From the Summer 2014 edition of The Catalyst
All of us who went to Sunday School know the kinds of people Jesus hung around with: the people looked down on by the dominant culture, those who were bad or different — or maybe just a bit scary. People like drug addicts, transgender people, and those struggling with mental illness. And what did Jesus tell us about them? “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
But perhaps that isn’t the version your Sunday School teacher was familiar with. Perhaps your church, like mine, had the idea that the marginalized people Jesus hung around with — tax collectors, prostitutes, and fishermen — were people who lived back then. After all, every Sunday School student knows that Samaritans and Centurions don’t actually exist anymore. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know Jewish people existed anymore! No, these were characters in a story which happened a long time ago, not part of the narrative of faith which governs our daily lives.
In my experience, the gospel story itself is often boiled down to a set of principles that I’m tempted to hide behind. In seminary, we studied the Creeds and the councils; Church history and dogmatics; atonement, reformation and consubstantiation. But rarely did we spend time studying the life of Jesus, the simple “wheres” and “whos” and “whats.”
In our hurry to make meaning out of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we sometimes fail to stop and make meaning out of his life. Jesus did not just happen to stumble upon the underdogs of society on his way toward the cross. He didn’t just find himself talking to the woman at the well that day. If anyone has ever lived life intentionally, it was Jesus, the one who dwelt among us to show us how to be truly human.
Perhaps the popular ’90s slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” could become “Who did Jesus hang out with?” Jesus, both brother-human and God-among-us, believed that the people he spent time with mattered. Their concerns were his concerns. We often repeat Matthew 25: “When I was hungry you fed me… Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.” But Jesus went well beyond this. He lived with the poor in their poverty. He walked with those who were mentally ill in their illness. He entered the homes of the tax collectors. He sat and chatted with other kinds of society’s unwanteds and outcasts.
Most of us aren’t accustomed to thinking of people in our lives as the least of these. We often assign this category to people living far away. But every time and place has groups of people who are unwanted and unwelcome. It’s part of our human brokenness.
One of my neighbours is a single mom from a northern First Nation. Her child doesn’t identify with usual gender categories. My neighbour didn’t finish college and she struggles with a serious mental illness. I can’t imagine how many times she has been made to feel like she doesn’t belong in my neighbourhood because she doesn’t fit the model. Yet if Jesus came to my block today, I have no doubt that she is the person he’d choose to hang out with.
The people our culture calls “least” are the ones Jesus has called “great” in God’s kingdom. They are the ones who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear God’s in-breaking reign in ways which I cannot. They are the precious ones, the ones who go unnamed on our streets but whom Jesus calls by name. Remember Mary in the garden on Easter morning? To any bystander, she was just a poor nameless woman but when Jesus called her name, it was all that mattered.
Perhaps more than being fed, clothed, or visited, the least of these long to be called by name. They long for another to look into their eyes and see there the precious image of God, so dear to God’s heart that Jesus spent his days on earth with people just like them. Once we know someone’s name, once we begin to spend time with the people Jesus did, we begin to see their needs as they do. They are no longer a “cause” or an issue of tolerance or even human rights; they are our brothers and sisters.
And for my brother or sister, I would do anything.