Hooo Boy, it’s another parable of judgment and this one is much beloved of people who like to subtly threaten us with our “unloving” behavior. “Do it unto the least of these” we are told with a smirk, for surely we don’t want to “be one of the goats” who will be rejected by Jesus?
And yet, I have seen these same “now ‘be loving’ (you little snot)” people react with horror at the notion that Those People are Sitting In the Same Pew With Me. This has led me to a harder interpretation of the text, and one which I suggest for our study.
Thesis: The “least of these” are the people we do not want to have near us in church, on the street, or anywhere else for that matter.
It doesn’t really matter what category they fall into: they could be white supremacists, homophobes, antifa, Black Lives Matter, rethuglicans, demokkkkrats, gun owners, gun haters, gay, straight, trans… the list goes on (for me it’s (shudder) Yankees fans). If you don’t want ’em in your church, if you would struggle to be civil to them on the street then that’s your “least of these.”
Now go and greet them as you would Christ, “do unto them” as if you were doing unto Jesus. And in your doing, discover that this is part of the way God hollows out our stuck, stupid, pride-full self to make room for the Love of God to pour through you. (no, I didn’t say this was going to be easy, the people who tell you faith and growth are easy are selling something).
The part I really like about this test is that it allows us to continue to actively check our heart instead of simply ticking off a completable (and never re-checked) list. It means that as our hearts are widened and we discover that our princess is in another castle, we can continue to grow and deepen our life. Thus this parable becomes part of our daily practice of spiritual self-reflection instead of a string of trophies we can put up on the mantle.
The best (or perhaps worst) part of this test is that it has biblical support in Jesus’ words no less. Far from being a static, fulfillable checklist, the way to faithful life is made up of constant attention to who we are and what we are doing in each moment.
A certain type of preaching has held up unchangeable perfection as our life goal (“be perfect as God is perfect”) and focused on perfection as a pinacle of life, as if we were working to “get that A” instead of becoming complete humans. But this translation (and its obsession with lists and acheivements) ignores the Greek understanding of the text.
This is because the word translated “perfect” is focused on motion, on going somewhere and becoming someone. The word is from the Greek root telos which means “destination/goal.” So this call to “be perfect,” to give to and live with “the least of these” is one that is focused on our goal, our destination in God. To use the trite phrase it is focused on the fact that we are journeying into God rather than that we are already at our destination.
The perfection we are seeking is the kind that comes when we are at unity, integrated, whole, real, and the person we were made to become. This is in stark contrast to the pinch faced checklist peruser much favored by our current crop of Teachers of Righteousness. And that finally brings us back to this whole sheep/goats thing.
Folks who use this parable as a club to beat the unrighteous into heaven are missing the point. The sheep and the goats did what they did out of the fullness of their hearts. Both are surprised that they did this for Jesus because they weren’t even thinking of Jesus when they did what they did. The sheep were’n following a list or going in fear of a voice that would say “how could you be so unloving?” Their hearts were open to recieving and giving while they would sit with everyone, talk with everyone, and be with everyone.
To be entirely honest, the sheep people probably didn’t need the test I proposed (that the ‘least of these’ are the people we don’t want to be around) because their hearts were already unscarred. For those of us with half-open, half-healed, still-scarred hearts, the test may help us on the way. It ought not however, become our ultimate checklist, because our destination is life in Christ and not even “being loving according to this test.”
As is usual with God’s invitation to life, this is a lot harder to do than simply ‘follow the rules.’ It requires a relentless, every day, living trust in a God who is greater than us. It requires confidence in a God who is not only capable of supporting us as we walk step after faltering step on the Walk of Living into Life that is faith but in fact joyfully eager to do so.