Monday, November 14, 2011

King of the Least

Matthew 25:31-46 fascinates me for a couple of reasons.  One of those reasons is that in this scene of final judgment where Jesus describes himself separating the sheep from the goats, that is, those who will inherit his kingdom from those who will not, there is no mention of faith in Christ.  So often when we talk about final judgment, heaven and hell, etc., the first criteria that is mentioned is believing in Jesus as the Christ, trusting in Christ for our salvation.  But in this passage, faith, trust, and belief (which are all really the same word in Greek, pistis) are never mentioned.  Instead, the separating is done based on how the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned were treated.  No other criteria is brought to bear in this judgment.  In this passage, it is solely a matter of how those being judged treated "the least of these".

I'm not suggesting that salvation is really earned by our works after all or that we should throw the language of faith, trust, and belief out of our theological vocabulary simply because it is not used in this passage.  But I do think it is more than noteworthy that Jesus is able to talk about the final judgment without using those terms; something most evangelical Christians seem incapable of doing.  I am suggesting that a passage like this one should cause us to pause and reconsider what we mean when use words like faith, belief, and trust.

Even though the word faith (pistis) is not used in this passage, I think Jesus' (and Matthew's) audience still would have recognized pistis in the examples of compassion that Jesus mentions.  That's because pistis not only means faith but also faithfulness.  One is the other.  There was no need for two separate words because they are not two separate things.  Faith is faithfulness.  To really believe something is to live like it.  To place our trust in Jesus is to live like Jesus lived and if we are not living like Jesus then we do not really have faith in him, regardless of what we think about the inner life of our minds and hearts.  To think, as we often seem to in the Church, that "believing" (by which we usually mean something having to do only with thoughts and attitudes) is the critical element to being Christian while serving the least of these is just an optional add on for really saintly people is to divide in two something that is really one.  It is to misunderstand what the New Testament writers mean by the word "faith".

The other aspect of this passage that fascinates me is the equation of Christ the King with the least of these.  It is Christ who says "I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger....".  The righteous are surprised by this, saying "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink...?".  And Jesus says "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the lease of these my brothers, you did it to me."  What we do (or don't do) for the least of these is what we do for Christ.  I often feel that if I could get this single idea through my thick head and dull heart, I would live very differently.  If I could only see Christ in each person I encounter, no matter how much they frustrate me or hurt me, regardless of their appearance or need, it would make all the difference in the way I relate to people.  If in every conversation and interaction I could stay grounded in the reality that the person before me is an image of God...

Mother Theresa, who knew something about living this passage, said "When you touch the poor, you touch Christ.  When you are touched by the poor, you are touched by Christ."  Do you really long to know Christ?  Spend time with the hungry, sick, immigrant, and imprisoned and Christ has promised we will find him there.

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