Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
—Jesus, according to Matthew
I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.
Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.
The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.
The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.
the sheep and the goats
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right (the sheep), ‘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 (the goats), ‘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.”
the story’s meaning
This story is, of course, a metaphor, a kind of lengthy parable about life inside and outside of the kingdom of God. It speaks to the essence of following Jesus in the here and now, regardless of future rewards or punishment. The important thing is to demonstrate compassion and empathy in both our personal and political lives.