By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is Christ the King Sunday. If you’re not familiar with that title, it might be because Episcopalians didn’t officially have this feast day till 2006, when we adopted a new lectionary. The liturgical color of the day is white, because it’s meant to be a festive occasion celebrating Jesus Christ’s sovereign rule over all creation. But to be honest, today’s Gospel reading kind of lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we got the threat of outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This week, we get the threat of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not much of an improvement!
Now, I maintain that there is, in fact, Good News in this Gospel reading. But it takes some work to find it, mostly because it takes some work to figure out what Jesus is talking about. The reading is deceptively simple. You might be tempted to sum it up as follows: serve the needy and go to Heaven; ignore the needy and go to Hell. And preachers for the last century or so have, in fact, taken that interpretative route. But the meaning of today’s reading is not so clear. There are two issues with the language of the text that greatly affect its meaning, and they have been a bone of contention since the 3rd Century: 1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and 2) To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “the least of these who are members of my family”?
The problem with the phrase “all the nations” is a translation problem. In biblical Greek, the word here translated “nations” usually means “Gentiles.” Only the context determines whether the word should be translated “nations” or “Gentiles.” The problem with determining who are members of Jesus’ family is an exegetical problem. Most interpreters of the New Testament throughout the ages thought that Jesus was referring to his followers, whom he often referred to as his family or as his “little ones.” In the last century or two, preachers and scholars have proposed that Jesus actually meant the great family of humankind. Based on how they answered these two questions, Church Fathers and biblical scholars have come up with three completely different exegetical scenarios.
The classical interpretation chooses the translation “nations” over “Gentiles” and limits Jesus’ family to his followers. Jesus’ teaching then says that the nations of the world will be judged by how they treat Christians in need. Since the early Church could not envision salvation outside the Church, they concluded that Jesus was only addressing Christians throughout the world. So the application of the teaching becomes even more restricted: Christians throughout the world will be judged by how they treat other Christians in need. This is the interpretation that you will find espoused by most Church Fathers. And this is the interpretation that you will find preached to Christian congregations up to the beginning of the 19th Century.
In the 19th Century, the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church was questioned, or rejected altogether. And today’s Gospel reading from Matthew had to be reconsidered. The ensuing interpretation was universalist. In this view, Jesus is addressing both Christians and non-Christians in all the nations of the world and warning them to care for his needy children, by which he means anyone in need, whether or not they are followers of Jesus. This interpretation is very appealing. It gives everyone a chance for salvation, even if they have not heard of Jesus Christ, even if they have out-and-out rejected Jesus Christ. In this view, the key to salvation is good works. (Now, if Martin Luther were alive to hear this interpretation, he would, no doubt, pitch ten kinds of fits. His motto, as you might recall, was “salvation by grace through faith alone.”)
Both of these two interpretations share a commonality, namely, that each of you is called to do something good for someone who needs help. If you do it, you receive the carrot, admittance into God’s Kingdom. If you don’t, you get the stick, eternal punishment in fire. Personally, I prefer the carrot to the stick every time!
More recently, say in the last 25 years, a few biblical scholars have come up with a third interpretation. And to be honest, it makes good sense. They consider that Jesus is speaking about the judgment of “all the Gentiles,” not “all the nations.” After all, that’s what the Greek word usually means in Matthew’s Gospel. And they limit Jesus’ family to his followers. Again, this makes sense, since Jesus refers to his followers as family on more than one occasion. So, in this scenario, Jesus is not telling his disciples what good works they must perform in order to be saved. Instead, he is assuring them of their importance in the grand scheme of things. They may feel small and insignificant. They may even be persecuted. But when the Last Day comes, the unbelieving Gentiles who run the world will be judged by how well they treated the beleaguered Christian community. In this interpretation, Jesus is trying to comfort and reassure his followers of their significance in the face of their self-perceived insignificance. Jesus is promising that for their sake, he will judge those unbelievers who either helped or failed to help his followers, and his suffering little children will finally know justice.
Let me recap. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is addressing Christians worldwide and advising them to take care of the poor Christians in their midst. In the 19th-century universalist interpretation, Jesus is telling the whole world, without exception, that salvation depends on how you treat those in need, be they Christians or not. The 20th-century interpretation is that Jesus is reassuring beleaguered Christians that the unbelieving Gentiles who run the show will be judged precisely by how they have treated suffering Christians.
Which solution do I favor, you may well ask. Well, I’m going to take a page out of R. A. Montgomery’s book; as you may know, he was the author and editor of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books. In that series, children make a series of choices as they read the book, and depending upon their choices, they get one of several possible story endings. I ask you to consider what the Holy Spirit wants you to hear today and choose the message that speaks to you most deeply! Maybe you need to hear message #1: Care for your fellow Christians when they are suffering in mind, body, or spirit, and you will be richly rewarded. Maybe you need to hear message #2: Care for anyone who is suffering, no matter who they are or where you find them, and you will be richly rewarded. Finally, just maybe you need to hear message #3: You are not insignificant in the scheme of things. Christ the King values you so much, that this unbelieving world will be judged by how they responded to your suffering.
If you choose to take to heart message #1 or #2 and are looking for a way to serve the suffering, I can offer some suggestions. One is to help feed the homeless at St. Boniface’s this Wednesday. Marilyn Saner is organizing this effort, and you might want to contact her after the service. Or you can buy a Christmas gift for a formerly homeless resident of Canon Kip Community House; I have the wish list for 15 such residents. And you know, even if you choose message #3, the one that makes no demands upon a believer, it wouldn’t hurt you to feed the homeless or to buy a present for someone who’s down on his luck. And if any of you are really daring—and I mean really daring!—you might consider a suggestion of St. John Chrysostom: reserve a guest room in your house for Christ, whom you may then receive in the form of a homeless person. In any case, do something for someone in need—for Christ’s sake! For in so doing, you begin to fulfill your baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” And in the fullness of time, even your smallest effort to serve the members of Christ’s family will be generously rewarded by Christ the King.
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.