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  • Joshua Ziefle

Political Animals

In my ongoing journey through the Gospel of Matthew, we today reach chapter 25. Within is a passage that has been oft-commented upon, but whose theme deserves mention once again. It is a set of verses that remains haunting, just as a former college professor of mine once said.


In this brief word picture, Jesus describes a coming judgement. A mixed group in front of the Son of Man that will begin to be sorted. Sheep, representing the righteous, will be placed on one side. A corresponding group of goats will be put on the other side. The cause of this separation is nothing less than the actions of their lives towards the world's most vulnerable: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick, and the imprisoned. Summing it up in verse 40, the King says: "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."


For Protestants who have come up nursed on the milk of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, this can be a troubling passage. It asserts that the way we live our lives in light of God's grace counts too. Perhaps, indeed, providing us with a parallel to James' famous dictum that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). It looks me in the face and says that God's evaluation of me has to do with my actions towards others. And it does this immediately after Jesus spends time talking about working for the Master and being ready for His return.


Hearing the clear words of Christ leaves little room for negotiation. How we treat others--and not just others, but the weakest and most vulnerable--matters. And it matters not just a little bit. It matters a lot. For anyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ, it is simply not an option not to care. It is not realistic not to act. It is not permitted to stand idly by. We can, of course, live as if this is not the case...but doing so simply invites condemnation. Christians must care--and not merely in thought but in deed as well. How this works out specifically in the grand scheme of salvation is a conversation for another time, but that it plays into it cannot be denied.


Having accepted this, there is still the question of how best to apply what we read here. Who constitutes the most vulnerable and least of these is, in some sense, a matter open to interpretation. Jesus certainly provides us a set of situations here, but it stands to reason that such a list may simply be comprised of examples which could be further expanded. We could likely name others in our society in addition to those enumerated in Matthew 25. Thinking of contemporary conversations, for instance, a Christian could speak more specifically of those facing the depredations of systemic racism or reflect on the question of the unborn.


Whatever else may be added to Jesus' list, his original set of concerns ought not to be easily discarded either. Being pro-life or campaigning against voter intimidation are certainly derivations of Matthew 25, but not to the exclusion of concern for the sick, the stranger (foreigner?), the hungry and thirsty, the unclothed, and those in prison. While our individual and specific focus in a particular area makes sense, it does not mean that the others do not matter or we ought not to keep them in mind and consider what to do for their good. Not while we live our lives. Not while we engage in the actions of our days. Not while we follow Christ. And not while we live as citizens in a nation where we are invited to vote.

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