LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — “Get out your Bibles.” In order to understand the message of Matthew 25, go back to Matthew 23. This is how Lisa Sharon Harper – author of “The Very Good Gospel” and founder and president of FreedomRoad.us, a consulting group that convenes forums that bring common understanding and action toward a just world – began the plenary session on Jan. 31 at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual event in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Harper explained that while Jesus in Matthew 25 may give a word of hope and promise, just two chapters prior, Jesus was saying: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! You snakes! You are filth!
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus declared judgment of the nations. Harper read, “all of the nations will be gathered” from verse 32, and noted that this did not refer to nation-states as currently thought of in terms of modern countries. Instead it is “people groups or ethnic groups” and means that “all the people groups will be gathered before God.” And God will “separate the people groups one from another,” she said. However, “we don’t know what to do with that,” so it gets retranslated and individualized. But the text does not talk about individuals, she said, “the text talks about groups.”
Harper read on: “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.”
She said reading these words made her curious. She wondered what Jesus meant when he said, “I was hungry.” Harper said she studied the original word and learned that its intention had a meaning closer to “hangry” or that “I was famished.” She learned that to be naked meant “stripped” and to “have been stripped of everything” and all possessions, not by choice. Harper said she learned that Jesus hadn’t meant “sick” as in merely under the weather, but “diseased.” But when Jesus talked about prison – “that word prison means prison, so there you go.”
Harper considered this Scripture in terms of righteousness, justice and equity. She invited participants to imagine she stood before them holding two buckets of coins: one contained 1,000 gold coins and the other 1,000 pennies. She asked: Do they contain an equal amount of coins? Yes. And then, “Is their value equitable?”
She then invited participants to consider a soccer team. As a fan of the World Cup herself, she wondered what would happen if there was a rule-abiding team who made it to the World Cup, but was required to play on a field with a 45-degree incline. “This team will never win the World Cup,” she said, and asked: What would it take to make this fair and to truly level the playing field? She invited responses which included taller players, switching sides at half-time and even turning the field a quarter so that everyone would have the same slant. But to equitably level the playing field, Harper said, would require the just ones to stand up and take it upon themselves to refuse to stand by and watch a team face these rules.
Going back to the Scripture, Harper read that the people asked: When did we do all of this? And the king replied: Truly I tell you that when you did these things to the least of these, you did it to me.
Jesus did not say, “Because I love the vulnerable, you need to love them,” Harper explained; instead he said, “They are me.”
“It is not possible to love Jesus and be OK with inequity,” Harper said. “So the ones of equitable character and action look at the food system” and ask how to make the distribution of good food more equitable. Or they look at our immigration system and ask: “Who is getting more welcome here and who is not being welcomed here? And how can we change the way things work so welcome is distributed equitably?” The message of Matthew 25, Harper said, is that the just ones could not stand a world where people had to play on uneven fields.
“The rule of law, though often not practiced, the expectation of it, is what stands between the mass oppression of the vulnerable and their protection,” Harper said. So, as Christians talk about equity and leveling playing fields, she said, they are at a moment “where the vulnerable are becoming more vulnerable” and the church “must stand up” and must call for the restoration of justice.
Then Jesus “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,’ “ Harper read from Matthew 25:41.
“People don’t like to talk about hell. Jesus talks about hell,” she said, noting that Jesus does not talk about hell in the way that most of the church understands hell. “Jesus, the one who went into the grave, the one who beat death — Jesus says that equity – justice – is the thing that is going to make the difference.”
“If you have the Holy Spirit in you, you will do as the Holy Spirit does,” she said. So, “Jesus takes his homies across the street to look at the temple” — the very ones he argued with and called snakes in Matthew 23. Harper said that these scribes and Pharisees believed they were the chosen ones because of their race as Jews.
She said, “They believe their race will save them, but I believe that Jesus just created a new people group” that will be saved: the just ones, the equitable ones. The question for the church is: “Will we be among the just ones?”