By Hunter Greene
Matthew 25:31-46 contains one of the very first Bible verses I ever committed to memory as a young 5-year-old, for it was the verse that I heard over and over again every alter call: “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.’”
I’m not sure that I could read yet, but I did understand that it was better to be a sheep than a goat. I knew Jesus was good and the devil was bad. I knew eternal life was better than eternal punishment, and I knew Heaven was the home of the saints while Hell was the prison of sinners.
All these decisions loomed large in my young imagination. It seemed as if my soul rested on the dualism of a ‘Yes or No’ question.
My ‘No’ to God would mean an eternal ‘No’ to my innate desires for love and acceptance. On the other hand, my ‘Yes’ to God represented such a small investment in exchange for the promise of not being eternally tortured at the hands of an angry God. When life, as well as eternity, was portrayed as one large dichotomy between the Good and the Evil, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I’d prefer to live in the certainty of self-righteousness rather than live with the risk of being surprised at the day of judgement.
I did, indeed, learn to read, and as a teenager trying to prove myself as one of the ‘good ones’ by reading my Bible religiously, I came across this passage for the first time on my own terms. I immediately recognized the verse that had framed so much of the world for me, but the verses surrounding it were completely foreign.
The verse that had justified my belief in a God who left behind the ‘bad ones’ of our world seemed to actually be about the judgment of those who had left behind their hurting neighbors.
I don’t know if you remember the first time the foundations of your faith were shaken, but mine came when I read a passage of red letters on eternal punishment and they didn’t affirm what I already knew to be true about who was good and who was bad. I found myself in an identity crisis as a self-proclaimed Christ follower because all the spaces I had been looking for Jesus, like church, revivals, and youth retreats, were not listed as the places Jesus spent most of his time. Even worse, Jesus didn’t seem to be spending much time in places anyways…because he was with people who were without a place. And there I sat, a decade after I first came across these words, holding the broken pieces of a worldview built by the security and comfort of dualistic judgments.
The element of surprise has a way of shattering dichotomies that statistics and rational arguments never can. God seems content with letting us assume as much as we want about the world and ourselves just to remind us that Her love and power lie just beyond our certainty.
Of course, we should expect nothing different on the Day of Judgment. Matthew 25, I would argue by conservatives and progressives alike, has a way of revealing our tendency to resort to our need for personal validation that we are good, and they are bad. What seems like a polarizing passage of sheep and goats, left and right’s, and good and bad’s, turns out to be a story dripping in complexity and surprise. A story about God’s future judgment turns out to actually be about our present judgments. A story about a King coming in his glory turns out to actually be about those with no power at all. A story about recognizing Christ as Lord turns out to actually be about not being able to recognize him at all.
A story as apocalyptic as this one, with its images of separation, fire, and judgment, is not meant to scare us, in my opinion, but rather surprise us.
It is difficult not to read this passage and leave it reflecting on what truly matters in this life. What is morality? What counts as righteousness?
While we aren’t given answers here, we are given hints that righteousness is perhaps more about solidarity than respectability. Saying the right things, scratching the right backs, and voting the right way may be a good way of securing a reputation as good, or even “Christian,” amongst our peers, but it doesn’t seem to be the way to cultivate a relationship Christ. In actuality, it seems as if the more intimate we become with a world that exalts the few and oppresses the many, the more we distance ourselves from Christ.
However, this isn’t some mandate for volunteering at Thanksgiving Day soup kitchens or dropping off used clothes to the Salvation Army. In other words, this story isn’t Christ providing us yet another check list with which to measure our own self-righteousness, even for us who are particularly generous with our yearly surplus.
No, this story is about the denial of relationship. It is an indictment of the lives and institutions ordered in such a way as to maintain the suffering of human beings in exchange for the hoarding of wealth, property, and power. This story is a condemnation of those who refuse to see us as human beings and treat us as nothing more than mere tools for their advancement. These people and these systems deny that we belong to each other, and in so doing, they’ve obstructed the very paths toward their own healing.
Although the powers that be seem content with structures that divide and destroy, Jesus offers the hope that the seeds of social healing can be found at the very margins these systems have created. For those who have been left out know exactly what will be required of us to create a world where no one is left out. It is the hungry and thirsty who will show us a new table of abundance where all may eat their fill. It is the stranger who will teach us about community and friendship. It is the sick who have much to tell us about how to get well. It is the naked who are ready to clothe us with love. It is the prisoner in chains who can lead us towards freedom.
It is the ‘least of these’ who are true royalty, for they live in the presence of the King.
According to Jesus himself, there is no easy distinction between the Lord of Lords and the Least. Jesus and the poor are entangled so intimately that any attempt to separate them would be futile. Consequently, our affiliation with Christianity must be more than intellectual belief, a profession of faith, or a vote for our Christian values. Our membership in the Kingdom of God is directly related to the relationship that we forge with Christ in the margins of our community.
Simply, we are who we accompany.
Hunter Greene is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He serves as the Student Associate Pastor at Jubilee Baptist Church, an affiliate of CBFNC. He is originally from Elizabethton, Tenn.