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.’
Seven-year-old Linus van Pelt, in Charles Schulz’s cartoon “Peanuts”, watches television; his big sister Lucy comes upon him and says, “I don’t want to watch that program. I want to watch MY program.” Linus wants to be left alone and says, “Alright, I’ll go upstairs and listen to the radio.”
Lucy follows him. As Linus sits down near the radio, she growls, “I don’t want to listen to that program; I want to listen to MY program.” Linus stares at her and sighs, “Fine, I’ll go to the next room and play a few records.”
Lucy is right behind and yells, “I don’t want to listen to those records. I want to listen to MY records.” Exasperated, Linus turns toward the door and announces, “OK, I’ll go outside and look at the stars for a while.”
Once again, Lucy follows him and shouts, “I don’t want to look at those stars. I want to look at MY …” This is when she stops, glares at her little brother, sighs loudly and walks away… Lucy is like a fish out of water. Had she finished her sentence—“I want to look at MY stars”—she would have looked foolish.
The “Peanuts” vignette illustrates two kinds of faith. Lucy’s is a small faith, which essentially says, “I believe in me and nothing else.” Linus’ faith is wider and more mature, as he points his big sister toward the stars which neither he nor she can ever call their own.
Likewise, the Gospel assigned for Christ the King Sunday talks of two sorts of faith from which people operate as they live in the world. It is the story from Matthew 25, often referred to as “The Last Judgment”.
At first glance, it is unclear how this passage can rightly be called Good News (Gospel). There are no deliberations in this court, no dialogue, no chance to make one’s case; the decision already has been made. The point that the harsh kingly role does not seem to fit the image of Jesus as a preacher of forgiveness, peace and joy has not stopped the church from using our text to frighten people with hellfire and eternal punishment.
Asked in an interview whether she thought there is a hell, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop in Chicago, said: “There may be, but I think it’s empty,” and quoted Jesus to support her point—“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Several conservative websites attacked her after the interview was published.
One way or another, it makes people angry when someone does not believe in hell. What is going on? This seems to be a good time to speak of non-dualism, a concept that, although present throughout Scripture, has been an open secret kept alive by the mystics of all times. Teaching that the Way of God is found by becoming one with everything, mystics point out that the binary (either/or) approach with which we organize our day-to-day lives won’t work for accessing our spiritual lives. They say that any sense of “other” will prove to be an illusion once we acknowledge that all creation is one; that realization is what they call “not two”—non-dualism. The parables of Jesus and the koans of Zen were designed to stymie our rational minds, so that we might hear the voice of our hearts.
People with a ‘Linus’ sort of faith are open and listen to their hearts; their spirituality is mystical and non-dual. People with a ‘Lucy’ sort of faith are fearful and trust only their minds; their spirituality is ego-driven and dualistic.
Jesus begins his story in the dualistic view, both in the sheep/goat image and in the overall framework of his speech. Once he has shocked his listeners out of their self-righteousness, he switches to a non-dual mode, and encourages universal compassion: “… just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (verse 40), connecting what we do for others with what we do for him. In relating his wake-up call to his own life, he breaks up his audience’s dualism; in the end, he suggests, there is only one valid answer left: love.
Within Matthew’s gospel, our text is Jesus’ last speech before the Passion Story begins—the story in which he becomes one of the despised goats, a scapegoat. And in the Scripture passage quoted by Bishop Eaton, Jesus indicates that he is approaching the cross to deal with the judgment: “‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.’ … He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:31.33). Seen from this angle, being preoccupied with judgment is not necessary; thus, our story indeed is “Gospel”, Good News.
An Islamic parallel likely influenced by our passage forcefully reminds us of God’s love of the poor, as attested in Scripture. Compared with our text, the surprise is increased infinitely as it is Allah who confronts the people: “O son of Adam, I asked you for food but you did not feed me”. He will say: “My Lord, how can I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” Allah will say: “Did you not know that such-and-such servant of Mine asked you for food but you did not feed him, and had you fed him you would have found Me with him?”
Our love toward “the least of these” addresses God’s own needs. To properly love God is to love everyone in God’s creation. What ultimately counts is not what we believe about God (orthodoxy), but what we do for God’s sisters and brothers (orthopraxy). It is time to roll up our sleeves. There are sisters and brothers all around us, and they need our compassionate action.
Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, tells the story of his Baltimore slave mistress, Mrs. Sophia Auld. “My new mistress proved to be … a woman of the kindest heart … But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands.” Douglass reports that when Sophia’s husband finds out that she has treated the slaves well, he forbids it. As she begins treating him as less than human, he witnesses Sophia’s descent into the demonic: “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.”
Where love is inhibited, spiritual death soon follows; Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people”. Where love flourishes, the Good News of God is alive: strangers are welcomed, enemies are loved, the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the Good News reaches those in captivity.
The lesson of this powerful Gospel text is not fear, but love.
If we conform our lives to the world around us, we will fail; but if we boldly embody the life of Christ, we will begin to love all creation as one, as God does. As a community committed to not leaving anyone behind, the people of God are “at cross-purposes” (in more ways than one) with our current fear-based official culture, which continuously and relentlessly concocts new ways of labeling whole groups of people as enemies.
Midst the teeming cities’ millions, witness to God’s boundless love,
Reaching for each system’s lost ones, seeking justice with each move;
Grant us courage, strength and patience to contend with vicious power,
Lead us forward in the faith that gives us hope in testing’s hour.
Paul R. Gregory, 1985
We are contending with agents of “vicious power” whenever we step up to find justice for those pushed to the margins, but even though “in testing’s hour” we will be tempted to retreat, Jesus leads us forward: he bids us see his face in the face of each person who is being labeled, harassed, excluded, insulted, hurt, or deported. Those with a ‘Lucy-faith’ are too fearful to do this, but those with a ‘Linus-faith’ are ready.
Love is the lesson. Love is all that counts. Love is all that lasts. Amen.
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.