For so many this passage from Matthew’s gospel comes across as a “Feel Good” passage. At last we hear and read about the good works that we need to do as a way of following Jesus. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the many other virtuous acts we may associate with being the Church. While there is indeed nothing wrong with this interpretation and that we as a church should participate in the actions described in this gospel, there is however a deeper interpretation that runs the risk of being overlooked.
There are a couple of things we should keep in mind when studying this passage. First of all, what is being described is not solely a Christian view. “Even the ancient Egyptians believed that such good deeds would win them life after death” (Hare, “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,” 1993, pg. 288). Also while it may be popular to interpret the term, “nations,” as in, “All the nations will be gathered,” (v. Matt 25: 32) to mean “all” or everyone, that is not the word Matthew uses in the text. Rather he uses the Greek, “ethne” which is a technical term referring to “non-Jewish” (Hare, pg. 289). Further the word, “least,” as in verse 40, “. . . Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . .” references the vulnerable as opposed to referring to quantity (Hare, pg. 289-290).
So it would seem now that Matthew describes Jesus as one who stands in solidarity with anyone who protects the vulnerable. This resonates with us of the Christian faith, but also other Religions who advocate for the poor and needy. Remeber this is not just a Christian concern. All of a sudden we realize that we are not the only ones who should be paying attention to this work. Rather this is a Mission that anyone from any Religion can participate in. We are now confronted with common ground that is shared between multiple faiths and even people of no particular faith but who share in the concern for those in need.
The other week I was fortunate to take a leadership role in the development and facilitation of Clergy Day. The topic was Islam 101. Dr. Seemi Ghazi from UBC was our guest speaker.
The day included listening to Seemi’s daughter’s birth narrative that is rooted in the Qu’ran as well as Vancouver. Towards lunch we were able to participate in Salat. A prayer that is offered by Muslims five times a day that involves bowing with your head touching the floor. A Halal lunch was prepared and served by Imam Shujaath and members from the Masjid Ui-Haqq. During lunch members of the mosque facilitated table conversations around pre-set questions. The afternoon plenary included answering questions that clergy were able to submit ahead of time. The day ended with an experience of Sacred Turning with a representative from the Rifai Marufi Sufi Order who demonstrated semazen/whirling dervish (Sacred Turning). A long day, but one full of learning, experience and discovering common ground.
For me, one of the most beneficial and meaningful parts of the day was to engage with the prayer opportunities. Salat causes me to think about how we pray with our bodies and using our bodies to aid prayer. In our own tradition, making the sign of the cross, bowing, genuflecting and prostrations are ways in which we pray with our bodies. Bowing in Salat which allows the head to be lower than the heart creates a deeper understanding and way of encountering God. Whirling dervish offers a creative way and a different way of praying. When we try and look for ways in which people can engage more deeply in their prayer life where typical methods may not be best. What does it mean to turn when praying? Perhaps Sacred Turning and whirling dervish offers us an alternative way of encountering The Holy. Practices that once seemed foreign, now take on meaning that I and others can relate to.
In a world where religious intolerance and violence against people for what they believe seems to be making news, we need examples of where a different way of being in relationship with one another can be found. Matthew’s Gospel points to a deeper meaning of what Christ’s Reign can mean for us in 2017 and beyond. Building connections and relationships with other people and other faith groups takes work. But when we make the effort, we soon discover that while we remain true to our own identity, we also can find common ground with the other in our neighbourhood and world.