The Least Of Persons
1. What did everyone think after reading today's passage? Perhaps some were reminded of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment." Anyway, for many people the impression they get after the second half of this passage in particular, I would suppose might be "fear." The words in verse forty-one, "Depart from me, o accursed ones, into the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his followers," are truly dreadful. Fear certainly becomes one of the motivators. Then, is the purpose of this passage as a picture of hell a motivational spur for good deeds through fear? Are we being exhorted towards deeds of love in order to enter into the kingdom of God and to escape the flames of hell?
In Reading This Passage
2. So then, as far as understanding this message of the Lord first of all, I would like for us to keep several facts before us. First and foremost is the fact that this passage does not stand on its own. It means that this passage for today is written in continuation from chapter twenty-four with the narrative on the end times and in continuation from such parables as "The Parable Of The Faithful Servant And The Wicked Servant," "The Parable Of The Ten Virgins," and "The Parable Of The Talents."
3. Please go back a bit and look at chapter twenty-four and verse thirty-six. In the narrative regarding the end times, Matthew recorded the following words of the Lord. "That day, that hour no one knows. Neither the angels nor the son know. Only the Father knows." This means that in this story concerning the end times it does not place great concern on [the question of] "When will the end be?" Also, even though it is a depiction of the end, it is deliberate that not many words are spent on it. Even in today's passage of scripture, only the minimum is spoken. That is very clear, for example, when compared to The Book Of Revelation by John. In other words, it means that a great concern is intentionally not placed on this matter of "What is to take place?"
4. Where is the concern of this series of narratives to be placed? It is not on the events at the end times, but on "the now." It is about "How should we live [in the here and] now?" Therefore, the phrase is repeated, "Please, therefore, wake up," (24:42, 25:13). Now is the time we should awaken. And we understand after all that the subject has to do with "the now" even in the series of parables seen in chapters twenty-four and twenty-five.
5. In short, as we read this if we can only think "When is the final judgment?" or "Will I enter into the kingdom of God or go into the fires of hell?," it means that we have never read this passage in its true sense. Or, in thinking of "the now" if we are ultimately only concerned about the judgment in order to escape the flames of hell and enter the kingdom of God and pile up the good deeds and love for our neighbors as if for insurance -- we might get that kind of mentality. If our good deeds and works of love are like that, then when you think about it, it is no more than using other people for a footstool for one's salvation. The original intention of this passage was not supposed to make that type of exhortation for works.
6. And secondly is the fact that the ambiguous degree of the Lord's words is left to us. It is not necessarily definite who [the phrase] "one of the least of persons who are my brethren" particularly points to in the Lord's response. This might be pointing to all who need some assistance. Even in Judaism, alms for the poor was encouraged. When we look at this passage as parallel with that, we might understand this passage as pointing to our lowly selves, to the person who is oppressed and forsaken by humankind.
7. But, if we claimed then that all that could be said about it has been said, we'd simply say no. Please look at chapter ten and verse forty-two of this gospel. "I clearly say to you. For the reason that he is my son, the person who gives just one cup of cold water to one of these least of persons will surely receive a reward." [In] this case, "least person or smallest person" means to point to a Christian. Furthermore, it is the Christian sent by the Lord to preach. It says those who welcome them are welcoming Christ. So then, the interpretation came to be that said, the entire world will be judged by how they treated those sent by Christ to pass on the gospel. In truth, the words "lend a place when I was traveling" and "came to visit me when I was in jail," make us think about the image of missionaries in the old days who used to evangelize circulating in the midst of difficulties.
8. Thus, it is not for sure who "one of these least of persons" points to. And when the scriptures are ambiguous it is important to go the effort to keep it that way. It is not always necessary to rigorously stipulate a relationship with ourselves and "one of these least of persons." We had better place in it all different sorts of relationships involving us. Moreover we are permitted to place our selves in the position of "one of these least of persons." Well, let's read this passage keeping these two points above in our minds.
Placing Ourselves Amid The Sheep And The Goats
9. First, let's read this passage placing ourselves as two flocks on the left and the right before the Lord, that is, amidst the goats to be judged and the sheep. What are the first words we hear? Please look from verse thirty-four to verse forty.
"So, the king says to those on his right side. 'Well, o blessed ones by my father, inherit the land prepared for you from the time of the creation of heaven and earth because you fed me when I was hungry, gave me drink when I was thirsty, and lent me a room when I was traveling, dressed me when I was naked, called on me when I was sick, and visited me when I was in prison.' Thus, the righteous will answer to the Lord. 'O Lord, when did we see you hungry and present you food, see you thirsty and offer you a drink? When did we see you traveling and lend you a room, see you naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or you were in jail and we visited you?' Then the Lord will answer. "I clearly say to you. What you did to one of these least of persons who is my brother you did for me,'" (verses thirty-four through forty).
10. When he says "o blessed ones" they on the right make a kind of doubtful face. None of them present thought that inheriting the kingdom of God was a reward they deserved to receive. The king explains [it] to them, but the explanation of the king made them more confused. They answered, "When did we ever do such a thing?" What was left behind in their memory was very small as far as they remembered. Wait, it might not even have been left in their memory. It wasn't that they accomplished a great work for God for all to see. It wasn't that they paid a huge sacrifice of the kind that helped someone to change his or her life. Unless they were some great evangelist, they weren't some saint whose actions would be passed on into the afterlife. What they did could have been that they only offered a cup of water to a thirsting person.
11. But, the Lord puts his attention on this. And he says that it "is done to me." What people see and the Lord sees are different. What is a small thing in the eyes of humankind is not small at all in the Lord's. We don't need to demean the smallness of the things we do. Because the Lord, no matter how small the actions, treats it as an act done unto him. This is definitely an important encouragement for us.
12. So, please look at the next part to the story.
"Then, Jesus said to those on the left, 'O accursed ones, depart from me and go into the eternal flames prepared for the devil and his followers because you did not give me food when I was hungry, you did not give me to drink when I was thirsty, you did not lend me a room when I was traveling, you did not clothe me when I was naked, you did not visit me when I was sick or in prison' Therefore, they answered. 'O Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, traveling, naked, sick or in prison and did not help you?' Then the Lord answered. 'I clearly say to you. When you did not [help] one of the least of these persons you did not help me,'" (verses forty-one through forty-five).
13. On the other hand, the Lord says, "O accursed ones" and those on the left also make a doubting face. No one there even thought going into the eternal fire was a reward they should justly receive. The Lord explains [it] to them, [but] the Lord's explanation confused them. They ask, "When did we do anything so awful?" What was left behind in their memory was very small as far as they remembered. No, it probably didn't even remain in their memory at all. They never worked at stealing. They surely never committed the sin of adultery. What they did was probably a minor [mis]treatment towards another person. They probably only neglected to offer a cup of water to a thirsty person.
14. However, the Lord put his attention on that. And, he even says, "You didn't [help] me." The places the Lord sees is different from the places humanity sees. If we look at it from the Lord's perspective, it is the same as a deed from Satan and his helpers. But, who would ever be able to dismiss such a charge against him or her?
15. These words crush us. Often times, these words smash us to pieces when we love the Lord but are conceited thinking that we have accomplished something for the Lord. We are made to learn our lesson that we deserved hell, confessing "I myself treated you coldly" and that we've no alternative but to ask for the Lord's mercy.
Putting Oneself On The Lord's Side
16. However, this doesn't say it all. We can read it by placing ourselves on the Lord's side, that is, placing ourselves on the level of "one of the least." Thus a completely different scene opens up to us.
17. The Lord is standing to the side and he thus says pointing to me, "I clearly say to you. What you did to the least of the people who are my brothers, you did for me." What does he say? The Lord calls us "my brothers." And the Lord puts himself in the same class as us. The Lord rejoices over the deed of love we received as done to him even if we had received a cup of water. The Lord and we are one in joy.
18. And also we hear the following words. "I clearly say to you. When you did not [help] one of the least of these persons, you did not help me." The One standing there is not greatly rejoicing on my behalf. As long as we live in this world we will repeatedly experience its coldness from the people in it. We have been slighted. We have been unloved. We have received harsh treatment by those more powerful than us. But, the Lord is sad, in pain, and angry that we have experienced those things. At those times, the sadness, hurt, and anger we had in us are absorbed into the Lord's anger. There's no need for us to be sad or angry anymore.
19. Well then, today's passage is situated just before the passion narratives of the Lord. Just after this, the Lord will say to his disciples that "As you know, in two days is the Passover. The son of man will be handed over for the purpose of being crucified," (Matthew 26:2). The Lord went to the cross in order to make himself one with "the least of persons." On the cross the Lord became one with the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, those rejected by others, and above all else, with all of us who are unable in the midst of our sins not to cry out, "O Lord, show us mercy."
20. Being able to see and place ourselves at the side of such a Lord as that is not unrelated to having been able earlier to see and place ourselves among the goats and the sheep. Looking to the side of the Lord, the one who rejoices that the Lord calls him or her "one of the least of persons who is my brother" should come to see the Lord on the side of others as well. They ought to see others as "one of the least" at the side of the Lord. When we look at other such persons in relationship with the Lord, we realize that it is a work for the other person, that is, it is a work for the Lord. In this manner, then, there are no achievements to bring out before God, there is no insurance for entering into the kingdom of God, the works of love which do not return glory to an individual in any form whatsoever, though the least, begin from there. And, even if it is small, it will never be despised or made light of in the eyes of the Lord. "I clearly say to you. What you have done for the least of persons who are my brothers, you did for me."