It's been some time since Philip Yancey put me on to noticing that the story Matthew leaves ringing in our ears before Jesus goes to his cross is the scene of people being blessed or cursed because of how they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, or the souls in our midst who need clothes. (Matthew 25:31-46)
I shared his observation with a recent study group who found itself challenged by this parable. I'm not sure it helped. As the group struggled with questions of eschatology, faith, works, and just how this plays into us getting into heaven, it began to raise questions related to boundaries, fiscal limits, and whether Jesus had ever heard of charity that hurts. These are all good questions, but I began to wonder if they were really the sorts of questions Jesus wanted us to have in mind as he took up his cross, and then announced he would be crucified in two days time.
Immediately after his announcement, Matthew recalls Jesus being anointed at Bethany, and recounts Judas cutting a deal to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. In short order, Jesus would be arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to die on a cross where he would die hungry, thirsty, and without clothes. These words began to echo in my ears: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40)
I began to wonder: Could it be that Matthew is leading us to see a crucified Jesus the least of us all, so we will see Jesus in the face of the least? Could it be that the foolishness of forgiving without end, seeking bread only for only this day, giving simply because there is a need, blessing the evil and just alike is the same foolishness that the crucified and risen Christ has proven to be wiser than any human wisdom?
Matthew winds up Jesus telling three stories rooted deep in the wisdom of Israel: plan well, work hard, be generous. Practice the good you know God is. If God is so good that His Son becomes the least, so that we can be the greatest; if by his poverty, we have become rich, then perhaps wisdom is shown by our investing ourselves in the forgiving of sinners, the well being of the poor, and the healing of the world.