On Sunday night we will be talking about building church for ‘the least of these’. I must confess that expression taken in isolation causes me a degree of discomfort, with its suggestion of value judgement, hence my very intentional use of quotation marks, but it does of course have scriptural precedent. In Matthew 25:34-46, Jesus says
Then 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; for 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.’ Then 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And 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.’
Then 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I 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.’ Then 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?’ Then 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
‘The least of these’ are then the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Does this mean Jesus saw those people as the least? And does that justify us in using similar language to talk about those groups? I don’t think so.
Even the most well meaning of us can fall into the trap of dismissing or demeaning those we see as less – less wealthy, less educated, less deserving of respect – but Jesus is doing something very different here.
Those he calls least are those his culture called least, but he challenges that attitude by identifying himself with them, and making clear that they must be afforded the dignity of having their physical and social needs met.
He is not calling us to patronise but to live in solidarity, and ultimately his value judgement falls elsewhere. I suspect he may have had quotation marks in mind too.
This is perhaps one of the most familiar passages in the gospels, but familiarity has not lessened his challenge or dulled its edge. It still needles me every time I pass a rough sleeper or see a charity appeal and wrestle with how much it demands of me.
The young people brought this home again at the weekend away, with the artwork and the poetry they produced, taking the abstracted commands of the passage and projecting them across the refugee crisis.
It was reflecting on that artwork, which is currently hanging on our landing, which originally prompted me to write this blog, but I hope it may also go some way to prepare us for this Sunday. And I hope that when you hear ‘the least of these’, you also hear the quotation marks.