I spent this Thanksgiving with my uncle; we are the closest family he has (a four hour drive away), my aunt (his wife) having died a couple years ago and his son (my cousin) spending the holidays in jail. It’s a long story, the details of which don’t need to be divulged. For my uncle, what mattered was that he was still able to share the Thanksgiving meal with family. It also helps that he loves food and Skyler (my wife) is an amazing cook.
The holidays bring with them an increased awareness of family. However, for me, this focus on family began a couple months ago, in relation to my work with refugees. Familial relationships matter in working with refugees. Some refugees have left their families to flee; some have family members who are in “no contact,” meaning, for instance, that a brother left the Bhutanese refugee work to find work in India and has not been heard from since he left, three years ago. The government regulates how we house families (how old children can be before they must be in “same gender” bedrooms…I’ll withhold comments on this governmental investment in constructing “proper” familial structures).
A few months ago, I met with a refugee who has been in the U.S. for many years now and is working on an masters degree in refugee public health issues. He told me about how, when he came, he had a family member here to welcome him and help him navigate the complexities of adjusting to life in the U.S. We talked about how much harder it is for refugees who have no family, no one to welcome them, and how we both wished the church would become family to these refugees and welcome them.
I’ve started using this discussion, coupled with a few verses from Matthew 25 (“I was a stranger and you welcomed me”), to begin my orientation with new churches and volunteers. Every time I do it, though, I feel dishonest. I know the scripture is more complicated than I make it seem.
For instance, Jesus never tells us to seek him in the stranger (or sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, or imprisoned). Nor does Jesus ever promise that we will see him in these people. In fact, the story of judgment presupposes that those who served these people did not know they served Jesus, nor were they expecting to find Jesus there at all. Those who ignored these people likewise did not know who they were ignoring.
What bothers me the most, however, is that the story is not about generic individuals but about two peoples, “the nations” (v. 32) and the king’s “family” (lit. “my brothers,” v. 40), Gentiles and Jews.
The image of the shepherd separating the people comes from Ezekiel 34, where the prophet rages against the “shepherds” of Israel, who not only neglected the sheep (failing to strengthen, feed, heal, search, find, and guide the sheep) but actually fed on the sheep (v. 4-8). God will reject these shepherds (v. 10) and will come and be the shepherd (v. 11) of these scattered and abused people (Israel). In this process, Israel will “no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people” (29-30).
Given this background, the strangers, hungry, sick, and imprisoned should be seen as specifically the scattered and abused people of Israel, Jesus’ “brothers,” or, as Paul puts it in Romans 9 (an important text to keep in the back of our minds here), “my brothers according to the flesh.”
Matthew 25, then, retells a story about Israel’s failed leaders, God’s assumption of that leadership, and the people of Israel being rescued from these poor leaders and the abusive nations into which they were sent. If this is the case, then Jesus’ retelling of Ezekiel’s story of judgment implies that the most important thing we do is not taking care of our own people, or of all generic people, but of this particular people, the people of God, Israel. Our service to, or neglect of, the least of Israel determines our status before God. To neglect Israel is to neglect Israel’s King, and hence to neglect God. Likewise, to serve Israel (the lowliest among them) is to serve Israel’s King, and hence to serve God.
If this were all Jesus meant, then it would be surprising that, upon finishing this story, Jesus is compelled to talk about his crucifixion (26:2) and the leaders begin conspiring to kill him (26:3). What is so scandalous is Jesus’ assertion that he is this Son of Man (a term he uses for himself throughout Matthew), and thus that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s rule, the replacement of the false shepherds (“chief priests and elders” 26:3), and the one through whom Israel and the nations will be blessed. Those who serve him by serving the lost sheep of Israel will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). Jesus has the audacity to declare not just what will happen at the end of time but that he is the one who determines what will happen. Jesus does not just see what will happen; he is what will happen. He is the kingdom, the true ruler, the one who has authority to declare the truth of the end times.
Scripture often plays with the tension between the hidden and revealed, the present age and the age to come. This passage pushes that tension further: for it reveals the basis of judgment that was hidden until the time of judgment. Neither the sheep nor the goats thought that their salvation hinged on what they did with the least of Jesus’ family. Both are surprised–the basis of judgment was hidden from them until the time of judgment. But in the story, in which the basis of judgment is only revealed at the time of judgement, the basis of judgment becomes unveiled before the time of judgment. Unlike the sheep or the goats in the story, we are explicitly told that our judgment depends on serving Jesus through the service to lowly Israel. Through Jesus, we now know what he teaches nobody knew until the time of judgment.
In the story, we are never told why the “righteous” served the lowly of Israel. By telling us–Gentiles!–the basis of judgment, Jesus provides us with a new way of seeing our action. We, the nations, are not left in the dark but are allowed to see the truth of our actions. In Jesus, we outsiders are welcomed into the family of God; in Jesus, we are given access to what has been promised to Israel, the blessings of God’s kingdom. In Jesus, we see that we are in fact bound to Israel, and hence welcomed into the eternal life prepared by Jesus’ Father.
We have no right to hear what Jesus says. We have no right to know about eternal life, or judgment. We have nothing of our own that would make us legitimate heirs. We are reminded at the beginning that we are the nations, those into whom Israel was scattered and by whom Israel was trampled. As these people, the sinful nations, we are now reordered and called into service. We are told to do what we did not know we ought to do–serve God’s people, Israel. We are told to believe what was beyond our knowledge–that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, and hence the ruler of the whole world. We are welcomed, now, to do what was beyond our ability to do–to love (and not seek to destroy) the elect people of God. No longer are the scattered and rebuked people of Israel a sign of our rejection (even their judgment testifies to the fact that they are, and we are not, the people of God). In Jesus, we see that these people are a sign of our hope. In Jesus, we see that they are not a sign of our rejection but a sign of God’s gracious presence to us. In Jesus, we who were “far off” see that we are no longer “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (Eph 2). Jesus tells us what we had no right or ability to know–that we are bound to Israel, to Israel’s King, and hence to the true God of all creation.
It is through our call to welcome scattered Israel that we are also called to welcome the strangers among us, for me specifically, refugees. We approach the refugees, however, not as those on the inside who are gracious enough to welcome them in. We approach them through the knowledge that we ourselves are strangers bound to a people who are not our own, Israel. Our lives are not just open and receptive, capable of accommodating (and assimilating) the “aliens” in our midst. Our lives exceed our control, overflowing our own boundaries. In being bound to Israel, our existence is ecstatic, standing outside of itself. We do not need to guard our own identity; it is already mixed. By being bound to Israel, we are free to be all things to all people: we have nothing at stake in being a pure people, in having a distinct identity, in being peculiar or noteworthy. We have no ability to control or shape our identity; we are bound to another people and told that this binding is an act of grace. We believe, and thus we serve the lowly in Israel, and through this service, we find our lives flowing out into the lives of those around us, to those who are strangers among us, including refugees.
Serving refugees reminds us that our lives are not just supposed to be open but ecstatic, not just receptive but transgressive (“stepping across”). We are called to live in an uncomfortable exchange, a series of flows and leakages. Our lives are to be marked by seepage, by moments that escape our own confines, and we find our own lives strangely intermixed with those beyond our normal boundaries. We do not need to distinguish ourselves from anyone else, for we have already been marked as strangers welcomed into the household of God and therefore we know that nothing is alien to us. The most ungrateful and belligerent refugee is not our project but our brother or sister, another Gentile, a fellow foreigner, called by Jesus into the blessings of God’s people, Israel. We welcome them as family, as one who like us has been called and bound to another people, the Israel of God. We welcome the stranger not just because we were strangers but because Jesus continually calls to become strange again, to recognize and rejoice in our status as foreigners blessed in Israel through Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the creator of heaven and earth.
with thanks to Micah D., for his friendly critiques.