Toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus follows a series of behavior-guiding parables with something that suddenly and uncomfortably no longer sounds like a parable. He shifts into the future tense and into the time of the end-world. Judgment Day. When the King – the Son of Man – will see before him come all the crowds of humanity that’s ever lived, to be judged good or bad. Worthy of life eternal or of the gnashing of teeth. The sheep and the goats. The imagery is vivid but not crucially important. What’s important, I think, is that after all the Christ has already said and done in the Gospel, the author of Matthew has him speaking plainly and simply, in the language of the apocalyptic sects of the time. And the Christ predicts a single criterion for determining goodness: active compassion.
And on the Day of Judgment, to the “righteous” he says, “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. I was naked, and you clothed me; a stranger, and you invited me in; a prisoner, and you visited me.” And when the righteous humbly protest that, all due respect, they wouldn’t know the Son of Man from Adam and have never met him, let alone fed or clothed him, he answers with one of the most quoted verses in the Bible: “What you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Those who did not are condemned and sent off. Not even for causing pain but for standing by. For indifference. For enabling. There is no complexity and no context in this judgment. It’s simple. One single criterion. They either helped “the least of these” in need or they did not. And now they either belong with the King or belong in the dark.
There is much that is iconic in this verse, and much that is definitive not only of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular but of whatever Christian monotheism shares with pantheistic/panantheistic cosmologies: oneness of all things. This one connection between doing for another creature and doing for the King tells us of a worldview in which the flow of love is omnidirectional and uninterrupted. What Jesus did when he conflated the commandment to love God and the commandment to love neighbor into one – asserting that love for God and love for one another is the same and one can’t be lived without the other – he now illustrates in a single sentence, in a majestic image of the end-world.
I love this passage. In a classroom, I draw a little diagram with “GOD” at the top and funny little people underneath with bidirectional arrows going between people and between people and God, and I talk about the flow of Love and the inseparability of Creator and Creation and thus us creatures from each other as we are one in Love, and my diagram ends up looking like a Christmas tree.
But today I want to stop at a single phrase – maybe even one word of it – and talk about what it means, just for a minute. Because he said, “The least of these,” and we don’t know exactly whom he meant.
“Least of these,” he said. But who are these “least”? The poor? The sick? Children? The disabled, physically or mentally? The grieving? The incarcerated? These are the most common ideas on the subject, understandably so. We look for the “least” of these, and most of the time we tend to assume that he only meant humans. And he might have, on that particular day for that particular lesson. And most of the time, as I draw my diagram, I only draw funny little humans on the board. Because for that particular lesson, I don’t have the time to go into the definition of “least” and of “mine.” But today, I want to, please.
This is not a new thought. In fact, I’ve thought this way for years now, and God knows how many before me. But I just came back from a week on a farm where critters of all sorts are remembered by humans to have a place in Creation of value and beauty. And today I watched my niece lend her hand to a caterpillar. And yet day after day we humans value compassion and circumscribe it by the boundaries of the human race.
The authors of Matthew and of Luke quote Jesus talk about sparrows. He says that we are more valuable than the sparrows, yet every sparrow is watched and cared for by God. I think of those verses, and I think of Matthew 25, and I wonder. Is not the sparrow the least of these, then? Must he not have meant the sparrow? And if a sparrow, is not a caterpillar?
Look at the enormous creation around us. God cares for all of it, and I don’t need Matthew to prove it to me. We are all interconnected in Him and in each other—in our Source, in our Life, and in our Final End—every crawling and running creature alike. But if so, then in our own care, we must not dismiss the least of His.
Two thousand and even twenty years ago we did not understand nearly as much as we do now about how much and how acutely animals and plants feel, how intricately they communicate, how precisely they can comprehend. And we still don’t understand a fraction of what is. We don’t know, but, though they might not be able to cry out in words and their faces may not be like ours in agony so we can recognize their suffering, we must not dismiss the least of His. It is the same battle we are now fighting with our own prejudices that we were fighting only a few years ago, when humans of other colors, humans of other cultures, humans with other languages appeared sub-human – savages. Animals…
We must not dismiss the least of His. In our care for water, for earth, for the green life, we must focus on the healthy balance, on thriving, on clean and alive and on the safe future. In our care for those capable of experiencing pain and fear, human and animal alike, and maybe for the plant as we grow to understand it, we must remember also compassion, for our suffering is not the only suffering God feels.
I am not calling for the perpetual feeling of guilt that accompanies the extremes of any, even noble, cause because it’s impossible not to cause suffering. It is a truism that we all die and feed the great circle of life, and as we go through life, even just breathing in, we inevitably kill: kill to eat, kill simply by accident, kill in self-defense. Still, compassion for all who can suffer must prevent us from torturing any creature or standing by if we can help. I say, let’s start small.
Don’t kill an insect or a spider that looks “creepy” but is not attacking you. I am willing to bet we look creepy to them – at least, to some of them. I say, let’s stop putting animals in cages. With a rare exception, any animal that must be kept in a cage so it won’t run away probably shouldn’t be there. With remarkable audio-visual technology we have and more developments coming, cage zoos, I believe, have lost educational merit and necessity and nurture in our children, if anything, acceptance of cruelty, indifference to incarceration, and human exceptionalism. I say, let’s reform industrial meat and egg production radically and completely – and I am certainly not the lone voice in this. For the vast majority of our history, humans did not eat meat every day, they still don’t in many parts of the world, and we don’t have to. The amount of animal suffering and environmental damage that comes from mass production of meat, dairy, and eggs is staggering. Unquantifiable. Unacceptable.
I say, let’s imagine that this – the zoos, the pet shops, the veal farms, the casual murder – were happening to human beings. Then, let’s do something about it. Because if there are some sort of hierarchies to forms of life, the value of suffering cannot be one of them. Because if God feels my suffering and the sparrow’s, He felt that spider I stepped on and the chicken whose beak was cut off and the bear who died of grief in captivity.
So, you know, let’s…be kind to the sparrow. Break for ants. Feed the dog. I think, it’s like this: the least of these are not the least of us. They are the least of His.