I am well aware that for many, more giving is a crucial first step. And I would say that for many in our churches we should encourage and praise such activity. This type of activity can and should, with the help of the Holy Spirit, lead to a transformative change in even our most selfish attitudes. But we can not treat this as the end-game. We are to stretch ourselves more and more when it comes to how we relate and give to the poor. This is not to be merely financial-that is too easy. We are to stretch and give of our time and our very selves. One must even ask the very difficult question-at what point do we consider giving until we become one of the poor? I do not have an answer to that besides the fact that we must take very seriously Jesus’ other calls to us to take up our crosses and give away all that we have in order to follow him. I admit I can not do that. This is a great example of how we, as pastors, can only point to the example of Jesus in the text as a call to ALL of us.

And finally, what if we expanded the implications of this text beyond the financially poor? It is often an easy way out for us to limit the call of Christ to reach out if we can contain it within a certain demographic. Our human nature then leads us to make that demographic beholden to the fact that we reached out in the first place. We are always the stronger and they are the weaker and we don’t hesitate in reminding them of that. But what if this text calls us to reach out and welcome the stranger who is a CEO? And what if we are to reach out to and visit the actual prisoner who hurt another person? And what if we care called to break bread and share the cup with those who have hurt us and those whom we even hate? After all, they need the bread and cup of life just as much as we do.

This is not an easy text because it does not limit who we are to reach out to as much as we might want it to. This text calls us to stretch our notion of what reaching out to the poor means and whether it means we are actually to become poor ourselves in the process. The text also calls us to reach beyond the poor and touch those we may resent, those we don’t think need such a message of salvation, and even (and especially) those we dislike. But more importantly, this text reminds us to take such notions seriously because we have a God who was a homeless Jew from Nazareth that, by the very grace he embodied, came to us that we, in our poor and impoverished state, may know what salvation through such a Christ might look like. It is VERY different from what we may know as life. And thank God for that!

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This is my last post of 2009. I started this blog in September and have fallen in love with it. I hope to continue my musings and questions in 2010. I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2010! May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you in the New Year.