A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 4, 2012.
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We’ve heard a lot of talk during this political season. Countless campaign ads have been produced and broadcast. Who knows how many opinion polls have been conducted? All of those activities are part of what we’ve come to understand as the way elected officials are chosen in this society and time.
But what standard should we use to judge public policy? What factors should guide our decision-making?
Jesus devoted his public ministry to relieving suffering and teaching about the values that make for peace and justice. He talked a lot about something called the “kingdom of God.” Eventually, his enemies used the idea that Jesus was promoting a political insurgency by all that “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” talk to orchestrate his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Jesus wasn’t running for elective office. He wasn’t trying to set up another political party. When Jesus talked about the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God” he was talking about something very different. Jesus was talking about people living according to values and principles that square with notions of divine judgment. He was talking about people living, voting, working, farming, and doing everything else mindful that we are accountable to God for how we live and treat each other.
In the last of the three lessons we find in Matthew 25, Jesus gives a vivid illustration about divine judgment. In that illustration, Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man.” He mentions a “throne of glory,” angels of power, and judgment that has profound and eternal consequences. People from every place in the world (“all the nations”) will be judged by the same standard: how they treated those who are most vulnerable, those who Jesus described as “the least of these who are members of my family.”
How we treat the most vulnerable among us is the universal standard for judging personal and public morality. In his illustration about final judgment, Jesus bestowed divine commendation or divine or condemnation on everyone depending on how each person responded to the needs of vulnerable people. Jesus reminds each person from every place in the world about what justice means.
- How did you treat people who were hungry and thirsty?
- How did you treat strangers?
- How did you treat people who were poor?
- How did you treat people who were sick?
- How did you treat people who were not free?
This isn’t a local standard. It isn’t a standard that favors people in certain parts of the world. It’s the world-wide standard of the “kingdom of heaven” being applied by he who spoke of himself as “Son of Man.”
One would hope that we would have gotten the message about that standard by now. After all, it’s been around awhile—around two thousand years. One would especially hope that religious people and their leaders would understand that standard.
So it’s more than a little disappointing to watch and listen to public policy debates and political campaigns where concern for the vulnerable among us isn’t mentioned, let alone debated. Think of how much time, money, and energy has been spent during this political season. How much of that time, money, and energy has focused on the standard Jesus declared?
Concern and care for the vulnerable among us isn’t based on a partisan political value. No political party or politician owns it. Concern and care for vulnerable people who live in every society is the universal standard of justice.
- People need food and clean water everywhere.
- Strangers who need to be welcomed are everywhere.
- People are poor and need clothing and shelter everywhere.
- People are sick and need healthcare everywhere.
- People are oppressed and imprisoned by oppressive forces everywhere.
Let’s be clear. Jesus wasn’t declaring a local standard for a particular era. Concern and care for vulnerable people isn’t merely a 1st Century notion of what is right and decent. No matter where one lives or when one lives, it is right and decent to be concerned about and care for those who are vulnerable. No matter where or when one lives, doing so is commendable. No matter where or when one lives, refusing to do so is damnable.
And let’s be honest. Most debates about public policy aren’t about concern and care for vulnerable people. Most of the arguments don’t focus on how we are treating people Jesus called “the least of these who are members of my family.” Sadly, the “voter guides” published by religious organizations for the most part don’t focus on concern and care for vulnerable people. Instead, they focus on abortion, the right to own guns, opposition to same sex marriage, tax cuts, and so forth.
Are people who want to own guns vulnerable? When has a heterosexual couple been unable to marry lately? By what standard can anyone be considered reasonable who thinks that wealthy people are vulnerable in this society?
It’s one thing for politicians to ignore concern about and care for vulnerable people when they debate and shape public policy. But it’s a sad commentary on religion when religious groups treat tax cuts as more important than caring for people who are poor, sick, hungry, and need to be protected because they are strangers or imprisoned.
The people struggling without power, food, fuel, clean water, and shelter due to Hurricane Sandy are like vulnerable people everywhere. They need our concern and care. They need active government, not less government. They need generous government, not small-hearted and small-minded government. They need help because they’re vulnerable. That’s why our congregation will send money to the Red Cross to assist the Hurricane Sandy relief effort.
As we respond to their need, let’s remember that they shouldn’t be required to buy our compassion. They shouldn’t have to buy help restoring their roads, bridges, and communities. They shouldn’t be forced to purchase clean water and warm clothing. They are vulnerable. We who are comfortable should generously share with them out of our abundance. We should do so without concern about being re-paid. We should be concerned and compassionate because justice involves protecting vulnerable people from oppression and suffering.
Children who are bullied and subjected to other harassment are vulnerable. They need our concern and care. That’s why our congregation is actively engaged with First Presbyterian Church and other prophetic-minded people in an effort to build a community-based response to bullying and sexual harassment in Little Rock schools.
As we respond, let’s remember that the vulnerable people are bullied and harassed children. Teachers and administrators are comfortable. Popular children are comfortable. Children who don’t get picked on because they’re part of the majority, or aren’t viewed as “different” are comfortable. Teachers, administrators, and popular children aren’t vulnerable due to bullying and harassment. The vulnerable children in our schools are those who are considered “outsiders.” They shouldn’t have to beg for our help and protection. They deserve it.
Concern and care for vulnerable people requires courageous and faithful generosity, not self-centered living and thinking. Relief for victims of poverty, oppression, and any other suffering isn’t based on a “what’s in it for me” attitude. It isn’t based on the idea of earning financial rewards, building one’s business, protecting one’s image and privileges, or increasing personal wealth.
Concern and care for vulnerable people always focuses on justice. As long as we’re more concerned about wealth, privilege, power, status, and convenience than justice, we’ll continue debating whether to give tax breaks to people who are comfortable rather than helping people who are vulnerable. In doing so, we’ll be flunking the Jesus standard for justice.
Based on the standard Jesus declared, whenever we ponder some aspect of public policy or the candidacy of a potential office-holder, here are some questions that should direct our thinking.
- 1. How will this proposed policy or candidate function concerning the people Jesus emphasized, those who are most vulnerable?
- 2. What does past experience reflect about a political office-seeker’s conduct toward vulnerable people?
- 3. What are the issues facing vulnerable people in our society that should be at the center of our debates?
- 4. If candidates haven’t been talking, thinking, and working on these issues before now, what makes us think they’ll create policies and implement practices that address them in caring and compassionate ways?
- 5. If we aren’t talking and thinking about those issues, how does that keep faith with what Jesus did and said concerning “the least of these?”
- If people of faith don’t insist that public policy and political candidates focus on “the least of these,” what makes us think we’re having a redemptive influence in the world?
The people Jesus called “the least of these” are everywhere. Jesus will grade our final exam based on what we did for and with them. Jesus made them his priority. Let’s do likewise.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.