In the closing chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus offers a parable describing the criteria by which the human community will be evaluated on Judgment Day. I remember my surprise years ago when I read these words for the first time.
After hearing that we would be evaluated on the basis of our acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, what a shock it was to hear Jesus declare the terms of our judgment in different words.
“I was hungry and you fed me, 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.”
And when asked when it was that we did all these things, Jesus said, “When you have done it to the least of these in my family, you have done it to me.”
I also remember being surprised about the makeup of those being evaluated. Judgment was portrayed to me in sermon and story as a solitary matter – me alone, standing before the Almighty. But Jesus says that “the nations” are called to account. Apparently, Jesus thinks that caring for the least of these is not simply a matter of individual charity, but the responsibility of the whole community.
For the past several decades those who opposed the idea that we have any communal responsibility have created a huge bogeyman they call “the federal government.” It’s as if the federal government were an entity separate and apart from state, county and city government. The genesis of this nonsense is at least as old as the 14th Amendment, but understanding history doesn’t really help the situation.
What would help is if Americans would stop acting like Washington is a foreign country and started acting like “we the people.” If Jesus is right and one day we will be held accountable for how the least of these fared in our national experience, then it’s time and past time to lay aside our paranoia about government and figure out how we are going to care for the poor, the sick and weak in our midst.
And please don’t trot out the inane charge of socialism. I’m so tired of that lame mantra that it makes me want to scream. Jesus was not advocating socialism. His vision was much more radical than that. What Jesus had in mind was neighborly-ism. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Isn’t it amazing how much of our American experience is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words?
I was hungry, and we make fun of people who get food assistance.
I was sick, and we fight tooth and nail to keep 35 million from having health insurance so our taxes won’t go up.
I was in prison, and when I got out you wouldn’t hire me because I was an ex-con.
I was an immigrant, and all you wanted to know was whether I was legally or illegally your neighbor.
Thomas Jefferson said once that he shuddered at the thought that God was just. Maybe what he had in mind was the realization that the earth is the Lord’s and if we can’t manage it in a way where the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors are met, then maybe we don’t deserve our piece of it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.