Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Least of These

I don't feel like Jesus very often, but sometimes it happens. I had the experience of someone who is always very nice to me being very mean to others. To make matters worse, the ones who were the object of the cruelty were in less fortunate situations than me, both materially and mentally. Which made me feel bad as a result, as if the cruelty were being done to me instead of them.

My first thought was, "Well, at least the guy is nice to me, so he's not all bad" but then my follow-up thought was, "But if he really wanted to be nice to me, he'd be nice to them. In fact, I'd rather he be nice to them than me, since they need it more than I do."

Then I remembered Matthew 25:31-46. This is where Jesus describes the coming of the "Son of Man" (a third-person way of talking about himself, though sometimes it's hard to tell), a king who will separate the figurative sheep from the goats. To the righteous "sheep" he says, "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." When the righteous ask when they did all these things for him -- because they hadn't actually done these things for him, since he was a king who wouldn't need them done -- he answered, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these... you did it to me."

Similarly, he tells the cursed "goats" that they didn't take care of him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. When the cursed say that they never actually saw the king in any of these conditions and so how could they neglect him, he answers, "Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these... you did not do it to me."

I've known this passage all my life, but I hesitate to admit that I only thought of it as a way to please Jesus himself: help people and you're helping Jesus, hurt people and you're hurting Jesus. Rewards or punishments follow. It never occurred to me that (even though the logic of the passage dictates it) everyone is potentially in the position of "the king." Perhaps I didn't see it because Jesus (as he tends to do) situates the story during an end-of-time style judgment day, when "the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him," when "he will sit on the throne of his glory. And all the nations will be gathered before him."

But of course "judgment day" is every normal day of our lives (once you get past the fancy imagistic talk). And on the particular day I'm writing about, I happened to be the king on the throne (a rare treat). Luckily for the guy that offended me, I showed more mercy than Jesus would have. Jesus rewarded the sheep with the kingdom but punished the goats with "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." My reaction was to feel sad for a while and then get over it, which is notably less dramatic.

You might be thinking that I should now take the next obvious step and write about how I, too, should be careful about not having double standards when it comes to decency toward people, especially those less fortunate, but who wants to read about that?

Bonus: The Sin of Sodom

And speaking of the less fortunate, did you know that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality? My source is the prophet Ezekiel, who says this (in chapter 16:49-50 of his book): "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it."

The sin of Sodom was the "I got mine, Jack!" mentality. Ironically, for those who use the Sodom and Gomorrah story as an anti-gay story, the truth is that the only way to quit committing the sin of Sodom is to quit being cruel to homosexuals, an oppressed minority in need of a helping hand.