There are many ways to read this. What follows, is just another:
Matthew 25:31-46If you focus on the central issue here, it is that Jesus (God) identifies with the poor, the prisoners, the stranger; the naked, the sick. That can be a revelation: "Truly I tell you, just as you did/did not...you did/did not...to me." But there is another revelation hidden in it, one completely in keeping with the words of the Hebrew Prophets:
25:31 "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.
25:32 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,
25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
25:34 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;
25:35 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,
25:36 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.'
25:37 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?
25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
25:40 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.'
25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
25:44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'
25:45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Woe to him who says,Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB), emphasis added.
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.
The lesson of Jeremiah is bit clearer, but it is the lesson of the parable: when a society (in Jeremiah's day represented by the king; in our day, by you and me) upholds the cause of the lowly and poor, then all is well with that society, and it knows the Lord (the Creator, the Source. I will not apologize for applying this religious lesson in a contemporary secular context. Feel the barbs as and where you will.) When you care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, you do it not for the lowest alone, but for the highest as well. To misunderstand this parable and think it only means God is present in the outcast, and so you should do it to curry God's favor, or to show God you care about God, is to reinforce the ladder of the Great Chain of Being.
The Great Chain ran from the lowest creature up to God at it's pinnacle, and it reinforced a hierarchy as surely as cries of "Class Warfare" in American politics today reinforces the position of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless:
'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
He, who thro' vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What vary'd being peoples every star,
May tell why heav'n has made us as we are.
But of this frame the bearings and the ties,
The strong connections, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look'd thro'? or can a part contain the whole?
Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,
And drawn support, upheld by God, or thee?
Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less?
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why Jove's Satellites are less than Jove?
Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
That wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain,
There must be, somewhere, such a rank as man:
And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
Respecting man whatever wrong we call,
May, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho' labour'd on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God's, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains;
When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now an Egypt's god:
Then shall man's pride and dullness comprehend
His actions', passions', being's, use and end;
Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
The Chain, said Pope, is part of God's plan, part of God's purpose. That chain remains in the teachings of the Gospel of Wealth, where God's purpose now is not to make any of us slaves, but all of us deities. It is, in any conception, a pernicious goal.
But if we read the parable as merely God identifying with the poor, or God being present among the poor, so that we may entertain angels unaware if we are not careful, we still sidestep an important lesson of the parable, and forge another link in the Great Chain (which needs no more links, but needs to be disassembled). The purpose of the parable is not to make us realize God is always with us, at bottom while still at "top" (for God is still and always God), but that a society is just only in how it treats the least favored; that we can only do right for all, when we do right for the least among us.
This sounds somewhat akin to Rawls' theory of justice (a bone I have picked before), and the principle, if not the purpose, is much the same. This parable calls us to challenge not our assumptions about justice (as Rawls does), but the very basis for our society. If we oppress the poor, do we not oppress the mighty? And not in the sense of the oppressor being burdened by his oppression (a lovely idea, but it never seems to stop despots from their despotism), but in the sense that when life is wrong for the poorest and the least able, life is wrong for all. And if we don't see that, we don't see that what we are doing wrong is being done as wrong to everyone, even up to the Creator.
Aye, even up to the Creator. Fathom that, if you will. This is beyond Jeremiah: the king does justice to his people, and all is well with the society. But those affected by justice and injustice are the people; the parable in Matthew says the justice and the injustice affects God as well.
Or, you can look at it the way the world does: the poor are takers, and the rich are makers.
And those last sentiments have been echoed by Sen. Tom Coburn:
Obama’s “intent isn’t to destroy,” Coburn said, according to a transcript of the senator’s remarks that the Tulsa World reporter, Randy Krehbiel, provided to the Plum Line, a Washington Post blog, and said in an e-mail was accurately reproduced there. “It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him,” the senator added.The poor, you see, can't help it. They've been misled. They're just misguided, think they're important, too. And compassion for them is simply misplaced.
“As an African-American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them,” Coburn said.
You can hear, in such criticisms, the Chain of Being rattling so loudly it almost drowns out all other sounds (yes, racism is based in the Chain of Being as well). It certainly drowns out the voice of God, whose only power, apparently, is to get the last word.
The moral of the Matthean parable is not just that God identifies with the poor, but that God is affected by how we treat the poor; that God remains God just as Jesus remains human, and yet God is affected by how we treat the poor. This is even beyond a social justice lesson that we should treat the poor well if we want to be just. This is beyond Omelas, where the pact (with who? Who holds the enforcement clause on this covenant?) requires only that one child be miserable, and that all of Omelas accept those terms by knowing all about it. Omelas posits a perfection that is somehow created out of misery, but Jeremiah and Jesus posit a justice that simply is. And that justice is not just a condition of existence, it is a condition that affects the Creator. It is not merely a matter of right and wrong, it is a question of being. We are beyond "How should we then live?", we are facing squarely: "How should we then be?" Justice rises from the bottom, it doesn't trickle down from the top. Omelas challenges us to walk away because of this simple truth: how can it be perfect with such a horror as the basis for its happiness? How can anyone accept such a nightmare? And yet if we don't, what then? If we walk away from happiness, where do we go?
That is too much. That is too harsh. This is not a simple either/or. The terms are existential, not Hegelian. God is not waiting when we have rejected human happiness as intermingled too much with human misery. God is affected by the treatment of the child in the Omelas basement just as if God were the child, but God remains God: and there is the paradox. How we are affects God, but God remains God, just as Jesus is divine, but remains human. It is irreconcilable, but it is the confession of Christian faith. And it disassembles the Great Chain, because when the treatment of the lowest affects the source of all existence, then the Chain itself trembles and falls apart.
As do human societies which think all is well when the best are well-served, when the poor are kept silent and invisible.
Scarcity is the peculiar province of economics, the "dismal science." How much is available to go around, how fairly can it be distributed? This is the assumption of utilitarianism, this is the assumption of John Rawls' "Theory of Justice," this is the assumption of economists: scarcity is the nature of the world, now how do we adjust our desires to meet this wholly reasonable and undeniable conclusion? The economic pie can only be so large. Full employment, for example, would be disastrous: without a scarcity of jobs, what bargaining power would the employer have, what incentive would drive the worker to labor rather than laziness? With every niche filled, there would be nowhere to go, and little reason to worry about being asked to go. Scarcity is not only reality, we deem it necessity. The desert is our model for the world, it is the spur of our incentives: we are not creatures driven and derided by lust, because lust we can market. Lust is another model of scarcity, as you can never have enough things, look good enough, have enough sex or be attractive, knowledgeable, witty, intelligent, enough. You must always lack and desire what you do not have. It is not lust we are driven by now, but fear. Fear for our security, but also fear for our want, fear that the world, indeed, is not enough and that we must always have more. Our fear is that the world is actually the desert we are afraid it might be, and that enough will never be afforded us.Scarcity rests on the idea that some deserve less, while some deserve more; because there is never enough for everyone.
O, we of little faith! We believe! Help thou our unbelief!
Unbelief? Unbelief in scarcity? Or unbelief in poverty?
We believe in poverty; that is our curse. We believe in scarcity; that is our affliction. We believe in the poor, and we don't want to be among them! We believe that God is unaffected and inscrutable and immovable and eternal, and we long to be like that. But we do not understand God, and so we do not understand ourselves. We want God to be the maker, and we will be takers. We the deserving; and damn the undeserving.
"Truly I tell you, just as you did/did not...you did/did not...to me." That is not a revelation; that is a scream in the night.
We affect God when we affect each other; we affect God in how we treat each other. There is no hierarchy if the Creator is simultaneously at the bottom and at the top. There is no them; there is only us.
If we start to understand that, perhaps we can go and start to sin no more.