“Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Monday, 23 November 2020
Human beings have an enduring fascination with angels and devils, fire and clouds, anguish and joy. Classic works of art and literature, like Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel or Dante’s Inferno, reflect this fascination. Images of damnation and glorious depictions of salvation have been proffered throughout Christian history.
However, notice that a careful reading of Matthew’s parable reveals that the last judgement is not ‘other-worldly’. At the centre of this parable – which is unique to Matthew and the final one in the Gospel – is not a vision of eternal glory or unrelenting damnation. At the centre of the parable is the face of the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, naked, sick and incarcerated. Jesus repeats this list of six characteristics four times in the parable, thereby emphasising their importance.
Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with him cannot be disconnected from our relationship with other people. The Gospel of Matthew often makes the point that our faith is very tangible and visible in the concrete decisions we make and the deeds that flow from them. In other words: our salvation hinges on our attitudes and actions and how these affect others. We will be judged regardless of whether our actions were deliberate or, simply, by omission.
The parable talks of “the least of my brothers and sisters”. This invites us to respond to any person in need. Notice how specific this parable gets: it is not just anyone but a particular stratum of people – anyone in need who suffers deprivation. We will be judged in the end based on our treatment of anyone who is suffering.
Matthew’s depiction of judgement day proposes an ethics of faithful witness; all Christians are invited to proclaim and live the Good News like Jesus himself by each being the embodiment of God’s love and compassion to anyone in need.
In a country where there is deprivation all around us, this parable proposes a massive challenge to the Christian community. It should make us stop and think. If it does not make us uncomfortable, we have not understood it.
It invites us to reach out to those who suffer but also ask why they are suffering. It invites us to assess our own lifestyles and excesses and work to change the structures that have brought about the poverty we see. Not to notice deprivation, or choosing to do nothing, means we are – in effect – the goats in the last judgement already.
Can you see the deprivation around you? How will you respond today?