The 25th chapter of Matthew contains three parts, each of which ends with people being shut out of the Kingdom of God and sent to Hell. It’s not a pleasant chapter to read. In the parable of the ten virgins, the door is shut on half the would be wedding guests. In the parable of the talents, the wicked, slothful, and unprofitable servant is cast into outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of the teeth. In the prophecy of the sheep and the goats, those who did not help those in need are condemned to go away into eternal punishment.
While at other times Jesus emphasizes the openness of the Kingdom of God, that it belongs to the poor and to children, that it is like the mustard seed which though the smallest of seeds becomes a great tree for all the birds of the air to live in, here Jesus emphasizes that this openness will someday end. This parable of a wedding ends not with the host compelling his servant to find more guests as in Luke 14, but with the door shut.
It is important to note that this chapter falls in the Olivet Discourse and so was not presented to a crowd of people or to a questioning Pharisee, but privately to the disciples. At this point in the discourse, Jesus has finished prophesying about the destruction of the Temple and the end times and has turned to giving the disciples instructions in response to all this. These passages are not meant to compel the unbelieving to belief through fear but to compel the believing to prepare for the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
The disciples are told they must watch and stay awake, or else like the foolish virgins they will not prepare themselves and be left out of the wedding banquet. They must labor with the gifts their master have given them, or else they will be cast into darkness. They must serve the needy, or else they will be punished eternally. This last injunction concludes with a four-fold repetition of the needs of the least among us. Four times we read of hunger, thirst, the stranger, nakedness, sickness, and prison. The final image of the discourse is drilled into the listener, and it is not of the joy of the redeemed in Heaven or of the suffering of the wicked in Hell but of the suffering of the needy on earth now.
The passage ends with a reminder that those who did not help the least of these “shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” But this last line offers little comfort, very few of us after reading this long list of needs, would count ourselves to have fully discharged our duty, especially when we consider that those who did do these things, did not realize what they had done.
At this point I might, dutiful Protestant that I am, wade into a discussion of how it is important to remember that salvation is by faith and not by works, that the sort of works demonstrated in this parable are a simply an outward demonstration, a proof of the reality of a person’s faith in Christ. But Lent is not so much a time for theology as it is a time for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. There are times for reflection, times for dwelling on the assurance of our salvation, on the depths of God’s love for us, these are certainly true and good and beautiful things. Lent though is a time when we dwell on our failures, on how hard it is for us to enter the Kingdom of God, and on how much we need to repent.
Lent is a time of waiting for Easter and the resurrection. It is how we practice waiting for the resurrection to come. Christ’s promises of rest and peace are true and bring us comfort in times of need, but they will not keep us awake and working for the Kingdom. For that, we need terrifying passages like these. We must remember that while the Kingdom of God is open to all those who seek it, it will someday be closed. And if we are to be sure of entering it, we must keep our lamps burning, we must labor as good and faithful servants, and most of all we must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and go to those in prison. Whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Christ.
Greg Scalise ’18 is a Philosophy and Classics joint concentrator in Pforzheimer House.