By Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline
And 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.’ - Matthew 25:40
I love the passage that I excerpted above. Matthew 25:31-40 is an incredible parable about how we can best love God, which is by loving our neighbor. I love it. I think about it often and keep it close to my heart whenever anyone asks me what it means to be Christian.
It’s why I got so excited that the Presbyterian Church USA launched the Matthew 25 Invitation. A chance to collectively work together to serve God and neighbor. It’s a wonderful framework that launches us in a direction towards inclusion, love, justice and peace.
And I’m excited that the church is launching some new activities. I mentioned Habitat for Humanity and Schools of Hope tutoring in my sermon yesterday, so I won’t spill too much ink here. But if you want to sign up, please email me! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Obviously, I’ve been spending a lot of time with this passage. Which is good, because I love it, but also I’m notice things that I’m having a hard time digesting. It’s not that it’s not a good passage, but rather that there are layers (aren’t there always?) that make this complicated and worth engaging with a critical eye. The problems raised by this passage have not made me dislike it. I hope you’ll still love it too, because you really should. I’m going to raise these questions, and I’m not going to answer them. Not because I don’t want to, but because I think this is best done together.
I left off verse 41-46 in my sermon yesterday. Just straight up cut it out of the passage. Here’s how it ends: “Then 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
I left it out, because if I didn’t, then I would feel obligated to make the entire sermon about it. Does God mean that we’ll be punished if we don’t help others? Is God going to send us to hell for not serving the least? What does this mean for grace and forgiveness?
First of all, I don’t believe in hell, and that’s a lot to unpack in a sermon. But I’m still left wondering why Jesus said this. I’m guessing you’re wondering the same.
My next question about this passage is who decides on the who is the least? Me? I don’t like that. I don’t like that it’s up to our individual judgment to decide who is worth helping. Do we only serve people below the federal poverty line? Two and a half times the poverty line? And what about times when we see someone who is sick and they get better? If we help them, are we no longer serving Jesus, but rather just some regular old person? It’s easy to say stuff like “people who are left behind by society," or “people who suffer oppression," but that turns their personhood just into a category of someone who needs help. I worry that when I talk about “the lost, the last, and the least” that I’m omitting the complex layers of power, privilege, pride and identity in order to score points with God.
Finally (though give me some more time and I’m sure I’d find other things to gripe about), are we only doing this because we want to help God? Matthew 25 tells us that when we serve the least of these members of our family, we are doing so also to God.
Which is cool! I like serving God. I like serving God a lot. But if the reason I’m helping others is solely because “I want to help God,” does that mean that I’m once again taking out the person’s identity? Are they only bearers of God’s image, or are the human beings worthy of blessings in their own right? Can we separate our acts of service to God from our acts of service to our neighbor? Do we want to?
So there you have it. I’m still happy that we’re a Matthew 25 congregation and I still love Matthew 25. I hope you do too. But I also hope that whenever you read this passage (or any other passage, for that matter) you look at it for all that it is, not just the parts that you like.