I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget speak this morning at a breakfast here at the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA). She always brings it, and today was no exception.
The theme of her message was the 2nd person plural pronoun which modern American English obscures (except in the south where they use y’all). As such when we read Matthew 25 wherein Jesus judges the nations dividing them into sheep and goats we are prone to interpreting it as an individual exhortation to just behavior. But at the beginning of the passage it is explicit that the object of judgment is “the nations” and throughout the pericope the greek uses the 2nd person plural. In other words, the story is about collective judgement.
Hopefully video of Margaret’s excellent speech surfaces and you can listen to all the wonderful points she makes, but I want to make a connected point about the nature of public opinion and reputation.
As I have been observing the work of the Committee on Middle East Issues debating whether to divest from three American corporations who are currently benefiting from the illegal occupation of Palestine, a major component of the debate has been what various other people will think of us. What will our Jewish and Muslim partners and friends think of us if we divest? Or if we don’t? What will the press say? etc…
Then, immediately, these questions are chastened with other questions like: should it even matter to us what other people think? How much should it matter? Are we just seeking approval? Isn’t following our conscience more important? But, on the other hand: Shouldn’t we be concerned how our actions affect and are perceived by others, especially our friends? Doesn’t our reputation have an important effect on how we can do the work of God in the world?
Margaret’s reading of Matthew 25 can help us untangle this thorny problem. The judgment of others upon us matters. We are and we will be judged by how we collectively treat the people Jesus refers to as “the least of these, my brothers and sisters”. We should care whether other people judge us to be a community which cares for the sick, visits the imprisoned, clothes the naked, feeds the hungry and so forth.
But which, other people? The answer is Jesus of course, but the clue which helps us apply that to our relationships in this world comes from Jesus’ direct identification with the “least of these”. Whatever we do or do not do to them we do directly to Jesus. So the people whose judgment of us should matter in our estimation are the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked etc…
When it comes to our reputation with the well-fed, the clothed, the powerful, and the wealthy of the world we shouldn’t care in the slightest. Or else let us hope that we are perceived as disruptive, sympathizers with the victims, and roadblocks to continued injustice.
Here, therefore, is our task to act and live collectively so that the powerless and the oppressed of this world look at our communion and say to themselves and others: y’all feed the hungry. Y’all clothe the naked. Y’all quench the thirst of the thirsty. Y’all care for the sick. Y’all visit the imprisoned. Y’all do these things for us.