First, let me clarify that I’m not a Christian, nor do I consider Jesus to be a god of some sort or the Bible to be the word of a god. Nonetheless, the Bible as a work of literary imagination, contains elements of intrinsic ethical insight too valuable to be disregarded.
The story is told that Jesus sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, where he answered their questions and spoke to them of the ways of God. One passage in particular speaks from the heart of charity and tells of the consequences that flow from our behavior toward those among us who suffer and are in need. Jesus describes how there will come a time of judgment when those who acted from a heart of generosity and kindness will be differentiated from their counterparts who acted from greed and indifference, each sent their separate ways. Speaking to the disciples in parable, Jesus tells them what such a moment of judgment might be like:
And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
The parable continues with the King enacting judgment upon those on his left hand, the goats of the parable, whose lives have been characterized by greed and indifference and who by natural consequence of their behavior are turned away to suffer the misery they have purchased for themselves in their failure to care for others. And when they ask Jesus, “When saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” Jesus answers as before, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
The ethic in Matthew is profoundly clear: to neglect one is to neglect all. We can’t preferentially separate the body of humanity into those who are the foremost of brethren and those who are the least, setting apart those whom we consider deserving from those whom we don’t, though in saying so I’m aware of the contradiction implicit in the parable of the sheep and goats in which just such preferential treatment is enacted. But taken as a parable demonstrative of the inherent consequence of ethical behavior rather than an enactment of divine judgment, does not the judgment day portrayed in Matthew accurately foretell the inevitable hell fashioned by lives lived in greed and indifference? Do we not make our own hells? And by the same inherent consequence, cannot those whose lives have been characterized by generosity and compassion be said to have fashioned their own heaven? The “king” portrayed in Matthew who decrees final judgment at the gates of heaven and hell speaks in the voice of our own conscience. Fate is self-enacting, an outcome foretold in its precursor. The destiny that awaits us is shaped by our own choice.
Matthew reinforces the truth of the “golden rule” as a universally recognized human right that calls for just treatment and equal consideration of all beings: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Well, “prophets” put aside, it’s the law of human nature. Here as in the parable, Jesus reinforces that we are each of us least brethren, himself as well. This deeper self of which we are comprised, this soul as some would name it, knows no distinction between the barefoot god of the streets of Jerusalem and the homeless wretch searching the trashcans on Fourth and Main Streets: each walks heaven and earth alike.
On a rainy December evening, Karen and I were walking from the Naked Lounge, Chico’s locally owned coffee shop, on our way to Lyon Books where I’d been invited for a gathering of local authors. I was wearing a new corduroy jacket and was concerned to keep it dry. At Second Street and Broadway, the traffic light was against us and so we ducked in under the cover of a storefront. But out in the rain with no hat or umbrella for protection was a woman picking aluminum cans from the trash. We both saw her, and then the light changed in our favor and I said, “Let’s go,” and started for the crosswalk. But Karen wasn’t following. Instead she was out in the rain, standing at the curbside talking to the woman at the trashcan, the wet soaking into the two of them.
From where I stood watching, they were dark silhouettes against the light of oncoming vehicles. Karen was saying something, the woman responding. I would learn later that Karen had asked the woman if she was all right and did she have any money. The woman had told her she had five dollars. Karen said, “Now you have ten,” and handed her the last five she had of her own. I’d caught up to where they stood by then and found another five to give the woman. Karen said, “This is my husband,” to which the woman nodded acknowledgement. She gathered the wet folds of her coat collar about her neck, thanking us, and walked on into the rain and darkness. Later, Karen would say with tears catching in her throat, “What’s the matter with us in this country that a middle-aged woman has to pick through the trash in order to survive?”
And I say to myself now, “Why didn’t I take her home, feed her a good meal, launder her soiled clothes, see that she had a hot bath with soap and clean towels, a bed to sleep the night in? I did none of these things; instead I handed her five dollars and went off to Lyon Books where I would later hear my writing praised. I’d come that night in the streets of my own hometown upon one of the least brethren of Jesus’ parable, a stranger that I did not take in. I haven’t had to wait for the prophesied judgment to be given. It arrived with the swiftness of regret, a confession of human failing, a vow to do better next time.