“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 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.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
In one of my Bibles, this parable of Jesus is entitled “The Judgment of the Nations.” My sense is that - for Episcopalians, at least - this is one of the more well-known passages of scripture. Episcopal Relief and Development, the international response of the Episcopal Church to those in need, states this on the “Who We Are” portion of their website: “We take our mandate from the words of Jesus, found in Matthew 25:37-40, that call us to feed the hungry, care for the sick and welcome the stranger.” (episcopalrelief.org)
The Rev. Eva Suarez, writing about this passage from Matthew in the current Forward Day by Day, says, “And the sublime king has one criteria (sic) to judge his people: compassion. God’s only criteria (sic) for us is our compassion.” (Wednesday, July 13)
This portion of Matthew 25 has been a favorite passage of mine for a long time. I love how pragmatic it is. Feed the hungry. Give a drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Visit those who are sick or in prison. It’s sort of like Jesus is saying, “Don’t overcomplicate things. This is what love looks like.” I also like the incarnational theology at the center of it. When you did one of these things for the “least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) In other words, Christ is in everyone that you and I meet. When we serve someone else, we are serving Christ. I think this applies to caring for the planet, too. Christ is in everything, including trees, animals, birds, and fish. Christ is in rivers, rocks, plants, fungi, snow - everything! So when you care for the planet, you are caring for Christ, too. Part of what Jesus is saying, it seems to me, is, “If you are wondering where I am, just look around! I am in everyone and everything that you see. Love them and you are loving me!” This is captured in our Prayer Book in the Baptismal Covenant, when we renew our baptismal vows and are asked, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)
The newer insight for me with respect to this passage is the acknowledgment of the truth that I am also on the receiving end of Jesus’ “mandate.” When I walked across the United States in 2019, I was the stranger that people welcomed into their homes and into their churches. I was the hungry one to whom generous folks frequently served dinner and breakfast. Old friends and new friends bought me new hiking socks. A nurse in eastern Tennessee removed a tick from my ankle and massaged my sore feet, less than an hour after she and her husband welcomed me into their home for the night. A number of people stopped in the middle of the road in Kansas - in mid-July - to hand me water bottles. One couple also gave me some cut up cold watermelon! My hosts not only picked me up at the end of a day’s journey, but they took me back to that same spot the following morning. I learned what it means to receive. I learned what it means to be “one of the least of these.”
More recently, you all - the people of St. Luke’s - took Julia to her physical therapy appointments, brought us food, had us over for dinner, visited Julia when she was sick, prayed for us, gave us books to read, sent us cards and flowers, and sent us well-wishes via email and text. And since Julia’s death, you have continued to offer that kind of hospitality and compassionate care to me. I cannot begin to thank you enough - for your love and care for Julia and your love and care for me.
I had always read Matthew 25 as “marching orders,” as rather specific instructions on how to follow Jesus. And I believe these verses are that. But… if someone is going to feed, offer a drink, welcome, clothe, or visit, someone has to be on the receiving end of that! And sometimes we - you and I - are “the least of these.”
Sometimes we are the care-givers. Sometimes we are the care-receivers. May we become adept, by God’s grace, at both giving and receiving. And may we see Christ in our midst as we gather together and serve one another.