Reflections on Matthew 25:31-46 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 November 1999
One of the issues that has long plagued the church is the way many people manage to leave their Christian faith behind at the door when the leave the worship service. Some of the most murderous thugs in history have been in church every Sunday singing the praises of the Prince of Peace and then commissioning the death squads on Monday morning. Now I know that none of us here are blatant initiators of evil on anything like that scale, but the question of the relationship between what we say in church and how we treat people outside is still a live one. This gospel reading puts the question in very stark terms.
If you’ve ever wrestled with the question of how best to respond to a beggar on the street corner, and the image of Christ dividing the sheep and the goats comes to your mind, you’ll know what I mean. For me that question is particularly sharp, because most of the beggars I encounter are at the front door of the church office and whatever I say or do reflects directly on the church and indirectly on Jesus Christ. What’s more, back in my House of Hope days I wrote a sermon on this passage which I ended up being invited to preach in about a dozen different churches, and my own words often rebuke me.
The thing that is so confronting about this description of the final judgment is that it is so simple, and yet so difficult, and that it really demolishes any boundaries we have between what we do in church and what we do in the street. It is telling us that how we treat the hungry, the needy, the imprisoned, the dirty, the smelly, the confused and the tormented is actually read by God as a measure of our devotion to Jesus. “What you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you are doing to me.”
Now if you read this as a law that must be obeyed to the letter in every situation, not only will you exhaust and impoverish yourself very quickly, but you will also find yourself tormented by guilt and fear. It is simply not possible to visit every sick person and every prisoner, or to feed all the hungry and welcome every stranger. None of us have the resources or the time and energy to respond t every need we ever hear about. This is even more true in today’s world than it was in Jesus day because it is now possible for us to be aware of hungry, the sick and the prisoners on the other side of the world, and to pick up the phone and a credit card and make a response. But if you do that every time an image of a hungry person is beamed into your living room, someone will soon be cutting up your credit cards. So if it is simply not possible, how on earth are we supposed to respond to the message of this description of the final judgment?
This is a bit of an aside, but it may help address some of the guilt questions. It’s worth noting that at the beginning of this, Jesus says it is the nations who are gathered for judgment. It is probably the case that it is more realistic and legitimate to read this as a judgment of the nations than as a judgment of individuals. When we ask how a nation cares for its sick and how a nation cares for its prisoners, and even how a nation cares for the hungry on the other side of the world, we are asking questions which needs to be asked and which can be answered. Nations do have the means to respond to whole people groups in a way that individuals do not. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that that means it is just governments who are being judged. A nation is still the sum of its people and at least in “democratic” countries like ours, the government is to a large extent a reflection of the people and their values and opinions. It would be a mistake to conclude that because it is about the nations that therefore it’s not about us, because no one else will think it is about them either. It will just be something else attributed to “the system”, to nameless, faceless nobodies somewhere else.
The nation won’t change unless its people change, and if we want the people to change, then we’d better be prepared for the change to begin with us. So we might be freed somewhat from the fear of the big judgment, but we are still going to have to ask how we personally should respond to the teaching of these words of Jesus.
I’m not going to give a detailed set of answers and instructions here. Instead I want to give an image that may give you a new way of approaching the question and perhaps provoke some useful discussion of ideas in our groups. The image is this: Jesus is saying that every person you encounter, and especially those usually considered the least, is an icon of Jesus Christ. The traditional icons that we use in prayer and worship are representation of Jesus that when contemplated over time begin to reveal things to us of who Jesus is. We treat them with respect and reverence because of their association with the one they represent. This is not a completely foreign concept to us, because if I walked into your house and took a photo of your grandmother down and stomped on it, you’d be hurt and insulted because that image represents the person and if I defiled the image I’d be defiling the memories of the person. Our reverence to the holy icons is much the same idea.
So if we say that each person is an icon of Christ, that is quite a big statement. Even more so if we emphasize that it is those who society generally regards as the least who are most especially icons of Jesus Christ. And perhaps then it is even true that it is in the very things that cause them to be regarded as the least — their sickness, their poverty, their brokenness, their destitution, their anti-social habits — that most reveal Jesus to us. We are used to saying that Jesus identified himself with the sin and brokenness of the world on the cross and took upon himself all our infirmities and woundedness. But it is a more difficult, but ultimately unavoidable, step to see in the brokenness and wretchedness of others the image of the suffering Christ.
This certainly doesn’t mean that we have to become a soft touch for every junkie who tries to con a spare dollar out of you on the station. If you actually love a junkie, if you see the image of Christ in them, it doesn’t mean that you want no more for them than whatever they are craving now. But it does mean that making a habit of snarling contemptuously and writing to the council to clean them off the streets is not an option either. For this one too is an icon of Christ. “What you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you are doing to me.”
As I said, I’m not giving the answers here. That’s partly because I don’t know what they are (although that doesn’t usually stop me!). But what I’m saying is that finding our way to the answers will begin with contemplating the Christ revealed in the icons. Next time you find yourself haunted by an image of someone in need, whether it be someone who asked you for a dollar on the street or someone you saw malnourished on a World Vision special on TV, take that image with you to prayer. Spend some time asking Jesus to show you how he is in that person, how that person reveals more of who Jesus is. Genuine and worthwhile action for justice does not usually come from knee jerk reactions, but from a deepening prayerful understanding of what is going on and where God is within it. And if you and I spend a bit more time contemplating the meaning of the icons of the street corners, we are far more likely to begin to see how and where the reign of God can begin with us.
Questions for discussion.
• Discuss your reactions to the idea that the judgment might refer to a judgment of the nations rather than individuals. How does it help you with the passage? What sort of responsibilities do we have as individuals within a nation?
• Discuss the implication of seeing people as icons of Jesus Christ. What might people’s brokenness tell us about Jesus? Think of a few examples of people who our society generally treats as “the least”. What is it that distinguishes them as “the least” and what might those things be telling us about Jesus?
• Take some of those same groups of “the least” and discuss ideas about how we might begin to respond to them differently if we really saw Jesus Christ in them.
• Share any ideas you might have about how we can include “the least” in our prayers and contemplation in ways that begin to change the way we see them and see Christ in them.