I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me. (Matthew 25.40)
My partner’s been without work for six months. Thankfully, we’re able to get along on one income, which has given him time to explore new fields and apply previously untapped talents to volunteer projects. At the same time, managing his benefits is a full-time job. He spends hours every day navigating the unemployment morass. A missed deadline or unplaced call can mean lengthy conversations and paperwork to get back in the system. On top of that, an ongoing condition also entitles him to health subsidies that require extra vigilance. If one agency drops the ball, another agency drops Walt. Almost daily, he’s on the phone, explaining why he qualifies for this or that type of assistance. “I’ve never felt so insignificant,” he said recently. “You have no idea how demeaning it is to have to convince someone your needs matter.” I asked if people he deals with are brusque or inattentive. “No,” he replied. “They’re very kind. But someone’s bound to fall through the cracks. I have to make sure it’s not me.”
I imagine most of us already know Matthew 25's story about letting people fall through the cracks. Actually, it’s not a story at all. It’s a plainly worded warning dressed up as a parable. Jesus tells it in the future tense and sets it on Judgment Day. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, the King assigns people to one of two groups. He places those who’ve helped anyone in need on His right; those who’ve parceled out compassion and generosity on a case-by-case basis stand to His left. He welcomes those on His right; those to His left are dismissed. Jesus doesn’t use the story to provoke fear of damnation as a means of promoting love. As 1 John 4.18 explains, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Jesus knows this. His story’s purpose focuses on one question: Who qualifies for our mercy and kindness? “Everyone” is His definitive reply.
“Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers, you did for me,” the King insists, much to the amazement of the right-hand crowd. Equal regard for all was so deeply instilled in them, they stopped worrying about who did or didn’t merit compassion. Meanwhile, the left-hand crowd was appalled—outraged, actually. Selectively deciding who deserved their attention seemed like the logical thing to do. Why waste their efforts on people unworthy of them? “In rejecting the least, you reject Me,” the King insists. Had they read 1 John 4.20, they would have acted differently. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
Because the people Jesus mentions are hungry, homeless, without clothing, sick, and imprisoned—i.e., safely qualified for modern benevolence—we tend to interpret “the least” to mean “overlooked.” But His listeners heard something radically different. Their culture viewed anyone stranded in such conditions beneath contempt. These people were viewed as spreaders of disease, disturbers of the peace, and leeches on the system. If Jesus told the story today, He’d revise His list to include racists and homophobes, abusive parents and spouses, liars and cheats, and others we consider too hateful to merit attention, love, and forgiveness. He’d also alter the King’s comment to read, “Whatever you did for the worst, you did for Me.”
None of us is spared the likelihood someone will behave toward us in unthinkably horrible ways. People will heed their cruelest impulses at our expense. They’ll hate us without reason and plot our destruction to satisfy dark urges. They’ll exhibit no concern about suffering they inflict or scars they leave on us. Regarding those who harm us as profoundly needy people takes some doing, in part because they create enormous deficits in our own lives. And even if we get that far, we’ve not yet reached the place Christ expects us to be—accepting them as they are and loving them with the same compassion and understanding we desire. How can we love the worst? How can we honestly pray for their welfare? How can we find it in ourselves to care about their needs?
Jesus’s story answers these questions, too. When loving the worst costs more than we can give, we rely on our determination to love God at all costs. We do it for Him. He’s supremely qualified for our love and attention. We take John’s words to heart. Allowing love for anyone, including the worst of the worst, to fall through the cracks takes love of God with it. Choosing whom we will or won’t—can or can’t—love chooses not to love God at all. In Matthew 5.44-45, Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Connecting that with the Judgment Day scenario pulls everything together. The King doesn’t separate the crowd because of what they do. He divided them according to who they are. His true sons and daughters made the leap, clearing personal hurdles to love the worst in eagerness to love Him. The impostors looked before they leapt. Withholding their best from the worst landed them in the worst of all possible circumstances. Moral of the story: loving God to the best of our ability will often require us to make a leap, to look at the worst as our gateway to loving the Best.
We don't pick and choose who qualifies for our love. Loving those who harm us will require us to look past them and love them for God's sake.