I have to confess that I haven’t always felt that this familiar gospel story of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats was necessarily ‘good news.’ As a boy I was reasonably sure I’d be numbered among the sheep – (I did go to church regularly and did my best to be good) – but there was always a bit of uncertainty in my mind about whether I’d done enough to actually get in. Plus, I hadn’t actually given clothes to someone who was naked – (I think I would have remembered that!) – or gone to visit anyone in prison. It was a bit worrisome.
I don’t think I’m alone on this. Our first reaction to this story might be “Yikes!” Not only does it feel a bit threatening, but it also seems to run contrary to much of our inherited theology about being saved by grace and not by works. So what should we make of this?
Not surprisingly there have been a variety of interpretations offered by preachers and commentators. Perhaps the most common interpretation is the one that says, “Judgment is indeed connected to what we do. We will be held accountable for how we have responded – or failed to respond – to those in need.” Those who hold to this interpretation see the story as a check on an unwarranted, or perhaps exaggerated, confidence that we are justified by faith apart from works. They insist that “faith without works is dead,” and that it is reasonable to suppose that if we turn our backs on the poor, Jesus may indeed fail to recognize us as his “sheep” on the Day of Judgment. As James Forbes, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, once put it, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
Other preachers and commentators have downplayed the “judgment” theme and have emphasized instead the possibility of meeting and ministering to Jesus in those who are in need. They draw attention to Jesus’ words, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40), and invite us to see Jesus, as Mother Teresa put it, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” For them, the story is a summons to see God is unexpected places and persons, and to respond to the needy as if we were responding to Jesus himself – which, he says, we are.
A third interpretation focuses on the element of surprise that permeates the story. Neither the “sheep” nor the “goats” had any idea of what they were doing; both groups are surprised when Jesus makes the connection between their response to those in need and their ministry to him. This interpretation suggests that perhaps we are justified by our faith after all. Our “good works,” it could be said, do not justify us before God; rather, they flow unconsciously from the love of God that has been poured into our hearts. The “sheep” in the parable have been saved by grace, and this grace is clearly seen in how they respond to the cries of the poor. They exhibit surprise because these acts of mercy have been the natural by-product of their changed hearts.
Further insight into the significance of this story has come to us through Liberation Theology. In 1971, Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Dominican priest and theologian who lived and worked among the poor in Lima, Peru, published a game-changer of a book called A Theology of Liberation which made famous the notion of “a preferential option for the poor.” Gutiérrez drew on this passage from Matthew 25 and other similar texts from the scriptures, to insist that the Church must be on the side of the poor, because God himself had chosen to side with the poor and defenseless. Since it was clear that God had always exercised “a preferential option for the poor,” it was clear that commitment to their relief and welfare should be our priority as well.
Liberation Theology rejects many of the common “explanations” for why so many people in our world are so poor. It does not buy the defense that “it’s nobody’s fault” or that it’s “just the way things are.” Poverty, it insists, does not result from accidental forces of history. The deplorable disparities between the rich and the poor are not inescapable or necessary. Rather, they are the direct result of human agency, of structural violence, of economic policies and corporate strategies. People are poor because of actions that other people have taken.
When we see this, Liberation Theology insists, we cannot be satisfied with mere acts of charity like helping out at a soup kitchen or delivering bags of groceries to needy families at Thanksgiving (though these kindly acts are not to be discouraged). We are called to go beyond charity to address the economic and political structures and policies that make for poverty in our world. It is our duty to challenge the choices of those who are wealthy and powerful (starting with ourselves!) that result in so many living lives of quiet desperation.
This isn’t a new idea. It is a prominent theme throughout Scripture, clearly evident both in the Law of Moses and in the writings of the prophets, as well as in the accounts of the early Church. When Paul met with the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he reported that “the only thing they asked us to do was to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal.2:10). Paul himself was responsible for organizing a famine relief effort for the people in Jerusalem. In Acts, Luke describes the “daily distribution of food” to widows. James says that “true and undefiled religion” is marked by the care of those in need, especially widows and orphans. In the second century, Tertullian, an early defender of the faith, insisted that God had a “peculiar respect” for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the “distinctive sign” of believers. Even the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, who during his brief reign in the fourth century vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged the Christian preferential option for the poor: “(they) feed not only their poor, but ours,” he observed. (1)
Liberation Theology reminds us that caring for people who are hungry or homeless or imprisoned is not only our duty; it is also our joy. It is a privileged way of serving God, because it mirrors an essential aspect of God’s own character. Liberation Theology insists that God is biased towards the poor and bestows special favor on the dispossessed – and that God asks us to do the same.
This Thursday we will celebrate the national holiday known as “Thanksgiving Day.” Perhaps this parable can be for us a timely reminder that, although we live in a land of plenty, the majority of people in this country struggle every single day to meet the basic needs of their families for such things as affordable housing, adequate food and clothing, and access to health care, as well as for sufficient education and skills to obtain meaningful employment. There are literally millions of hard-working people who must find employment in more than one job just to make ends meet. It is a well-known fact that the minimum wage in this country will not support a family of four. It is also a fact that there are many places where there is little work to be found. Once-flourishing industries that used to support families in towns across our nation have dried up, or relocated overseas to places where people can legally be paid even less than the American minimum wage. There are also many people who would like to work but cannot, due to their need to care for children or elderly parents, or to their disability, or their struggles with addiction, or the lack of dependable transportation, or their history of incarceration, or any number of other factors that prevent people from working. What is needed is not only compassion, but a real commitment to change economic and political structures that result in the rich becoming even richer, while more and more people struggle simply to survive.
What is this text saying to you today? Is it challenging you to see and to respond to Jesus in real people that are hungry, homeless or destitute? Is it inviting you to draw near to him, to touch him and be with him, in his “distressing disguise”? Is it reminding you of God’s bias towards the helpless and needy, and calling you to find practical ways to exercise a “preferential option for the poor”? Is it summoning you to make changes in your own lifestyle, or in your priorities and life goals, that will reflect your commitment to a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources? What will it inspire you to do today, this week, this year, that will make a difference?
Finally, let us remember that the gospel is always good news, for us and for our neighbors in the world. How will we respond to the invitation and challenge it presents us today?
- From Dan Clendenin’s article, “Your Letter of Reference to the Last Judgment,” posted on the website, “Journey with Jesus,” November 17, 2014.
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