37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And 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.’
(Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)
These words of Jesus, taken from today’s gospel reading in the Daily Lectionary, have challenged and disturbed me more than anything else Jesus ever said. I first came across them in high school, when I was steeped in evangelical fervor and biblical literalism. Every morning, I would drive past homeless men on my way to school. They would panhandle on the median of highway 15-501 at the stoplight, directly across the street from my favorite restaurant (*shout-out to Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits).
The teachers at my conservative Christian high school were constantly calling students back to their personal responsibility to read the Bible and do what it says. Most of the time, what they meant by that was: “Go to church, don’t drink or smoke, and don’t have sex.” My guess is that the administration didn’t count on their students actually reading the above passage and taking it seriously (except in the most general sense of occasionally volunteering at a soup kitchen).
However, in my sincere effort to “read the Bible and do what it says,” I couldn’t get away from these words of Jesus. And I couldn’t stop thinking about those guys panhandling on the highway. People warned me to stay away from them because they were lazy bums who probably just wanted cash for booze, but if I was hearing Jesus correctly (and I think I was), the salvation of my soul depended quite highly on my personal relationship with these lazy bums. As Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church once said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
St. Benedict of Nursia said it like this:
Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35)…
In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
(The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53)
This spiritual principle is similar to the one found in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, which means: “The Divine in me worships the Divine in you.” Speaking in Christian terms, we honor one another as fellow beings made in God’s image, as members of the mystical Body of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit. However we choose to express it, the truth remains that we are connected to one another in God, therefore we have a moral responsibility to care for one another.
In Christianity, there is no such thing as a “self-made person” who “pulls herself up by her own bootstraps” because we are all saved by grace and owe our hope, our redemption, our very existence to another (i.e. Christ). Therefore, when this Divine Other comes to us in those who are poor, in those who do not look or talk like us, and in those who make inconvenient demands upon our time and resources, it is imperative that we remember our indebtedness. None of us would be here were it not for the Savior who went out of his way to help us “while we were yet sinners”: undeserving foreigners, trespassers in the kingdom of heaven, and illegal aliens.
To borrow a favorite image from Dr. Bob Ekblad, Christ is the Coyote who smuggles us across the border of heaven’s kingdom “illegally” (i.e. by grace, outside the requirements of Divine law). We are all “wetbacks” who have passed through the waters of baptism, like the Israelites crossed the waters of the Jordan River into the promised land, like so many undocumented migrant people are now crossing the Rio Grande in hope of a better life.
When we made this baptismal journey with Jesus, there were no vigilante angels patrolling heaven’s border with shotguns and spotlights, no holding pens in the church where sinners awaited deportation back to hell, but only the invisible presence of our Coyote, delivering us into the arms of the pastor and the combined voices of our brothers and sisters:
With joy and thanksgiving
we welcome you into Christ’s church
to share with us in his ministry,
for we are all one in Christ.
(The Book of Common Worship, p. 414)
As payment for our crossing, Coyote Christ asks that we pass on the amnesty we have received. The debt we owe to him must be repaid by way of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores… the homeless, [and the] tempest-tossed”.
Let us remember this truth as we read the headlines and see the images of Hispanic children piled on top of one another in warehouses along the border, when we encounter busloads of immigrants arriving at Wal-Mart, when we get stuck in line behind someone who does not yet speak English well.
The question we must ask in those moments is not “What is convenient for me?” or “What is best for America?” but, in the words of Psalm 116:10 – “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?”
The hospitality we offer to these brothers and sisters at the border is nothing more or less than the debt we owe to Christ. According to St. Benedict’s guidance and Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:40, What we do for them is what we do for Him, and the souls we save in doing so will not be theirs, but our own.