by Ellen Sims
Because I’ll be retiring soon, I’ll soon be preaching my final sermon. It so happens that today’s Gospel Reading includes Jesus’s last sermon–at least as Matthew arranged his account of Jesus’s life. Next Sunday we’ll start the new liturgical year with scriptures anticipating Jesus’s birth. Today, however, on the Reign of Christ Sunday, we grapple with the culminating message of his ministry. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s final message to his followers encouraged them to elevate the very ones whom others scorned.
Of course, we don’t know if the final verses of Matthew 25 actually capture Jesus’s last public message. After all, the other Gospels arrange his life and preachments a bit differently. But the Matthean Gospel emphasizes Jesus’s concern for those whom others considered “the least.” And in the chapter that follow’s today’s lection, Jesus’s privileging of the least is contrasted with the values of “the chief priests and the elders of the people [who] gathered in the palace of the high priest . . . [and] conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (Matthew 26:3). While Jesus advocated for the lowly, those in high places plotted to kill the one lifting up the marginalized. For Jesus, caring about the “least” in society was no glib slogan for a protest rally. In advocating for the poor and sick and foreign, Jesus drew the ire of the Powers That Be.
We Jesus followers have committed ourselves to enunciating and emulating his ways. As I near the end of my time with you, I’m hoping his words about how we treat “the least of these” are words that will continue to challenge both you and me.
It strikes me afresh that Matthew’s Gospel does not present Jesus primarily as a theologian or ethicist or philosopher. Although Jesus was a person of prayer, his biographer does not primarily emphasize the prayers of Jesus. Although addressed as a rabbi and as one who knew well the Hebrew scriptures, he was not primarily a teacher of the Torah. When he warned his followers that his time was coming to an end, did Matthew’s Jesus at that point quiz his followers to be sure they’d understood his cryptic parables? Did he assign distinct roles and duties to the various disciples to organize them in continuing his mission? Did he cultivate patrons to keep his ministry financially viable? Did he tap a successor to lead them forward? What did he choose to emphasize as his provocations of the Powers that Be put him in danger?
He aligned himself more fully with those who did not have power.
Matthew’s Jesus stressed caring for “the least of these” in his last lesson for his disciples.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite characters from recent Southern fiction: Mattie Rigsby in Clyde Edgerton’s novel, Walking Across Egypt. When the widowed Mattie takes in young Wesley Benfield, newly escaped from juvenile detention, she defends herself to her worried adult children by saying Wesley is a “least-of-these-my-brethren.” Coming out of Mattie’s mouth, that phrase becomes almost one word. She quotes from Matthew 25, in the King James Version, of course, as she justifies actions to her worried son Robert:
“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 immigrants? Is that when we can stop caring for those fleeing violence and abject poverty? Or when COVID-19 spreads most aggressively among racial minorities? Is that when we can turn our backs on our neighbors? Or when transgender persons are victims of hate crimes? Can we stop caring at that point? 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? Doesn’t the Bible say we can stop caring for the least of God’s creatures then?
To quote Mattie Rigsby: “No. Not that I know of.”
No, it does not.
Oh, I know we must discern where to put our energies. 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 project for justice–like Prism United to serve LGBTQ teens, like the Gulf Coast Creation Care?
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, goes one step 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.
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. 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, a lawyer, 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. 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.