“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoner. That’s all. It’s so simple. And so endlessly convicting.
Before we get into the meat of the passage, I want to spend a minute on this eternal fire, eternal punishment, eternal life business: The word that’s translated as eternal is aeon. Like the English eon, it can be used figuratively to describe forever, or literally to describe a specific period of time. An eon is a time, an age. A time of fire, an age of punishment, life of the ages. Our ideas of hell as a place of eternal torment come from the middle ages. Jesus didn’t have a medieval imagination. He never read Dante. At his time there wasn’t a concept of a place of eternal torment. Maybe he was introducing that idea here. Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s something more like: there are two ways to walk through the world. You can be open with compassion, or not. One is the way to life. The other is the way to an age of suffering. We get to choose.
We tend to hear this as being about our individual actions. Do I give to the folks standing at the edge of the Target or Fed Meijer parking lot? Do I volunteer at the food bank?
But, before we jump to that, let’s go back to the beginning and notice who’s being gathered and judged. It’s the nations. This is not about individuals. At least not primarily. Jesus is telling a story of how nations, societies, communities are judged. Whatever individual ethic we might draw from it, it starts first as a measure of our whole community.
Brian Zahnd, a pastor who’s written a lot about this passage, gets right to the heart of the matter: “So, how does Jesus judge or evaluate nations? What criteria does he use? When we evaluate nations, we tend to do so on the basis of wealth and power—gross domestic product, standard of living, strength of the economy, strength of the military. But this is not the criterion Jesus uses…”
If we take this passage seriously, Jesus judges our nation, our society, our community on how well we care for four kinds of people: the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner. When we as a society, a nation do not care for these four kinds of people, we’re in for a time of fire.
This is the gospel’s measuring stick for all the ways we structure society: for our tax code, zoning decisions, real estate development, health care policy, immigration policy, foreign policy, education policy, policing, all of it. The gospel question is: how does it affect the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner?
Looking at just one facet of this, your session has been talking and praying all year long about how immigrants are treated in our city and our country. The word translated as stranger here is the same word as immigrant, or foreigner. We’ve been praying and discerning all year. What is genuinely good news for immigrants? How are we doing as a society caring for folks who are strangers in this land? These are theological issues. Our call as Christians is not to be reasonable, or to look out for national interest, but to be defined by care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the prisoner. This week you’ll be receiving a letter from our session with some theological convictions about immigration that they’ve arrived at after these months of prayer. We probably won’t all agree with all of it. That’s not really our goal: to make everyone agree. Instead, we hope it’ll spark your own reflection, and that we can have a conversation as a congregation about this stuff that matters so much to Jesus.
When we start talking about stuff like this it can quickly devolve into partisan talking points, so I want to be clear. This is not primarily about which party you vote for. As far as I can tell, neither party passes muster by the standard of this passage. Our call as followers of Jesus is not to vote for the democratic party or the republican party or the socialists or libertarians. Instead, it’s to hold our leaders, all of them, and ourselves accountable to this standard: do they, do we, care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner? The point is that there’s no neat dividing line between private, individual morality, and how we all live together as a society.
Jesus is inviting us into a whole new way of looking at the world. A community genuinely built around care for the most vulnerable is such a radical vision it’s almost unimaginable. It’s a complete reorientation—of society and of our lives.
What this story suggests is that if we are walking around looking for God, we’re going to very surprised about some of the places where the Divine shows up.
Yes, in the beauty of creation, and the laugh of a child, and the hug of a friend—all the beautiful things.
And, also, in profound need and vulnerability. In hunger, thirst, exposure. In confinement and ill health and disability and foreignness. In all the things and places and people we tend to avoid—in ourselves, in others. Those are the places we meet God.
Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise when we return every year to the story of Power, Wisdom, and Love Incarnate appearing in the helplessness and vulnerability of a newborn. And yet we need this reminder again and again.
This is how life comes: not in overcoming or winning, not in hustling or hurrying, not in strength and power, but in weakness and need. This is the way to life: vulnerability and compassion. For each of us, and even more, for all of us.
We’re called to shape our society this way, and our community, and our lives. In a minute we’ll sing Be Thou My Vision. What if our prayer in that song were answered? What if our eyes were opened? What if we looked at everyone wondering, are you hungry? Are you thirsty for? What do you need? Where do you hurt? We mostly don’t see each other. We don’t see the folks we live with. We don’t see the folks around us. We’re busy and tired and blind.
But, it turns out Jesus is good with blind folks. If we’re willing, as we’re willing, the Spirit can open our eyes. If we have the eyes to see, it will turn out the Divine is all around us. God is in every face we see. Especially, most poignantly and powerfully, in the faces of those who seem to have nothing to offer, who are vulnerable, in great need. Look around. God is all around us.
by Sarah W. Wiles, 2017, all rights reserved