‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Recently I worshipped in the church where I was baptized, in a city I haven’t lived in for 35 years, on the exact 45th anniversary of my baptism. I hadn’t planned this, and only realized the date in the middle of the service. It was very special to feel that God had arranged this little celebration for me. Forty-five years as a Christian, probably just as long knowing this passage, and mostly finding it the scariest passage in the New Testament. It is scary, isn’t it? At least the second half is scary, when the ‘accursed’ are castigated for having failed to feed Jesus when he was hungry, clothe him when he was naked, visit him when he was sick or in prison.
And yet, it took me almost the whole of that 45 years as a Christian to notice something I’d never noticed before in this parable (for I think it is a parable, rather than a literal description of the Last Judgement). I’d always read it as though this were a judgement on individuals for how they had treated the needy. But then I saw it: ‘All the nations will be gathered before him.’ Yes, nations. Now I know that the next bit says ‘he will separate people’. And I know that ‘nations’ in a biblical context often means the Gentiles, or those who do not belong to the ‘chosen people’. Even so – it’s striking that this does not appear to be a gathering of unrelated people, but a gathering of nations. Is it stretching interpretation too far, to suggest that it is not only good or bad, kind or cruel (or apathetic) individuals who are here being tested by their actions, but whole nations?
With this approach, I find the whole story a lot less scary. On my own, I can only feed a very limited number of the hungry, clothe a few naked, visit one or two sick or in prison. I am bound to fail. But as a member of a nation, I can hold my nation to account, through my voting and/or campaigning, on whether it has fulfilled its duty to the neediest. And I can, through my taxes, and through calling for my taxes to be used for this purpose, contribute to my nation’s feeding of the hungry, clothing of the naked… you know the rest.
In the UK, which is my nation of birth and residence (though not my nation of parentage!) it is glaring clear to me at the moment that my government is not feeding the hungry, but making them hungrier; not clothing the naked, but creating a society where parents have to choose whether to feed their children or themselves, where pensioners have to choose between heating and eating – or perhaps between whether they die of starvation or of hypothermia. I believe this scary story calls me not only to care for the needy individuals I encounter, through friendship or volunteering, but also to fight in every way I can for a government that will recognize its responsibilities outlined in Matthew 25. If it does not, its claim to be a ‘Christian nation’ (and I’m not sure such a thing exists) rings very hollow indeed.