By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. 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 lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we were threatened with the 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: Issue #1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and Issue #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 which translation is correct. The problem with determining who is and who is not a member of Jesus’ family is an exegetical problem. Most interpreters of the New Testament throughout the ages have thought that Jesus was referring to his followers, whom he often referred to as his family or his “little ones.” But 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, the Church Fathers and modern biblical scholars have come up with three completely different interpretations of today’s Gospel message.
The traditional interpretation is that Christians should help Christians. The idea is that Jesus is addressing Christians throughout the nations of the world and warning them that they will be judged by how they treat other Christians in need. (The hidden assumption is that non-Christians are just plain out of luck.) This is the interpretation that you will find espoused by most Church Fathers. And this is the interpretation that was preached to Christian congregations up to the beginning of the 19th Century.
In the 19th Century, the interpretation of this Gospel reading took a universalist turn: everybody should help everybody. In this new understanding, 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 his followers. This interpretation is appealing to Christian universalists. It provides everyone a chance for salvation—even if they have never heard of Jesus Christ, even if they have utterly rejected Jesus Christ! In this view, the key to salvation is good works, and faith does not really play a role.
Both of these interpretations share a common factor, namely, that each of you is called to do something good for someone who needs help. If you do it, you receive the reward, admittance into God’s Kingdom. If you don’t, you get the penalty, eternal punishment in fire.
More recently, biblical scholars have come up with a third interpretation: unbelievers better help suffering Christians—or else! They argue 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. So, in this scenario, Jesus is not, in fact, 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 be persecuted. But when the Last Day comes, the unbelieving Gentiles who rule the world will be judged by how well they treated the beleaguered Christian community.
At this point, let me recap the three possible interpretations of the Gospel reading. The traditional interpretation is that Christians should help one another. In the 19th-century universalist interpretation, Jesus is telling the whole world that they should help those in need. Lastly, the 20th-century interpretation is that unbelievers will be judged by how they have treated suffering Christians.
Which interpretation do I favor? I’m not going to tell you! I want you to pick! I ask you to open your heart and choose the message that challenges you the most. Maybe you have been ignoring suffering people in our own faith community and need to hear message #1: Care for your fellow Christians when they are suffering in body, mind, or spirit, and you will be richly rewarded. Maybe you have shut yourself off from all the suffering you hear about on the TV news and 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. And just maybe you yourself have been suffering hurt and neglect and need to hear message #3: You are not insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Christ the King values you so much, that the unbelieving rulers of this world will be judged by how well they responded to your suffering.
If you choose to take to heart message #1 and feel called to help fellow Christians in the parish, you can donate to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund or come with me on a pastoral visit. If message #2 challenges you the most and you are looking for ways to serve the suffering, whether or not they are Christians, I can offer a couple of suggestions. You can help feed dinner to the homeless on January 4, or you can buy a Christmas gift for a resident of a homeless shelter. And you know, even if you are drawn to message #3, the one that speaks of the need for unbelievers to help suffering Christians, it wouldn’t hurt you to make a special donation or come on a pastoral call or feed the homeless or buy a present for someone who’s down on his luck. I suspect that Christ the King would be very pleased indeed.
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.