The Face of Jesus in the Least
Not long ago, as I was doing research for a paper I had to write, I stumbled upon some statistical data that greatly disturbed me. Researchers estimate that every day 16,000 to 24,000 children die from hunger related causes. In 2004 almost one billion people lived below the international poverty line, earning less than one dollar per day. These impoverished people struggle daily with malnourishment and hunger, and the majority live in what has been called the "developing" world. This developing world has six times the population as the 57 or so countries that comprise the "developed" world.(1)
In the United States, by contrast, over two-thirds of the population are overweight and almost one-third is considered obese according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years 2001-2004.(2) In fact, the Centers for Disease Control shows a steady increase in the number of obese persons in the United States in their data compiled from 1985-2006.(3) Living with an over-abundance, we are barraged by diet fads and quick-fix strategies to shed extra pounds. Despite all the effort to promote healthy eating and lifestyles, the fact remains that in 22 different states 25 to 30 percent of the populations are considered obese.(4)
These statistics became more than facts and figures when I traveled to tiny villages along the Amazon River in Brazil. I saw countless numbers of children searching for food or other treasures among the dirt and filth of garbage piles. Bloated stomachs were not full; they were ravaged by parasites. With tarps for roofs and water for drinking, bathing, and elimination, these tiny faces had so little, while I had so much. I was fat by comparison.
Jesus's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 became a reality to me as I looked into hungry, brown eyes. In this harrowing vision of final judgment, the Son of Man holds court over all the nations. Like a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats, the Son of Man gathers the nations before him and separates them from one another. The sheep are commended for their righteousness, and the goats are punished for their unrighteousness. Among the many insights one could glean from this passage, one is unescapable: Jesus defines righteous living in terms of acts of justice and kindness done to the least of these. He says to the sheep on his right: "Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me" (Matthew 25:34-36). The sheep are astonished that they are counted among the righteous based on this definition, for they never saw Jesus hungry or thirsty, as a stranger or naked, sick or in prison. Yet, Jesus answers them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
Perhaps for the original audience who heard Jesus present this parable, and for those who hear it today, it comes as a surprise to find that righteousness categorically involves acts of mercy, kindness, and protection for the least of these. Indeed, how sobering it is to know that the unrighteous, according to Jesus, are those who neglect opportunities to show mercy, kindness, and protection.
An even more vital insight is found in the opportunity to encounter the living Jesus in the presence of the least of these. Author Paul Janz notes: "Christ does not say that inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, it will be ‘as if’ you had done it unto me; but rather that inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."(5) In the bleak, gaunt, ravaged expressions of malnourishment and hunger I witnessed along the Amazon, I glimpsed—indeed I encountered—Christ himself. All those who have eyes to see and ears to hear have the opportunity to recognize, to receive, and to respond to Jesus himself in the plight of the least of these among us.
What do world hunger, poverty, illness and despair have to do with righteousness? What do they have to do with Jesus? According to Matthew’s Gospel, they offer the opportunity to encounter Jesus as acts of mercy, kindness, and justice are embraced and enacted. Indeed, according to Matthew’s Gospel, the opportunity to experience the blessedness of inheriting the kingdom prepared is opened as ministry is done to Jesus in the least of these all around us. The abundance given can be the means of blessing others. Rather than seeing poverty, hunger, homelessness, and imprisonment as pervasive societal ills, statistics, or problems to avoid, blessing is offered as Jesus is served in the least of these. In their faces, his face shines.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Statistics from Bread for the World, www.bread.org and the World Food Programme www.wfp.org.
(2) Statistics from the Weight Control Information Network www.niddk.nih.gov.
(3) Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov.
(5) Oliver Davies, Paul Janz, and Clemens Sendak, Transformation Theology: Church in the World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2008), 115.
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