by Ellen Sims
Seventy-eight-year-old Mattie Rigsbee embodies today’s Gospel text. I’ve mentioned this loveable character from Southern literature before, and you can meet her for yourself in Clyde Edgerton’s novel, Walking Across Egypt. Mattie makes the best fried chicken and pies and biscuits. A widow, she lives alone in small-town North Carolina. She’s a Southern Baptist who plays hymns on her piano at night, her late husband’s picture looking down upon her. One night she muses, “Well, after all was said and done, after all was said and done, she had Jesus. She would always have Jesus. But. But it wadn’t his way to come in and keep you company. You couldn’t cook for him” (Edgerton 76).
Within the first pages you’ll learn of Mattie’s dark secret. She watches All My Children on her TV at 1:00 each weekday. It’s not just watching a soap that Mattie is hiding from friends and neighbors. It’s her habit of wathcing her show without washing her dishes from lunch first. As the novel begins, Mattie has turned on the TV, ready for her guilty pleasure, forgetting she’d earlier removed the bottom of her rocking chair so it could be re-covered.
After turning on the television, Mattie “slowly walked backward . . . toward the rocker. Her left hand reached behind her to find the chair arm. She had started sitting down when a mental picture flashed into her head: the chair without a bottom. But her leg muscles had already gone lax. She was on the way down. Gravity was doing its job. She continued on past the customary stopping place, her eyes fastened to the New Blue Cheer box on the TV screen, her mind screaming no, wondering what bones she might break, wondering how long she was going to keep going down, down, down.”
“When she jolted to a stop, the backs of her thighs and a spot just below her shoulders were pinched together tightly. Her arms were over her head. Her bottom was one inch from the floor. . . . She was wedged tightly. What was she going to do? She looked at Erica on the TV screen. In a straight line were Mattie’s eyes, her knees, and Erica’s face.”
Here’s how Mattie’s mind works. She assessed quickly: “Nothing seemed broken.” And then the terror: “Lord have mercy—what if Alora comes in the back door and sees me watching this program? Then she will see my dishes stacked over there . . . . I’ve GOT to get up” (Edgerton 9-10).
I love Mattie for her little sins. And for her way of reading the Bible, which I’ll get to.
Mattie is soon rescued from her rocker. But her adults children are really starting to worry about her. Not about being gobbled up by her rocking chair again. But Mattie has begun taking in stray dogs and feeding every Tom, Dick, and Harry at her kitchen table. What’s worse, her children learn she’s harboring an escaped juvenile delinquent. They must save her from her own benevolence. But Mattie’s rationale for her actions confounds them. She explains she’s been caring for Wesley Benfiend, newly escaped from juvenile detention, because he’s a “least-of-these-my-brethren.” And Mattie quotes from Matthew 25, in the King James, of course. She explains to her son about the “least of these my brethren.”
“Matthew says . . . ‘Whatso ye do unto one of the least of these my brethren you do also to me. . . . ‘ It was Jesus talking about people in prison. In prison. Wesley is certainly ‘one of the least of these my brethren.’”
“I’ll say.” Robert sipped his coffee. “You’ve already done for him, Mama. You’ve already done I don’t know what. Doesn’t the Bible say when to stop?”
Mattie pauses. The reader can imagine her running through the Bible verses filed away in her 78-year-old brain. “No. Not that I know of.” No, it does not (Edgerton 176-177).
When are we to stop doing for “the least of these my brethren”?
When the laws of our country make it difficult for us to welcome and care for the stranger? Is that when we can stop caring for those fleeing violence and starvation? Or when the sick are contagious with and stigmatized by a terrible disease? Is that when we can turn our backs on them? Or when our neighbors and family disagree with us about our church’s welcome and affirmation for LGBT folks? Can we stop caring for those on the margin then? Or maybe when those in prison are mentally ill? Do we have to visit them then? When our culture insists we should be suspicious of people of different races and religions? Do we stop caring at that point? When we have worked hard to make a living and suspect that those without a home and enough food just haven’t worked hard enough for theirs? When a hurricane devastates an island that is a territory, not a state, within our nation? When terrorists attack people at worship but those worshipers are Muslim? When caring for our planet’s air and seas and soil requires us to make inconvenient sacrifices? Does the Bible say we can stop caring then?
No. No, it does not.
Oh, I know we must discern where to put our energies and learn our own limits. Discernment becomes hard when there are so many “least of theses.” And then we must decide HOW to “give a cup of cold water” in Jesus’s name. By donating to a charity? By writing our legislators? By looking out for our neighbors? By protesting a systemic injustice? By dismantling a system and creating a new one?
Open Table three years ago used a careful discernment process to create a signature ministry for LGBT youth we at that time identified as among “the least of these” we might serve in our community. And perhaps in the coming year we will begin another similar discernment process to consider a new community ministry. Because Mattie Rigsbee is right. Jesus never told us when to stop forgiving or caring or giving second chances to or interceding for or defending any of the least, the last, the lost.
Mattie’s also right in understanding that the core of Jesus’s teaching and his clearest expression of how we will ultimately be judged is by our treatment of “the least.” His metaphor was probably inspired by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God separating the sheep into two groups: the fat sheep who’ve pushed the weaker ones aside and the lean sheep who’ve been butted and scattered; the sheep who drink clean water but foul it for the rest, and those left with dirty water. And what an apt image for the way corporations have grown fat by literally fouling the water of “the least of these.” To those who grow fat by taking from the lean sheep, Ezekiel speaks a word of emphatic judgment. And Jesus, in this his final parabolic sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, extends Ezekiel’s teaching.
Remember that the first sermon of Jesus, according to Matthew, begins as Jesus blesses the meek, the mournful, the persecuted—in other words, “the least.” In this, his final public address and the summation of his teachings, Jesus blesses those who stand with and care for the meek, the mournful, the persecuted. Speaking to his followers, Jesus takes Ezekiel’s message and his own earlier sermon further to say not simply that divine judgment favors the weak, but that those who support the weak are to be rewarded as if they’d treated him in the same way. Jesus imagines God’s justice demanding that we lift up those in need and those who serve those in need.
Of course, the powers of this world disagree. In fact, the next chapter of Matthew begins as Jesus predicts his crucifixion and as the chief priests and elders conspire to arrest and kill him.
For anyone who understands hell in literal terms, this is the scripture that most clearly speaks to a judgment in the life to come. But note that the righteous who are rewarded are not those who believe certain things about Jesus. They are the ones who feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. But those who do not care for the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—will meet with eternal punishment. Our doctrinal understandings have no bearing on our eternal destinations, according to this sermon. Despite what most Evangelicals say, there is one simple determiner for how we are judged: Did we care for the least among us? Nothing in this passage says we have to ask Jesus to forgive our sins in order to go to heaven or that we have to pray a certain prayer asking Jesus to be our “Lord and Savior.” Nothing in this lesson teaches that only the baptized will be ushered into eternal life with God. It’s curious that biblical literalists do not, as far as I can tell, take literally this climactic sermon of Jesus and the one time he speaks explicitly about the criteria for entering an eternal state that could be called heaven or hell.
For those like me who do not understand hell in literal terms, we can hear Jesus recognizing that one way of treating others deserves holy condemnation; the other warrants holy praise. How a just and loving Spirit condemns or approves is suggested in metaphorical terms: there are eternal consequences if you do or do not care for “the least of these.” Only a community that cares for the least will have any hope of producing that which has enduring significance and will be able to survive far into the future. The Universe does judge which ways are conducive for flourishing.
I find it strange the literalists read into this text a literal hell, but they do NOT read the main point of Jesus’s last address literally. He says explicitly who are the sheep and who are the goats: those who care for the least and those who don’t. If you read this sermon literally, you must conclude that failing to feed the hungry consigns you to eternal fires—not your beliefs about Jesus or God or the Church.
But Evangelicals, who certainly think themselves compassionate, keep insisting that one’s beliefs send you to heaven or hell, misunderstanding “faith” (pistis in Greek) as an intellectual assent to a doctrinal point rather than a life of faithfulness to the way of Jesus. In so doing, they perpetuate an unnecessary tension in the old “faith versus works” debate and make faith a one-time-only act of signing on the dotted line of a belief statement rather than a lifelong attempt to follow Jesus or, for nonChristitans, to follow in the way of compassion. They can see that sheep and goats are meant figuratively, but not the “eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41). The televangelists who condemn gays, Muslims, alcoholics, and women who have had abortions have not understood Matthew 25. They have not. Matthew 25 separates the sheep from the goats by their care for the least.
Our daughter is a public defender. Almost all of her clients are mentally ill. Most are racial minorities. Many are illiterate. Some speak no English. All are indigent. They are the thirsty, hungry, friendless, ill, imprisoned. On her Facebook page, under her occupation as a Public Defender, she states simply “Serving the least of these.” That is her vocation. I think that is OUR vocation, too, the vocation of any Jesus follower. To serve the least of these. We will know God’s kin*dom has arrived when the least and the lambs are at the head of the line.
Thy kingdom come.