Matthew’s great parable of the last judgment presents the glorified Son of Man, with an entourage of angels, rising before the nations of the world. The blessed and lost are separated by one norm: the care of others. “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me.”
This proclamation is formulated four times in the course of the parable. It is worth the four repetitions. For, like many gospel passages, we have heard the words so often that they seem ordinary, even though they are the most revolutionary claims about the human condition that have ever been made.
In all the ways that God has been revealed to high human consciousness, there has been one abiding theme: the dignity and value of the human person. The ancient Chinese may have been among the first to formulate it: never do to others what you would not have done to yourself. Archaic Babylonian law commanded that we show good will to others. The mighty Egyptians were told, “Terrorize not a human.” Buddha reached enlightenment only when he embarked on the life of compassion for others. And Jewish faith, parent of both Christianity and Islam, revealed the source of the truth: “Male and female God created them; in God’s own image were they created.”
For Christians, this revelation of God reached its apex in the Incarnation: the Word of God became human flesh to save us. Thus it is strategic that Matthew, immediately before the narrative of Jesus’ passion and death, presents the scene of the last judgment as a metaphor wherein the least human person is identified with the Lord of history.
On one level of interpretation, this parable is an indictment of humanity’s violent resistance to God’s revelation. In our own century millions have been killed in the Middle East for the sake of homeland and nation. Eleven million Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered at the dawn of India’s freedom. Twenty million were purged in Communist China. The killing fields of Cambodia were marked by a million skulls. Rwanda and Serbia still sink under waves of blood.
Before our own times entire tribes of indigenous peoples disappeared in North and South America, sacrificed to idols of gold. Jews were banished or forcibly converted long before the abominable “final solution.” Holy “religious” wars were launched in the name of God. Children of every color and tribe have been traded or killed upon birth.
Like all of holy scripture, the parable of the end times is a judgment on the world. In human mayhem, we dismember the body of Christ. “You have done it to me.” The starving, the unwanted old and unborn, the criminal, the enemy—“the least”—are him.
This judgment of God is a moral command as well. In the eyes of Christ’s followers, the bodies of the wounded and murdered are bodies of Christ. Thus, killing is sacrilege. All wars are unholy. Any “choice” to kill a human being is an ungodly act.
But the story is more radical yet. For the parable not only judges history. It calls us to active love. It is an invitation to see Christ in each other. In all our relations we encounter God. Spouses, children, neighbors all count as “the least.” Every wife who comforted her husband, every father who gave joy to his child, every friend who consoled a companion, every mother who fed the infant or held the dying has encountered the Lord.
We all bear the presence of the Most High, no matter how diminished or devalued we may seem. We are bodies of Christ. Every reception of holy Communion reaffirms the truth: Christ assumes our flesh as his own.
Scripture, in its greatest depth, does not merely present a moral challenge or a judgment on the world. Nor is it a program for political or social action, or a self-help book. It is, rather, a story of the mystery of salvation.
For at the end of history, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made human flesh, addresses also the one who sent him: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.” These words that challenge us are the very words that save us.
What if, in our thinking, our praying, and our writing about scripture, we accepted it as if it were real? What if the Word of God is actually true on all levels of our lives—true for a world of nations, politics, or economies; true for our relations with each other; true for each of us in our hearts; true of God?
If you and I accept, with all our mind and will, the promise of God’s Word, perhaps then we shall fully understand the soaring words of Paul: “Christ must reign until God has put all enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”