On Matthew 25

One of the most gleeful sequences ever captured on film is the end of Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 adaptation of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Alastair Sim plays Scrooge, who’s seen a vision of the future in which all the money he so desperately hoarded turns out to be worth nothing except misery, isolation, and death for himself and everyone around him. But it was only a vision: the spirits give him a chance to set things right, and as he learns how wrong he’s been Scrooge goes giddy with relief. Which is how a white-haired gentleman from the Victorian era ends up prancing around a chair in his bathrobe, singing, ‘I don’t know anything / I never did know anything / but now I know that I don’t know / all on a Christmas morning.’

It’s a rare discovery, although not an original one. Five centuries back before Christ, Socrates realised he knew nothing, and that realisation made him the wisest man in Athens. No one else knew anything either, of course, but only Socrates knew that he didn’t know. All on a Christmas morning.

People don’t often point out that Matthew 25 is also all about not knowing. In fact, like Socrates’ fellow Athenians, readers of this chapter often find it impossible to acknowledge just how much they don’t know. 

It all starts with a parable. Five bridesmaids get caught unawares and unprepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, the apocalyptic second coming. ‘So stay alert,’ Jesus concludes, ‘because you don’t know the day or the hour.’ Elsewhere Jesus suggests that even He doesn’t know when the world will end. Yet every year, crackpots and Christians alike announce that they’ve read the signs, they can calculate the day and the hour. People can’t accept that they just don’t know.

In the next parable, one master entrusts three slaves with eight measures of gold: one gets five, one gets two, one gets one. The slave with one talent is sure he knows what will happen if he risks an investment: ‘I know that you’re a cruel man,’ he says when the master gets back, ‘so I was scared, and I hid your talent in the ground.’ He’s not the only one who’s ever wasted an opportunity for fear of what he thought he knew about the future.

Then there’s today’s passage. The Son of Man returns to earth and reveals that, in one way, He was already there all along. Whenever you fed and clothed one of the least of my brothers, says Jesus, you fed and clothed me. What gets me about this is that the people who did the feeding and clothing are surprised. When Jesus tells them they helped Him, the righteous say something along the lines of ‘wait what? When was that?’

This seems really weird. Aren’t these do-gooders Christians? And isn’t Jesus telling all His followers, right here in this passage, that He’s present to them in the least of His brothers? Surely once He tells them, they’ll know who they’re feeding and clothing? 

And actually that is how we sometimes react to this passage. We hear Jesus’ teaching and say, right: go volunteer in a homeless shelter. Serve in a soup kitchen. When Christ comes back you’ll get your reward; otherwise you’ll be sorry. But the thing is, that response yet again assumes we know what we’ve just been told we don’t know. It assumes that we know which of our brothers and sisters are the least. That the people most visibly deprived and helpless in the eyes of this world are the only ones in whom Christ chooses to dwell.

Don’t mistake me: it’s a good, even a holy thing, to take care of such people. But I don’t actually think Jesus is trying to nag us about doing more charity work in this passage. He’s saying something more profound: that even after He’s spoken these words to us, when the time comes to perform the most important acts of human kindness in our lives, we won’t realise what we’re doing. How can that be?

Maybe it works something like this. Search yourself, and consider whether you aren’t hiding some unspeakable wound. Whether you don’t feel that at some point in your life you’ve let yourself down, or abused someone you ought to cherish, or lost someone whose absence left you breathless with pain. Then ask yourself whether anyone meeting you at a party would have any idea about that hurt. Whether anyone would hear you introduce yourself with a confident smile and suspect how needy you sometimes feel. How guilty. How alone.

William Blake wrote this about his vision of the human race: ‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street, / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ Sin and suffering leave every one of us bereft, estranged from the person we’re supposed to be and the God we’re supposed to love. And I just don’t think we realise, most of the time, how hungry the people around us are for some extra word of compassion to ease that burden. How they wish some good friend would visit them unannounced when their home feels like a prison, or sit them down and cook them a meal when they feel completely without resources of their own.

And I don’t think we can fathom, either, how profoundly it matters that we do those kinds of things for each other. Mythology is full of stories about supernatural beings masquerading as bedraggled outcasts, taken in or turned away by unsuspecting mortals. Baucis and Philemon, Beauty and the Beast, Lot and his two mysterious visitors in Genesis. So we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that ‘by showing hospitality, some people have hosted angels without knowing it.’ In Jesus, the true God confirms: when people come to you desperate for kindness, that really is me in disguise.

So if everyone is hiding some dire spiritual need, then everyone is hiding some divine identity. As it happens, the Bible agrees: every human you meet is an image of God, an immortal child of the most high. You and I, living in the day-to-day blindness and distraction of a broken world, simply don’t register the fact that we’re surrounded by people whose pain and healing are of infinite significance. Even and especially when those people seem to have it all together, even and especially when they scorn our overtures, it’s crucial that we go out of our way to show them love. We simply don’t know how badly they need it, or how utterly it matters that they get it.

This season coming up, Advent, is for contemplating two arrivals of God into the world. The first time He came, almost no one figured out who He was without being told. Anyone who presumed to know what a king looks like would have completely missed the peasant baby delivered in a filthy barn: no one expected the Messiah to come in that body, to those parents, in that place.

Christ’s second arrival, I insist again, will also be completely unanticipated. But when it does happen, it will be an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the term: ἀπο-κάλυψις, a revealing of hidden things. If we have spent our lives clutching our possessions in jealous fear of losing them, then, like Scrooge and the slave with one talent, we will discover that when we thought we were protecting our wealth we were really just shutting our sorry selves into a hell of our own making. 

But if we spent our lives feeding hunger and clothing nakedness wherever we found them — even and especially when it seemed futile — then we will discover that we had no idea how much our life’s work mattered. Because the God who comes in silence and in secret, who hid Himself in the broken flesh of an impoverished carpenter, has hidden Himself again in the private brokenness of our brothers and sisters. We never fully perceive the urgency of that brokenness, even when we make our fumbling efforts to help. And we won’t understand how much those efforts meant until that last moment, when the hidden Christ shows Himself and we see with a shock of recognition that the suffering we tried to ease was as cosmically significant as if it had been our savior’s suffering. In that moment, when we see the worth of our neighbor and the face of our God, we’ll come to understand — with even more joy, I hope, than Scrooge — just how much we didn’t know.