Scripture Lessons: 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 25:31-46
Sermon: The Greatest and the Least
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
“The least of these.” This is one of the best known phrases from the Bible and the
teachings associated with Jesus. Concern for people who are suffering or
disadvantaged runs throughout the Bible. These words are an iconic example of
that. “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick
or in prison. . .?” And so Christianity, as most religions, has always had a heart
for helping others. I’ve only been in one church in my life that wasn’t collecting
food or money or doing something to help meet the material needs of other people.
But there is more going on in this story. First of all, the gospel writer presents
Jesus telling this story. So, there is Jesus. In the story, there is the reference to the
Son of Man, the Chosen One, coming in glory. Son of Man is a title that Jesus is
thought to have used to describe himself. It has roots in the Hebrew Bible. So,
this Son of Man figure is associated with Jesus. In the story, the Son of Man
comes with angels and sits on a throne. That sounds like God. So the Son of Man
figure is also associated with God. So through this chain of associations, Jesus, the
Son of Man, and God are connected. The identities overlap and mix and merge.
But there is more. There is the line, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Who is me? The Son of Man?
Jesus? God? Yes. So with this last line, humanity is added into the mix. So the
identities of Jesus, the Son of Man, God, and humanity are merging and mixing in
the story. There is a blending of Divinity and humanity; poor people and Jesus
and God and everyone. And there is a sense of relationship and unity among all of
these different characters in the story.
So this story becomes much more than an endorsement of charity. It conveys a
reality in which the identities, the interests, and the energies of humanity and
Divinity are linked. There is a unity, a oneness, a wholeness to reality and to life.
All are in relationship. All are to help each other. The wellbeing of all is interconnected. Life, including human life, is Divine. The Sacred, the Divine, God is expressed in life, including human life.
The image of the least of these removes the concept of “other” from the
understanding of reality in the kin-dom of God. God is not “other”. Jesus is not
“other”. The person who is the least of these is not “other”. All blend together.
So God, Jesus, and all of humanity are one with the least of these. The least of
these are not other, different, alien. They are us. They are Jesus. They are God.
In thinking about the least of these as described in the story, today we might say
something like this: Who is the least of these? The one who lives in the projects
and is thought of as too lazy to work. The homeless person panhandling for
money for beer. Refugees, immigrants, and those in detention camps. Those who
are made so poor that they have no clothes. Those with HIV and opioid addictions.
Those who are dark skinned and who may very well look like Jesus yet are easily
profiled by law enforcement. The least of these, Divinity and humanity are all
united in the sacredness of life. There is no “other.”
This story of the least of these is not only about helping people who are in need. It
is about having a concept of reality in which we know ourselves to be one with
those who are in need and one with the Source of everything we need.
Now we turn from the least to the greatest. This wonderful description of love was
written for people who were fighting with each other and competing for status and
recognition. At the end of this passage we are told, faith, hope, and love abide and
the greatest of these is love.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Faith is important. Faith is about what we
trust in our lives. What can we count on. What really matters. What we have faith
in can determine a lot about who we are and how we live. It can influence our
values and our choices and our behavior. What we place our faith and trust in is
very important. But faith is not the greatest among faith, hope, and love.
And what about hope! Hope is about our orientation toward the future. It, too,
shapes much about how we look at life and how we act and the choices we make.
Hope is what can keep us going through difficult challenges and tragedies. Hope
helps make the world go round. Hope is very important. Yes, but in First
Corinthians we are told that it is not as important as love.
So, what is it about love that makes it greatest? Love is oriented beyond the self.
Love is about relationships which necessarily involve other people beyond
ourselves. Love moves us from selfishness to concern for others. It moves us
from competing with other people to cooperating with other people.
In the story of the last judgement and the least of these what happens to those who
do not help others? They are sent to the eternal fire of hell. I don’t believe that
hell is place people go after they die. But the story is telling us that these people
will not have a good life. They will suffer. They will be miserable. What prevents
that outcome? Love. When we choose to live by the practical instructions about
love as described in First Corinthians, we find that love saves us from the tortured
life of selfishness. When we aspire to be patient, kind, not jealous or boastful or
arrogant or rude; when we are not irritable or resentful; when we don’t insist on
our way; when we are not happy about others getting in trouble, we find that love
frees us from the tyranny of the self. Actions based on love rescue us from a small
life of self absorption.
Choosing to live the way of love connects us to others. It causes us to be
concerned about others and so saves us from being tied up by our own interests and
desires and wants. By choosing love and helping others we save ourselves. We
rescue ourselves from drowning in self centeredness; the equivalent of the torture
associated with the concept of hell. So by choosing love and helping others we
pursue our highest good and our well being.
We are the least and we have the capacity for the greatest. When we combine the
teachings of the least of these with love, the greatest of these, we see the essence of
the beauty of the Christian life. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in
this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church