The Very Thing I was Eager to Do

By Dan Clendenin

It’s been twenty-seven weeks of “ordinary time” since the last church feast on Pentecost Sunday — an entire half-year. Next Sunday (December 3) begins a new church year with the season of Advent. But before then, this last Sunday of the liturgical year confronts us with the Last Judgment at the end of time.

Matthew 25:31–46 raises several complicated questions. Is this a parable or not? The last judgment is of “all the nations.” There’s language about eternal reward and punishment. And both the blessed and the cursed are surprised by their destinies. But these important questions shouldn’t obscure a simple truth.

In the words of James Forbes, the former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” said Jesus, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

To follow Jesus means to care for the vulnerable. There’s no other way. He says that our judgment in the next life will be based on how we treat the poor in this life.

A while back I read a book by two people who’ve spent their lives struggling against “the insomnia of the scandal of poverty.” It’s called In the Company of the Poor; Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez (2013).

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Christ separates the sheep from the goats, 6th-century mosaic from Ravenna, the Church of Appolinare Nuovo.

Father Gutiérrez (b. 1928) is a Dominican priest and theologian who splits his time between his parish in Lima, Peru, where for fifty years he has lived and worked among the poor, and teaching at Notre Dame University. In 1971 he published a game-changer of a book called A Theology of Liberation, which established his reputation as the “father of liberation theology” and made famous the notion of a “preferential option for the poor.”

Paul Farmer was born the same year that Gutiérrez was ordained (1959). He’s a Harvard MD and PhD (anthropology), clinician, tuberculosis specialist, author of numerous books and scholarly articles, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, and Professor of Medical Anthropology at Harvard Medical School — when he’s not living in a hut in his beloved Haiti, where he founded Partners in Health, or traveling a quarter million miles a year to lecture, visit prisons, or meet with George Soros or the Gates Foundation. His story is told by Tracy Kidder in the remarkable book Mountains Beyond Mountains.

When Farmer was in college he read Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians. When he founded Partners in Health in 1987, he took his legal mission statement for incorporation directly from Gutiérrez: “Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in heath care.” His debt to Gutiérrez is further seen in his later book Pathologies of Power (2003).

Both men reject the many “explanations” for why so many people are so poor. It’s not nobody’s fault, or just the way things are. Poverty doesn’t result from accidental forces of history. The deplorable disparities between rich and poor aren’t inescapable or necessary. Rather, they result from human agency, structural violence, economic policies, and corporate strategies. Some people are poor because of the choices other people have made. And yes, some people are poor because of their own poor choices.

As Farmer likes to point out, disease makes its own preferential option for the poor that leads to early death.

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Sheep and Goats, Italian Mosaic, 1130’s, the Apse, San Clemente, Rome.

When people who were ministering in the poorest half of the world coined the term “preferential option for the poor” forty years ago, they said something not only about our human choices, but also about God’s character. In their view, God is biased, even prejudiced. Far from being neutral or impartial, they argued that God plays favorites, you might say, by bestowing special favor on the dispossessed. And he asks us to do the same.

This isn’t a new idea. It’s a prominent theme throughout Scripture, especially in prophets like Amos and poetry like Psalm 146. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute,” says Proverbs 31:8.

When Paul met with the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he says that “the only thing they asked us to do was to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). For ten years, as he traveled among groups of new believers, Paul organized a famine relief effort for the people in Jerusalem. In Acts, Luke describes the “daily distribution of food” to widows. James says that “true and undefiled religion” is to care for widows and orphans.

A hundred years later, Tertullian wrote how God had a “peculiar respect” for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the “distinctive sign” of believers. Even the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363), who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged the Christian preferential option for the poor: “The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours.”

In his book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale, 2013), Gary Anderson notes that Christian care for the poor isn’t just a utilitarian act of social justice (Bill Gates does that), an altruistic act with no element of self-interest or expectation of reward (per Kant), and not even merely a sign of a believer’s personal faith (per the Protestant Reformers). Rather, care for the poor is “the privileged way to serve God.”

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Jesus separating people at the Last Judgement, by Fra Angelico, 1432–1435.

We care for the poor not out of guilt, ascetic renunciation (although God calls some people to that path), some communistic ideal that rejects private property, nor because the poor are virtuous. Rather, in serving the poor we care for our own souls by imitating the character of God himself. Only in heaven, said Mother Teresa, will we understand how much we owe the poor for helping us to love God like we should.

Care for the poor is one of the things that the church has done well. You find it all over the world by all types of Christians. There are far too many examples one could give, but consider just these four.

In 2012, the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa had over 4,500 nuns serving the poorest of the poor in 133 countries. The Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 has over 185 communities that are committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. In 1950, the Baptist minister Bob Pierce (1914–1978) founded World Vision with the words, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Today World Vision is a billion dollar a year relief agency. Millard Fuller (1935–2009) was a self-made millionaire by age twenty-nine who renounced his wealth to follow Jesus. He joined an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms, and out of that context founded Habitat for Humanity that builds housing for the poor all over the world.

Paul says that care for the poor was “the only thing” that the leaders in Jerusalem asked of him, and that it was “the very thing I was eager to do.”

And what about hell and final judgment that’s mentioned in Matthew 25:31–46? In the very last sentence of his chapter “Hell” in his book The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis put it this way: “This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me.”

Image credits: (1) Brooklyn College; (2) At the Edge of the Enclosure; and (3)

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