It’s probably a dangerous undertaking to ask a liberal to preach about Matthew 25. I mean: there it is, the whole Christian progressive social agenda summed up in one pithy Bible story. You want to serve God? Give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. There isn’t a lot more to say about the Christian life, really, than what Jesus offers us in Matthew 25. We serve Jesus by serving others. And note: when Jesus talks of serving others he doesn’t mean just any others. He means the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, what he calls “the least of these”.
Now we could stop there—adding, of course, a few examples from contemporary experience which would give some heft to what we mean by “the least of these”—and we would have honored what Jesus is talking about in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. A contemporary thinker I like very much, Terry Eagleton, wrote a small book last year with the gigantic title, The Meaning of Life. And you might be surprised that Eagleton—a British literary theorist and highly secular philosopher and cultural critic—ends his meditation on life’s meaning with a discussion of just this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. For Eagleton, the genius of Matthew’s 25th chapter lies in the way it takes the “meaning-of-life question” out of the hands of philosophers and “returns it to the routine business of everyday existence.” As he elaborates, “The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought.” Correcting the 17th century priest and poet Thomas Traherne, Eagleton muses, “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.” [The Meaning of Life, pp. 164-165]
There is a lot to be said for the way Terry Eagleton reads this chapter, for the way that a lot of the secular people with whom I find common cause would read it: whether or not we agree about the big questions, certainly we can all find common cause by alleviating human need. Jesus himself seems to turn us from a consideration of the big questions to an extended parable about meeting him in the service of those who are up against it. Though they might differ on how they would identify what 20th century Republicans used to call “the truly needy” (or 19th century Tories “the deserving poor”), the value of serving others is is a truism that even Gene Robinson and Peter Akinola—not to mention Sarah Palin, Ralph Nader, Bill O’Reilly and Barney Frank—could probably agree on.
And yet, as a follower of Jesus there is something beyond this truism that nags at me, and it’s a verse from the Leviticus reading we heard a few moments ago. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” [Leviticus 19.2b] When Yahweh commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the reason given for that commandment seems simply to be the statement, “I am the LORD.” [Leviticus 19.18] As a follower of Jesus, I want to give a glass of water or a piece of bread to a person in need not only because it’s a nice thing to do but because I believe that in doing so I serve and meet Jesus. As a creature of Yahweh’s, I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself because somehow doing so is all tied up with God and God’s holiness.
I don’t mean here to part company with Terry Eagleton and my liberal friends (or even with compassionate conservatives) on any of this, because frankly I believe as they do that serving the suffering is what Kant called the Ding an sich—the “thing itself” which without any philosophical embroidery is itself the meaning of life. As Christians we play around a lot with symbols, but we should never forget the basic definition of a symbol: that it stands for both itself and the thing it represents. A symbol has to be something real to start with or it can’t represent anything. The rose that stands for love is first of all a real rose. When the writer Mary McCarthy opined that the communion wafer is a symbol of the Holy Ghost, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” [New York Times Book Review 3/1/09] We don’t feed the hungry or visit the sick because they’re symbolic. We feed and visit them because their need has a real claim on us, because they have value in and of themselves. Regardless of what we think about it, serving the oppressed counts for something before we attach any meaning to it at all.
But that Leviticus phrase still flits around the back of my mind: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Once we recognize—as Jesus does--that the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned have value in and of themselves, then we as followers of Jesus can take service to them one step further. In traditional Christian terms, we serve the poor because in them we meet and serve Jesus. In traditional Jewish terms, we attempt to live out God’s holiness in service to those who bear God’s image into the world. Loving your neighbor as yourself turns out to be not just “good works” but a rather high order of piety too.
As we embark on the first full week of Lent together, most of us find ourselves working out a quest for personal and corporate holiness. As we do that both together and alone, let’s remember what today’s readings illuminate for us. Holiness is not some abstract personal quality like serenity or calm. Holiness is living out a response to the need we see everywhere around us. Holiness is loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Holiness is serving the least of these who are members of the human family. We seek to be holy because God is holy. And God lives out God’s holiness by loving and serving the ones made in God’s image, even you and me.
Like the neighbor, the least of these, you are a member of the human family. You, as they do, bear God’s image into the world. Let us use Lent to seek to be holy as God is holy—to recognize and serve the dignity of every human being as a fact with value and meaning in and of itself. This means at least recognizing and accepting your own dignity, that you are someone with meaning and purpose and value. As the Baptismal Covenant puts it, “Let us seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourelf.” Let us seek to be holy, as God is holy. Amen.