Your Letter of Reference to the Last Judgment

by Dan Clendenin

For Sunday November 23, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24

Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1–7

Ephesians 1:15–23

Matthew 25:31–46

           It's been twenty-seven weeks of "ordinary time" since the last church feast on Pentecost Sunday — an entire half-year. Next Sunday begins a new church year with the season of Advent. But before then, this last Sunday of the liturgical year confronts us with the Last Judgment at the end of time.

           Matthew 25:31–46 raises several complicated questions. Is this a parable or not? The last judgment is of "all the nations." There's language about eternal reward and punishment. And both the blessed and the cursed are surprised by their destinies. But these important questions shouldn't obscure a simple truth.

           In the words of James Forbes, the former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, "Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor."

Christ separates the sheep from the goats, 6th-century mosaic from Ravenna, the Church of Appolinare Nuovo.
Christ separates the sheep from the goats, 6th-century
mosaic from Ravenna, the Church of Appolinare Nuovo.

           "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat," said Jesus, "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."

           To follow Jesus means to care for the poor. There's no other way.

           Last week I read a book by two people who've spent their lives struggling against "the insomnia of the scandal of poverty." It's called In the Company of the Poor; Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez (2013).

           Father Gutiérrez (b. 1928) is a Dominican priest and theologian who splits his time between his parish in Lima, Peru, where for fifty years he has lived and worked among the poor, and teaching at Notre Dame University. In 1971 he published a game-changer of a book called A Theology of Liberation, which established his reputation as the "father of liberation theology" and made famous the notion of a "preferential option for the poor."

           Farmer was born the same year that Gutiérrez was ordained (1959). He's a Harvard MD and PhD (anthropology), clinician, tuberculosis specialist, author of numerous books and scholarly articles, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, and Professor of Medical Anthropology at Harvard Medical School — when he's not living in a hut in his beloved Haiti, where he founded Partners in Health, or traveling a quarter million miles a year to lecture, visit prisons, or meet with George Soros or the Gates Foundation. His story is told by Tracy Kidder in the remarkable book Mountains Beyond Mountains.

           When Farmer was in college he read Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians. When he founded Partners in Health in 1987, he took his legal mission statement for incorporation directly from Gutiérrez: "Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in heath care." His debt to Gutiérrez is further seen in his later book Pathologies of Power (2003).

Sheep and Goats, Italian Mosaic, 1130's, the Apse, San Clemente, Rome.
Sheep and Goats, Italian Mosaic, 1130's, the Apse, San Clemente, Rome.

           Both men reject the many "explanations" for why so many people are so poor. It's not nobody's fault, or just the way things are. Poverty doesn't result from accidental forces of history. The deplorable disparities between rich and poor aren't inescapable or necessary. Rather, they result from human agency, structural violence, economic policies, and corporate strategies. People are poor because of the choices other people have made.

           And as Farmer likes to point out, disease makes its own preferential option for the poor that leads to early death.

           When people who ministered in the poorest half of the world coined the term "preferential option for the poor" forty years ago, they said something not only about our human choices, but also about an essential aspect of God's character that demands a response. In their view, God is biased, even prejudiced. Far from being neutral or impartial, they argued that God plays favorites, you might say, by bestowing special favor on the dispossessed. And he asks us to do the same.

           This wasn't a new idea. It's a prominent theme throughout Scripture, especially in prophets like Amos and poetry like Psalm 146. When Paul met with the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he says that "the only thing they asked us to do was to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:10). For ten years, as he itinerated among groups of new believers, Paul organized a famine relief effort for the people in Jerusalem. In Acts, Luke describes the "daily distribution of food" to widows. James says that "true and undefiled religion" is to care for widows and orphans.

Jesus separating people at the Last Judgement, by Fra Angelico, 1432-1435.
Jesus separating people at the Last Judgement, by Fra Angelico, 1432-1435.

           A hundred years later, Tertullian wrote how God had a "peculiar respect" for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the "distinctive sign" of believers. Even the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363), who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged the Christian preferential option for the poor: "The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours."

           In his book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013), Gary Anderson notes that Christian care for the poor isn't just a utilitarian act of social justice (Bill Gates does that), an altruistic act with no element of self-interest or expectation of reward (per Kant), and not even merely a sign of a believer's personal faith (per the Protestant Reformers). Rather, care for the poor is "the privileged way to serve God."

           We care for the poor not out of guilt, ascetic renunciation (although God calls some people to that path), some communistic ideal that loathes private property, nor because the poor are virtuous. Rather, in serving the poor we care for our own souls by imitating the character of God himself. Only in heaven, said Mother Teresa, will we understand how much we owe the poor for helping us to love God like we should.

           And what about hell and final judgment that's mentioned in Matthew 25:31–46? In the very last sentence of his chapter "Hell" in his book The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis put it this way: "This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me."

Image credits: (1) Brooklyn College; (2) At the Edge of the Enclosure; and (3)