Sunday, November 23, 2014
Texts: Ezekiel 34: 15-22; Matthew 25: 31-47
Seventy-eight-year-old Mattie Rigsbee embodies today’s Gospel reading. She’s the most loveable character in all Southern literature—well, second only to Atticus Finch—and you can meet her in Clyde Edgerton’s novel, Walking Across Egypt. Mattie makes the best fried chicken and pies and biscuits. She’s a widow who lives alone in small-town North Carolina. She’s a Southern Baptist who plays hymns on the piano at night, her late husband’s picture looking down upon her. One night she muses that “Well, after all was said and done, after all was said and done, she had Jesus. She would always have Jesus. But. But it wadn’t his way to come in and keep you company. You couldn’t cook for him” (Edgerton 76).
Within the first pages you’ll learn of Mattie’s dark secret. She watches All My Children on her TV at 1:00 each weekday. It’s not just watching a soap that Mattie is hiding from friends and neighbors. It’s her habit of watching her show without washing her dishes from lunch first.
As the novel begins, Mattie has turned on the TV, ready for her guilty pleasure, forgetting she’d removed the bottom of her rocking chair so it could be recovered.
“She slowly walked backward. . . toward the rocker. Her left hand reached behind her to find the chair arm. She had started sitting down when a mental picture flashed into her head: the chair without a bottom. But her leg muscles had already gone lax. She was on the way down. Gravity was doing its job. She continued on past the customary stopping place, her eyes fastened to the New Blue Cheer box on the TV screen, her mind screaming no, wondering what bones she might break, wondering how long she was going to keep going down, down, down.”
“When she jolted to a stop the backs of her thighs and a spot just below her shoulders were pinched together tightly. Her arms were over her head. Her bottom was one inch from the floor. . . . She was wedged tightly. What was she going to do? She looked at Erica on the TV screen. In a straight line were Mattie’s eyes, her knees, and Erica’s face.”
Here’s how Mattie’s mind works. She assessed quickly, “Nothing seemed broken.” And then the terror: “Lord have mercy—what if Alora comes in the back door and sees me watching this program? Then she will see my dishes stacked over there. . . . I’ve got to get up” (Edgerton 9-10).
I love Mattie for her little sins. And for her way of reading the Bible, which I’ll get to.
Mattie is soon rescued from her rocker. But her adult children are really starting to worry about her. Not about being gobbled up by her rocking chair again. But Mattie has begun taking in stray dogs and feeding every Tom, Dick, and Harry at her kitchen table. What’s worse, her children learn she’s harboring an escaped juvenile delinquent. They must save her from her own benevolence. But Mattie’s rationale for her actions confounds them. She explains she’s been caring for Wesley Benfield, newly escaped from juvenile detention, because he’s a “least-of-these-my-brethren.” And Mattie quotes from Matthew 25, in the KJV, of course. She explains to her son about the “least of these my brethren”:
“Matthew says . . . ‘Whatso ye do unto one of the least of these my brethren you do also to me.’ . . . It was Jesus talking about people in prison. In prison. Wesley is certainly ‘one of the least of these my brethren’.”
“I’ll say.” Robert sipped his coffee. “You’ve already done for him, Mama. You’ve already done I don’t know what. Doesn’t the Bible say when to stop?”
Mattie pauses. The reader can imagine her running through the Bible verses filed away in her 78-year-old brain.
Mattie: “No. Not that I know of.” (Edgerton 176-177).
When are we to stop doing for “the least of these my brethren”?
When the laws of our country make it difficult for us to welcome and care for the stranger? Is that when we can stop caring for those fleeing violence and abject poverty? Or when the sick are contagious with and stigmatized by a terrible disease? Is that when we can turn our backs on them? Or when our neighbors and family disagree with us about our welcome to LGBT folks? Can we stop caring for those on the margins then? When those in prison are mentally ill? Do we have to visit them then? When our culture tells us to be suspicious of people of different races and religions and when law enforcement acts with prejudice? Do we stop caring at that point? When we’ve worked hard to make a decent living and suspect that those without a home and enough food just haven’t worked hard enough for theirs? When the people dying are on the other side of the globe? When caring for our planet’s air and seas and soil require us to make inconvenient sacrifices? When feeding a homeless person is against the law? When the person in need has a criminal record? Doesn’t the Bible say we can stop caring for the least then?
No. No, it does not.
Oh, I know we must discern where to put our energies, learn our own limits. Discernment becomes hard when there are so many “least of theses.” And then we must decide HOW to “give a cup of cold water” in Jesus’s name. By donating to a charity? By writing our legislators? By looking out for our neighbors? By protesting a systemic injustice? By creating a new system? Open Table just spent several months deciding on a particular focal ministry in order to have greater impact. We are seeing the LGBTQ community as “the least of these” in our midst–and I mean this without a patronizing or pitying intention. We will be intentional in the coming year to use our gifts in service to the LGBTQ community. But not exclusively. Because Mattie Rigsbee is right. I don’t think Jesus told us when to stop forgiving or caring or giving second chances to or interceding for or defending any of the least, the last, the lost.
Mattie’s also right in understanding that the core of Jesus’s teaching—and the very clearest he gets in how we will ultimately be judged—is in our treatment of “the least of these my brethren.” He was probably influenced by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God separating the sheep into two groups: the fat sheep, who’ve pushed aside the weaker ones—and the lean sheep who’ve been butted and scattered; the sheep who drink clean water but foul it for the rest, and those who are left with the dirty water. And what an apt image for the way corporations have grown fat by literally fouling the water of “the least.” To those who grow fat by taking from the lean sheep, Ezekiel speaks a word of emphatic judgment. And Jesus, in this his final sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, extends Ezekiel’s teaching.
Remember the first sermon of Jesus, according to Matthew, is the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus blesses the meek, the mournful, the persecuted—in other words, “the least.” In this, his final sermon, the culmination of his teachings, Jesus blesses those who stand with and care for the meek, the mournful, the persecuted. Jesus, speaking to his followers, takes Ezekiel’s message and his own earlier sermon further to say not simply that divine judgment favors the weak but that those who support the weak are to be rewarded as if they’d treated him in the same way. Jesus imagines that God’s justice demands lifting up those in need and those who serve those in need.
For those who understand hell in literal terms, this is the scripture that most clearly speaks to a judgment in the life to come. But note that the righteous who are rewarded with eternal life are not those who believe certain things about Jesus. They are the ones who feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. But those who do not care for the thirsty, the hungry, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—will meet with eternal punishment. Their doctrinal understandings have no bearing on their eternal destinations. There is one simple determiner for how we are judged: Did we care for the least among us? Nothing in this culminating sermon supports those who condemn gay and lesbians to hell. Nothing in this passage says you have to ask Jesus to forgive your sins in order to go to heaven. Nothing in this lesson teaches that only the baptized will know eternal life with God.
For those like me who do not understand hell in literal terms, we can hear Jesus recognizing that one way of treating others deserves divine condemnation; the other warrants divine praise. Precisely how a Just and Loving Spirit condemns and approves is spelled out in metaphorical terms. Yet the point remains: what has lasting importance is our commitment to the least of these. Only a society that makes that kind of commitment will reflect the highest intentions for our life together. Only a people who care for the least will have any hope of producing that which has eternal significance and can evolve into a species that can survive far into the future. The Universe does judge which ways are conducive for survival and flourishing.
Our daughter is a public defender. Most of her clients are mentally ill. Many are racial minorities. Many are illiterate. Some do not speak English. All are indigent. They are the thirsty, hungry, friendless, ill, imprisoned. She is my hero. On her Facebook page, under the “about” section, she lists herself as a Public Defender. And below that she writes simply: “Serving the least of these.” That is her vocation. I think that is OUR vocation, too, the vocation of any Jesus follower. To serve and defend the least of these.
Edgerton, Clyde. Walking Across Egypt. New York: Ballantine, 1987.