The lectionary text emphasized by the UCC (Matthew 25:31-46) is a celebration of justice work and a condemnation of privilege. Jesus names some of the most common consequences of oppression in his time (lack of nutrition and water, lack of recognition and inclusion, lack of dignity and honor, lack of health care, lack of freedom). He celebrates those who help counter the consequences of oppression and condemns those who don’t.
The basic means by which people are oppressed haven’t changed that much. More ways have been added to the mix, and more ways of rationalizing have been, too. But the basic means of oppression are pretty consistent.
So, the message of Jesus still applies. Support freedom and full life for all, and you will find freedom and life. Perpetuate injustice, and you will feel punished. No justice, no peace. That’s the consequence for those of us who are privileged and do nothing. Similarly, the problem isn’t those who name their hunger, thirst, isolation, exposure, or imprisonment. The problem is those who deny it.
Just to be clear, when I read and write these words, I don’t do it self-righteously. I’m writing and cringing at the same time. Jesus suggests that when I end the suffering of others, I’m serving Jesus. I’m harming Jesus when I don’t. When someone tells me they’re oppressed, I’m listening to Jesus. When I ignore it or deny it or try and silence it or rationalize it or, or, I’m denying Jesus. My cringing is my consequence, not my deliverance.
The reality is I don’t always act as though I’m on Jesus’s side. Jesus makes it clear that this is a choice with harmful spiritual consequences for me and oppressive consequences for those Jesus is in solidarity with. I can try and argue with Jesus as much as I want about the specifics of any one instance of oppression, but until these means of oppression are generally dismantled, the specifics don’t matter as much.
The purity of the messenger doesn’t matter, either. Insisting on a perfect message that can only come from a perfect person gives us the latitude to ignore a whole lot of truth conveniently. We can’t forget that these words in Matthew are being shared by someone whose racism/ethnocentrism was corrected by the Canaanite woman in chapter 15 of this same Gospel.
It’s not unusual to say that the words of Jesus are counter-cultural, but it only becomes apparent how deeply true this is when you try and live into this Jesus kind of solidarity. It’s not merely that you get to establish a counter-cultural safe niche of some sort. If it’s too safe, it’s probably not being effective. Dominant culture will try and crush attempts to resist it. As a false god, it will do everything it can to shape you in its image. It will use laws, financial inducement, social rewards, punishments, insults, and violence. It will use or create political tools, gossip, social media, family systems, theology and science to try and get its way.
The dominant culture makes compliance with it easy and resistance hard. This is one of the places I admit I get caught. We’re wired to have pleasure and pain in our lives, and systems of domination have figured out how to hack this. Jesus points towards the natural joy of doing the right and just thing. The dominant culture frames this as naive, giving up what we “earned” or supporting a person who is unworthy of support. If we do what Jesus suggests is the wrong thing, the dominant culture rewards us for being smart, protecting what we earned, and a sense of superiority/supremacy. Since it uses other people as the raw materials to deliver its rewards, the dominant culture can almost immediately provide its affirmation. The peace Jesus offers can take a while. I sometimes confuse the immediate reward I might receive with the peace I long for.
What Jesus says is simply true. Living out the Jesus Way has been made intentionally complicated by structures created to maintain that which is ultimately out of line with how God created us and what God offers us. The reality that the deep hunger and thirst all our souls have can be fooled by things that create addictive hunger and addictive thirst is part of the systems we have to resist. It’s these insatiable addictions that draw us into what feels like eternal punishments. It’s the freedom from them that offers eternal life.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read or referred to these verses in Matthew. I’ve studied them, too. Yet, I fail, in some way, to live into them almost every day before breakfast (the coffee I drink, the water I use, the electronics I turn on, the home I live in, the news I read uncritically, the recentering I don’t do, _________). It’s not that I don’t also think about ways I might be able to participate in making the world better. I do. Still, these thoughts are frequently compromised by my internal bargaining that tries to figure out what I can let go of without really losing anything. I might be willing to help feed those who are hungry charitably with that which I have in access but not justly in a way that we all have what we need.
Jesus starts off this lesson with words in verse 34 that sometimes get lost in the words that come after it. “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kin-dom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food…” A world in which people are hungry, thirsty, treated as a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned is not the world God set up for us. There is another option. It’s there. It’s prepared. It’s waiting to welcome us home. When we’re confronted with the injustice in the world and the part we play in it or how we’re victimized by it, we know something is vitally wrong. We’re tapping into the reality that there is another way of being.
There is another place for us all. We can’t get there alone or confirm we’ve arrived unilaterally. We can only figure out a way to inherit this and identify what our arrival will look like, together.
——–Rev. Mike Denton Conference Minister of The Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Church of Christ
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