The Least of These

Preacher: Amy Norton
Date: November 22, 2020

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

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This scripture passage is perhaps one of the more familiar chapters of Jesus’ teachings, even amongst the less biblically literate, in which he reveals to his followers that ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these my siblings, you did for me”. We often see this scripture, and rightly so, as a call to help the poor, downtrodden, oppressed, those who society often deems the “least” of these. Over my nearly the and a half years at United Parish, I’ve seen this congregation live out this call in so many ways; our Thanksgiving Meal is a great example of how we tend to those who need food, water, shelter, and company, meeting Jesus in their midst. 


I also wonder what Jesus would say if I was there for that conversation way back when. As Kent often reminds us, God loves us just as we are, and too much to let us stay that way.  Jesus never gave anyone a pat on the back and said “That’s it- you’ve done it! You’ve done it Charlie! The chocolate factory - i mean, Heaven, is yours! I knew you could do it!” No, he told even the person who obeyed all the mosaic law that he still needed to sell his belongings and give the proceeds to the poor. It’s a good reminder that we needn’t be perfect to follow Jesus or be loved by God, but that God is always calling us toward even closer relationship, toward an even more expansive love of neighbor. 


I don’t know if anyone saw Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on SNL earlier this month, but as a recap, he said that white people should all do something nice for a black person who doesn’t deserve it, because for centuries, white folks did horrible things to black folks…who didn’t deserve it.  His example was to buy an ice cream cone for the neighborhood drug dealer, but it got me thinking. Who is it easiest for us to help? To see as deserving of our help? To see as the “least of these”? Who is it hardest to help? 


Who do we cast as the “least of these”? When I asked that question of myself, I realized that it's often those who are poor because they were exploited by capitalism, those who are in prison for non-violent offenses, those who are homeless due to mental illness, addiction, or plain bad luck. In my imperfect heart, I cast these characters as grateful, harmless, and sympathetic. Characters that most, if not all, progressive audiences would likely perceive, even if only subconsciously, as “deserving". 


But what about the bigots? What about the violent offenders? What about those who are poor because they lost a civil suit for wrongful death after they were acquitted in a criminal trial for a hate crime or murder? What about those who, when we're not at our best, or most in-step with God, we secretly, or even subconsciously, think of as "less than" us? Do we ever cast them as the "least of these", the siblings in whom we meet Jesus?


Because Jesus didn’t say “whatever you did for the orphans and the widows” or “whatever you did for the sick and the poor” or “whatever you did for the most sympathetic characters who you feel good about helping” …he said “whatever you did for the least of these


What would it look like, what would it feel like, to help people who we think don't deserve it? Many many months ago, back in the ‘before times’ Kent once talked in a sermon about the cost of true discipleship- when Jesus warned his disciples that following him meant giving up family, friends, fortune…And many of us are used to thinking about how our own religious beliefs might garner some sneers or condescension or even outright anger from the ‘opposite’ side of whatever religious and political aisle we’re situated. 


But what about if our religious beliefs stirred up anger, rejection, and criticism from our own ‘side’? From our friends and family and community members? 


What if Joaquin’s own facebook echo chamber suddenly turns against him because they find out that he’s been delivering weekly meals to the elderly white guy who hangs a confederate flag out of his front window and is estranged from all his kids because he told them he’d disown them if they married outside their race? 


What if Siobhan’s friends questioned her commitment to ending sexual violence because they find out that she’s been tutoring a recently released level three sex-offender, helping them practice for an upcoming job interview? 


Jesus didn’t say that helping the “least of these” would feel good, or that it would make us popular. He did say, however, that we would ultimately be called to account for how we’ve treated God’s beloved children.  As many before me have said, “If you want to know someone’s character, take a good look at how they treat those they see as their inferiors, not those they see as their equals”. 


What’s the good news in all of this? 


The good news is Jesus’ reminder that, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me”. The good news is that we get to encounter Jesus, time and time again, in the faces and bodies and lives of those to whom we perhaps had never given a second thought, or a charitable thought, before. The good news is that Jesus is always there to meet us. We are indeed following Jesus’s teachings when we help the downtrodden, the sympathetic, the “deserving poor”…and yet Jesus shows up for us, whether we like it or not, whether we recognize him or not, in the “undeserving,” in the inconvenient, in the ugly. 

And if Jesus is so committed to journeying with us that he shows up for us amidst the ugliest, most immoral, most easily-hated segments of our society, Jesus can handle whatever shadows are in our souls, whatever weighs down our hearts or pulls us out of step with God. Jesus can spin the straw of condescension and self-importance, even self-loathing, into the golden thread of compassion, love, and self-worth. Amen.