Loving the Least of These
Update: I finished this piece on Wednesday, June 20 — just before Trump signed an executive order halting family separations. I hope this order is a reaction to many voices raised in outrage, but I have little trust in this administration. I believe that immigrants and asylum-seekers will continue to be oppressed in other, often more subtle ways. Also, as of today, there is no plan for reuniting separated children and families. We must remain committed to seeing the least of these as Christ sees them, not as our government sees them.
I always think that the scariest passage in scripture is Matthew 28:34-46. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Protestants have long held that faith alone brings salvation; we do not need to work to earn our salvation. What the reformers meant by sola fide is that only the work of Christ can accomplish salvation; no human effort can reconcile us to God. But despite this basic reality acknowledged by all orthodox Christians, over and over again scripture reminds us that our actions matter.
So we should not be surprised when Jesus declares that those who ignored the least of these — the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the ill, the uneducated, the unloved and unlovely, the oppressed — have ignored him.
If our faith does not lead us to compassionate action, what good is that faith? That faith becomes a clanging cymbal, a faith devoid of love and empathy, a faith that annoys and provokes without contributing anything valuable to those who hear it.
If our love for Jesus doesn’t move us to care for the least of these, do we really know Jesus at all?
This isn’t just a hypothetical discussion, of course. The situation on the border as children are pulled away from their parents demands that we respond. We cannot afford to be numb or callous, even when the government or pundits ask us to shrug our shoulders at the suffering inflicted on whole families.
Jesus is suffering, and someone uses the bible to defend that suffering.
Jesus is crammed into a building with hundreds of others, and someone says it is basically summer camp.
Jesus is separated from his family, but someone says he’ll be fine in foster care or whatever.
Jesus is pulled from his mother’s breast, but someone says it is necessary for national security.
Jesus is suffering, and our government wants us to ignore that suffering. They want us to see his suffering as not real suffering, or as deserved suffering, or as someone else’s fault.
But as Christians, our ultimate loyalty isn’t to our government. It’s to the kingdom of God. Paul may tell us to obey the governing authorities, but he does not tell us to trust in them. We must see people as Jesus sees them, not as the ruling powers and authorities see them.
We must see Jesus in people, particularly in the people those in power want us to fear. For what do we gain by dehumanizing others in order to gain favor from those in power? What good comes from selling our souls to power, to nationalism, to a pragmatic quid pro quo?
Will we sell our souls for the illusion of safety, for the supposed good of our nation? Will we accept the trauma of another as the cost of our own comfort? Will we place nationalist values above the values of the kingdom of heaven?
Or will we refuse to be complicit with the powers of this world? Will we refuse to remain silent as those in power inflict cruel suffering on the least of these, on people who bear the image of God, on people with whom Jesus identifies?
We must take a stand. We must pray, and donate, and make phone calls; we must march and write and vote and refuse to accept the dehumanization and oppression of these beloved children of God.
This is a moment when we can remind the world that faith is not a clanging cymbal but a motivation to defend the defenseless, to help the helpless, to show love to others no matter what they look like or where they came from.
And more than showing the world, we serve Jesus as we work for the good of the least of these. Let us not be found empty-handed and cold-hearted when we see Jesus before us, hungry, thirsty and imprisoned.