The Least of These My Brothers

(Year A, Sunday closest to November 23, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”  Matthew 25:37-40

Teachings_of_Jesus_25_of_40._works_of_mercy._visiting_the_prisoner._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible
An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew 25:36 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.

This is one of the most iconic of Jesus’ teachings about the final judgment.  It is also a bedrock teaching for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in a world filled with selfishness and discord.  We cannot get away from the teaching in this parable that Christ calls us to be more than just rule followers, or just “good people.”  When Jesus tells us “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” he means it.  It will be one of the things which proves out the heart we have for him.

This parable is one of those that gives me the most pause.  It is the one that most calls me to sobriety about my relationship with my fellow human beings, and how callous and disinterested I can be at times.  People that know me know a well-mannered, even-tempered man that is well spoken.  This isn’t me bragging – these are things people tell me, so I am just repeating them back.  But I know someone that is better at plastering on a fake smile, reciting scripted pleasantries, and thinking AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE that I just want to be left alone.  While I have felt the Holy Spirit working on me in this regard, I am very conscious of the miles I have left to go.

I am also the most uncomfortable with this parable, because on the surface it seems to advocate a works-based salvation – visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed and water the hungry and thirsty, and you go to heaven!  Fail to do any of these things even once, and it’s to the fire with you.  And I think many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Protestant Christianity see it the same way – otherwise, why is there such an emphasis on evangelism in “everyday” Christianity, but compassion and mercy seem to belong only to the class of Christians that go out on missions or belong to special ministries?  This may be too harsh a judgment, and if it is, I beg forgiveness.

Certainly, evangelism is a part of our Christian walk, and we should be ready to give an account of the Gospel to any who should need to hear it.  I’m not calling for a deemphasis on sharing the Gospel.  But the Gospel can be shared by works of mercy and compassion as well – as someone once said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”

The truth is, this isn’t works based salvation at all – pay close attention to what the Sheep say to the King: “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  And they say the same for all the other charitable deeds.  They aren’t doing them for the hope of reward, they are doing them because it is part of their nature.  In some sense, it seems to me that they aren’t saved for the sake of their deeds but for the fact that the King had to explain how their deeds were for his favor – they fed, watered, clothed, welcomed, and visited with no knowledge of the gravity or importance of those they served.  It is like James, who says “faith without works is dead.”  Faith and works go together, they aren’t opposites; works are a fruit of faith in Christ Jesus.

So then, who are the “least of these”?  Certainly, the examples from the parable of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the wandering, the suffering, and the captive are the “least of these,” but what about others who are oppressed and neglected?  What about the youth who is kicked out of their home because their parents know Law but not Love?  Or the man who drinks to forget his pains?  What about the woman who was forced upon and assaulted by a powerful man, who wrestles with the secret for decades before confessing the wrong done to her – only to be violated over again by a rapacious public opinion? Anyone who is weighed down by the scorn and derision of their fellow humans is “least” on Earth, and when we neglect to advocate for them, we miss the call of the Gospel.

When we who claim Christ prioritize our politics over justice, as some have done in recent days, we run a considerable risk of trading sheep’s wool for goat’s horns.

Lastly, we must remember what else the King says about the “least” – he calls them “my brothers.”  They are not objects for the patronage of the Righteous, nor a means for their reward.  They are kith and kin of the One who rules us, for the Lord says: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  Our compassion for the poor and oppressed must be borne of true love and empathy for them, lest it become its own form of scorn and oppression.

I ask you to pray for the welfare of the poor and the oppressed around you, and for opportunities to serve and minister to all who need the compassion of our God – both low of station and high.  Pray also for a heart that seeks after and reflects that compassion to the world around them.  And pray also for me, for I am also human and subject to the same selfish callousness that threatens and plagues all of us.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of Our Lord Jesus.

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