In biblical times, kings and emperors were recognizable by material splendor. They lived in magnificent palaces, wore sumptuous robes, and presided over lavish banquets and entertainments. Today’s gospel reveals a different kind of king. On the Day of Judgment he is revealed in all his glory, to be sure, but in this world he not only remains incognito but also identifies himself completely with the poorest of the poor: the stranger, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner. Their hardships and sufferings are his hardships and sufferings.
The standard way of reading this parable is to identify ourselves with the sheep and the goats. We hope that in the Day of Judgment we shall be numbered among the sheep, and not among the goats. Read in this way, the parable exhorts and warns us. Practice hospitality. Respond in compassion to human need. In welcoming the stranger and in serving the disadvantaged we welcome and serve Christ himself, often without realizing that we’re doing so.
There is, however, an alternate reading. When the reader identifies with the least of these, the parable takes on a whole new meaning. Some New Testament commentators propose that when Jesus speaks of “the least of these my brethren,” he is referring specifically to his disciples. Thus, on the Last Day all the nations will be gathered before the King’s royal throne and judged by how well they received the Christian missionaries who were sent to them.
The apostolic emissaries of the early Church were after all poor, vulnerable, and dependent on the hospitality of the peoples to whom they brought the gospel. They came as strangers; they needed food, clothing, and shelter. From time to time, they found themselves cast into prison, and perhaps even condemned to death. According to this reading, Christ is promising his disciples that he will always go with them, that those who welcome them likewise welcome him, and that those who reject and abuse them likewise reject and abuse him, and will be judged accordingly.
Both ways of reading the parable are necessary to the fullest appreciation of what Jesus is saying. We need to identify with both the givers and receivers of hospitality in the story. And there’s a real spiritual danger in failing to recognize ourselves among the least of these.
In the Incarnation, Christ has become one of us, sharing in our common humanity. When we separate ourselves from the needy even while helping them — by looking on them from a position of superiority and condescension, perhaps because what we fear most is becoming like them — we separate ourselves from Christ. To truly meet others in their deepest need we must meet ourselves in them, seeing in them the reflection of our own vulnerability and deepest fears. It is in this encounter with ourselves in the face of the other that we encounter Christ himself.
Christ is the incognito king who suffers in our suffering, rejoices in our rejoicing and, on the last day, judges us on the basis of our hospitality, concern, and care for all who share in the same human condition. But if on that day we hope to be counted among the sheep and not the goats, we must learn first to recognize ourselves among the least of these.
Look It Up
Ponder Jesus’ use of little ones in Matthew 10:42 and 18:6ff. Are these little ones the same as the least of these in today’s gospel?
Think About It
“There but for the grace of God go I.” How theologically sound is this slogan?