I recently watched an interview with Craig Foster, the Australian soccer player, turned TV commentator and a well-known social justice activist on television. He was talking about his community work and was asked about the connections he had made between his passion for sport and his community work. Craig described how when the covid-19 pandemic hit, he talked to the sporting bodies about working and supporting the community through these tough times, and how the sporting bodies’ first instinct was to look after their own code’s players and then slowly to think about their wider community. Craig’s invitation was to look beyond this defined community and not to stop at their own imagined community boundaries but to support all in need. His reflections were remarkable and revealed the frequent, unconscious limits to our thinking and our own preferences about inclusion and exclusion when it comes to helping others.
Jesus’ parable called the Judgement of the Nations told on Christ the King Sunday is found only in Matthew’s Gospel. (25:31-46) It reaches into our hearts and minds as we are invited to think about our response to God’s love for us and how far we are prepared to go. Jesus said:
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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (25:31-32)
The intention of the words, ‘All the nations’ is generally taken to mean ‘the whole world’, while the reference to ‘the least of these’ highlights everyone now being judged according to their care for the poor and the needy.
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. (25:40)
This includes everyone regardless of their religious, racial, economic or social status as being God’s children both in their response to others and in their suffering.
The message is clear about what is being judged. Jesus says nothing about faith or doctrine, nothing about being born again or being a member of a particular faith tradition. This is not a story about the church (ecclesia) but about the nations (ethne). The righteous ones in church have not been gathered up beforehand and already rewarded. We all stand together before the throne of glory, the throne of Christ the King.
However, it is only when we put Christ’s commandment into practice – loving God and loving our neighbours (22:37-40) – we can make sense of Jesus’ words.
This is because the story is about why and what we do in response to Christ’s invitation and God’s love. So if our response is to create fear in the minds of listeners, this story is not being told lovingly or faithfully. Jesus’ parable about the talents reminded us operating out of fear is not the way to live in response to God’s love for us all. (25:14-30)
Understanding this now is critical. Our treatment of others and those we distinguish as ‘the other’ is so important. Perhaps it is a religious ‘other’, or the gendered ‘other’, or the ethnic or different race ‘other’, all solely distinguished by our fear.
This is also not a discussion by Jesus about tolerance. The righteous ones named by Jesus are simply those who cared for strangers, the ‘others’ among them. They knew nothing of any potential reward or punishment, they merely did what was right. Likewise, the goats are judged harshly, not due to any lack of faith, but because of their moral failure.
If we who are Christians, and the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking at the time, who had deeply held traditions about caring for strangers were already doing this for each other, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners, then how much more righteous are those who do this without knowing such teachings.
And the temptation to frighten people into doing the right thing is not helpful. Fear is used to dominate the world. We have only to look around to see how this is true. Often our desire to frighten others is so we can keep things as we want them, persuade people into doing it our way, believing our beliefs. Political leaders and all manner of groups and individuals use fear to advance personal agendas.
To use the fear of punishment or exclusion to persuade is not God’s way.
Fear also causes people to fixate on the things they haven’t done or can’t do, rather than on their ability to see what they can do. The righteous ones don’t simply show up at the end times expecting rewards, they are living the kingdom life now.
When we hear this story, trusting in God’s faithfulness, the focus in our hearts and minds can shift from being scared of damnation to believing in the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.
Matthew’s vision is an important reminder what we do matters. God’s grace and love are given freely; there is nothing we can do to earn it, but it doesn’t mean we can forget to care for the least. They too are members of Christ’s family. Jesus tells us by caring for the least in his family, we care for him. If we don’t care for them, we clearly don’t care about Jesus.
Our response to this aspect of teaching is critical as we think about why we care. We should not romanticize poverty, or consecrate it by seeing Christ in it, but then not work to eradicate it. Our work needs to focus on ending poverty, not simply communing with Christ in the poor.
Our other tendency is to thank God we are not struggling like others and congratulate ourselves about how blessed we are as we compare ourselves to the ones we are helping. Sadly, in both ways we are serving our own needs, finding occasions to feel good about our own circumstances. This ‘mission-trip’ mentality can be hard to avoid. In the end, we need to return to ministering to those who are suffering simply because they are poor and suffering, as members of Christ’s family and ours.
This story also provides some relief for those who are pressured to have all the answers before being able to act. While people hesitate at words of doctrine, they are very willing to jump into action when they see someone in need.
This too is faith and, according to this parable, perhaps more blessed than someone who believes all the right things but fails to put faith into practice. In the same way right belief can grow faithful action, right action can grow belief.
Sometimes, all I can do is trust and let God lead. Frequently I doubt myself and God. Doubt is a faithful friend to me, but it is in moments of service when I feel and know God is close and my faith becomes steadier as I know God is always present as my companion.
Jesus’ desire for us to deal with poverty and hardship as symptoms of social ills means we must deal also with the causes. Not only are we called to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the ill and visit prisoners, but we are also asked to address generational factors of poverty.
This is just the same as Jesus calling us to break the never-ending cycles of violence by the transforming love of enemies and the rejection of any violence, verbally and physically. We always see the face of Christ in the face of the ‘other’.
So sisters and brothers, Jesus is not teaching us not about fear, harsh judgement, punishment or conforming. Jesus invites us to trust in God’s love and see Christ, the anointed One, in the face of everyone you see and to act accordingly, without exception.
The Lord be with you.