The Least of These? (Matthew 25:31-46)

 

All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to DifferWe resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve.  From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

 

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                   Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy    Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

 

The series with We agree to differ. (You can read that blog post here). Then we explored We resolve to love (Read that blog post here) and We unite to serve. (Read that blog post here). I will continue the series through Palm Sunday and Easter, so stay tuned.

 

I will not be preaching this weekend. (Instead, I will be traveling back from the Annual Meeting of the SW Conference of the United Church of Christ. Learn more here).

 

But I still have some thoughts! What will we do with “the least of these”?

 

Matthew 25:31-46

 

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.”

 

Yes, friends, it is the story of The Sheep and the Goats. (Immortalized by an American alternative-rock band).

 

To make sure we reckon with the weight of this story, we have to put it in context. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ very last bit of teaching –the next verse after this story concludes (26:1) begins Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. Matthew has given us all kinds of memorable and important teaching from Jesus. But this is the story he chooses to end on.

 

To get into it, I need to engage in a little self-plagiarism. We have to talk about apocalyptic as a literary genre.

 

There is a lot of apocalyptic literature in the Bible –the Book of Daniel and Revelation being notable examples.  Apocalyptic is one way of responding to the question of suffering. Rabbi Kushner famously pondered the problem of how to live “when bad things happen to good people.” In the Jewish and early Christian traditions,  the same question gets asked in a completely different way: “Why do good things happen to bad people?”, i.e., why do the wicked prosper, come into power and persecute the righteous?

 

The history of God’s people is one long story oppression and mistreatment by various empires, including the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. Matthew’s Gospel is written for a community recently traumatized by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem.

 

At some point, a faithful person will probably wonder: “Why is the world like this? Why are the wicked calling the shots? Why do the righteous suffer?” Apocalyptic literature is an attempt to answer that question.

 

Apocalyptic literature portrays this world as under the power of evil. In the current arrangement, the wicked will rule over and persecute the righteous. BUT: this world is not the only one we’ve got. A new world is coming and, when it does, the world as we know it will be turned upside down. The wicked will be punished; the righteous will be vindicated. God will reign.

 

The apocalyptic outlook is decisive for the New Testament –from the letters of Paul (although there is some debate about that) to the preaching of Jesus (“thy kingdom come”) to the Book of Revelation.

 

The story of The Sheep and the Goats puts a peculiar twist on the genre. It is typically apocalyptic in portraying a cosmic scene of Final Judgement. History has ended and fates will be decided. However, instead of individuals, Matthew portrays entire nations being brought to the judgement. (The word ethnei means “nation”; it is the root of the English word “ethnic”).

 

And how are they judged? On their treatment of “the least of these members of my family.” (Greek: “the least of these my brothers”). God identifies with someone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned. And the nations are judged on their treatment of this suffering someone with whom God identifies.

 

As apocalyptic literature, this story offers an interesting answer to the question of suffering. It takes the suffering of the present moment and reimagines it as an opportunity to get on the right side of history.

 

That much is clear. But then the waters get murky.

 

Who are “the least of these”? We have at least two possibilities to consider:

 

  • There is a venerable tradition of interpreting this story as a claim that God identifies with the marginal, the poor, the suffering etc. And so every time we do right by the marginal, we are getting on the ride side of history. (The Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church, likes to say that “nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor”).

 

  • But there is another way to read this –one that I know has been preached at Plymouth Church. This reading leans more on “my brothers” and takes the “least of these” to be 1st century Christian missionaries. In this reading, God is treating the nations the way they treated God’s ambassadors.

 

Since I am not preaching, I don’t have to settle this debate. Instead, let me offer one further complication and then a concluding thought about how this story might relate to our motto.

 

The complication: Both interpretations of “the least of these” tend to see the marginal as “other people,” others upon whom the nations either act of fail to act. But if God identifies with a group of people—be it Christian missionaries or the marginal more generally—would it not behoove us to actually be those people? Or, failing that, to be in relationship with them?

 

Let me put it this way: All of our readings of this story seem to be based in our belief that we are being held accountable for our treatment of some group of people. But what if, to the original audience, the message is that the nations will be held accountable for the way they treat you.

 

Do you see how different that feels?

 

And what does this have to do with our motto? One danger of preaching five sermons on a church motto is that the whole thing can seem a little inward looking, a little self-involved. (“Let’s talk about ourselves! For five weeks!”). But this story reminds us that church is only of value to God to the extent that it addressed suffering in the world.

 

If we are taking some time to better understand the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church, let’s make sure it is for the sake of greater faithfulness to the things that matter most.

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