This is the second essay in a special series on racism and social injustice: What God Expects from Us Now.
Since George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis and the ensuing protests and riots, I have felt overwhelmed with emotions and questions. I have been reading articles and editorials every day. I have been listening to blacks and whites talking, preaching, warning, advising, and arguing about racism and injustice in America. I have been watching troubling documentaries and historically-based movies on the history of race relations, law enforcement, and the justice system in recent years.
It’s not just what’s being said or portrayed that’s making me feel so upset. It’s the underlying reality of widespread disparities between whites and blacks, and a whole set of troubling societal issues, stemming from years of slavery followed by 135 years of (at times) improving, yet often pitiable, treatment of African-Americans in my country. Intelligent people are fiercely debating causes and responsibility, as they should be. But, at this point, I’m more concerned with what is actually going to produce meaningful change?
So much is needed to reduce racism and create a more just society; but here, for a moment, let’s step back from the intense emotion of these issues–not to diminish our passion to thoroughly understand what is going on, what has led to this point, and to eliminate racial discrimination. Our passion for these goals should increase, not decrease. However, at the same time, as followers of Christ, we also need to create enough space to let the Holy Spirit bring some needed, fresh perspective to us from the Bible.
What would Jesus say about all this?
The parable of the sheep and the goats
In Matthew 25, Jesus references the great Judgment Day, when the Son of Man (a reference to himself, God’s messiah, who will ultimately rule the world) will separate the “sheep” from the “goats.” The sheep, on his right hand, will inherit the Kingdom of God. The goats, on his left, will be cursed and sentenced to eternity in Hell, along with the devil and his angels.
If you’re not accustomed to this kind of preaching, Jesus was employing a popular way in his day to get people’s attention. The rhetoric was stark, frightening, and powerful, based on a core theological conviction found in all Western religious traditions: those who do what is right in God’s eyes will be rewarded. Those who do not will face eternal punishment.
And what will be the basis for judgment?
To the sheep, the King will say:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Matt. 25:34-36, NRSV
When the perplexed righteous ask when they had ever done these things for him, Jesus will explain:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’Matthew 25:40, NRSV
See God in Jesus
By talking in this way, Jesus is telling us something very important about God and about what God expects from us, his creation. He’s saying, God cares deeply about human suffering, and those who want to please God will, too. Or, else.
Christians know from the full teaching of the Bible that we cannot save ourselves, by our own good deeds, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. However, especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we also know that true believers are called to live righteously, which means, above all, to show love to others in concrete ways. And not just toward our families and people we like or who love us. Jesus taught that we’re to love everyone, even our enemies.
Jesus, himself, showed us what this kind of non-discriminatory love looks like. For example, he identified with the poor and marginalized in ways that contradicted the dominant views of his day. By associating with the “least” (not least in God’s eyes, but those who hold the lowest status in society), and by welcoming and treating everyone (except the hypocritical authorities) with respect and kindness, Jesus provides a basis for dignity and self-respect for even the most discouraged, downtrodden person.
Then, he was killed. Jesus was crucified, because he dared to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves, and to fulfill the will of God that he die for the sins of the world. By God’s mysterious design, Jesus’s ignominious death wound up simultaneously judging humankind’s self-serving, unjust ways and showing us the breathtaking extent of God’s love.
In Jesus, we see who God is and what god-likeness (godliness) looks like in a social context. God is just, in condemning discrimination, exploitation, and neglect of the needy; and God is loving, kind, and merciful, in welcoming and caring for those who cry out to him for forgiveness and help in their time of need.
See Jesus in “others”
I met Kevin T. at Holmesburg maximum security prison in Philadelphia, which was officially closed in 1995, after decades of abusive and exploitative treatment of prisoners. I was only 23 years old, serving as a part time prison chaplain, while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Looking back, I realize I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I cared. I wanted to do something. I was willing to learn and to try.
Kevin was also a young man, but his future outlook was far different than mine. He was serving a life sentence, for murder. I had never met a murderer before. I didn’t know what to expect. What was both comforting and disturbing was that Kevin seemed rather normal. As I got to know him I could see his humanity. I could feel our brotherhood, in spite of his crimes.
One day, I drove my old Catalina across town to search for his parents. I knocked on the door of an old, two story building, in a dilapidated part of town. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only white person on the block, and probably in the whole neighborhood. Peering down at a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it, I silently prayed that I was in the right place.
When the door opened, I introduced myself and was taken to a big open room in the back. I’ll never forget the shock and the deep, deep sadness that I saw in the eyes of Kevin’s father. He was hunched over a table, surrounded by maybe a dozen family members. They weren’t expecting me. They weren’t expecting anyone like me, ever.
In that first awkward moment, I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I just wanted to show that I cared and wanted to help their son, if I could. Fortunately, they quickly welcomed me and invited me to sit and talk. It turned out, they didn’t want anything more from me. My visit was enough.
The parable of the sheep and goats challenges us to think carefully about who we think God is, where we find him, and what God expects of followers of Jesus in a world full of suffering and need, racial discrimination and injustice.
In the parable, Jesus doesn’t focus on who’s to blame for social problems. He doesn’t analyze why some people are poor, some are in prison, others are hungry, etc., as if we should first decide if someone is worthy of our help before caring or taking action. No, Jesus teaches us to first respond to “others” with compassion, mercy, and kindness, as if we were caring for Jesus himself.
Kevin deserved to be in prison. It was a just sentence. But when I visited him, and when I visited his grief-stricken parents, I experienced God’s loving presence through the encounters. I felt it. They felt it. And the racial barriers began melting away.
I learned, what I have experienced hundreds of times since, that when we get over our fears and prejudices to reach out to those who are different from us, from a place of genuine love and respect, beautiful things often happen. When we give of ourselves to someone in Jesus’s name, we often find that Jesus is already there.
Next week: It’s time.
For those wishing to read the full parable.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. … Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV
Copyright © 2020 Timothy C. Geoffrion, Wayzata, Minnesota. All rights reserved to the author, but readers may freely download, print, forward, or distribute to others, providing that this copyright notice is included.
- George Flyod Memorial, Lucas Jackson – Reuters
- The Last Judgement, from the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.
- Arms stretched to each other, austin-kehmeier via unsplash