Yahweh spoke to Moses; he said: “Speak to the whole community of the children of Israel and say to them: Be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.”
Leviticus 19: 1-2
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. And all the Gentiles will be gathered before him, and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates sheep from goats, and he will place the sheep at his right, the goats at the left. The the king will say to those on his right: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.”
Matthew 25: 31-4
Today’s readings from Leviticus and Matthew speak of a wisdom that has been present since “the beginning of the world.” Scripturally speaking, there is a “wisdom” that precedes creation and that is its core. The teachings afford us an invitation to live and act in accord with that primordial wisdom, that is to “be holy” as God is holy, to conform our lives to the Wisdom that is the Source of Reality.
The injunctions of the Leviticus passage certainly are the bedrock of good social relations, but they are also far more than that. They challenge us to a profound transformation of “ordinary” human consciousness. We are not to seek to be superior to others, but to treat them with the reverence and respect they deserve. We are not to accumulate money or possessions at other’s expense, particularly at the expense of the truth. We are not to stand idly by when others’ lives are at stake, and we are not to seek revenge or hold grudges against those who harm us. To be sure these are ethical injunctions, but they are also spiritual challenges, summoning us to change our habitual ways of thinking and being.
The Gospel from Matthew makes this call to transformation even clearer. According to the scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, S.J., it is important to recognize that, in the context of the rest of Matthew’s gospel, the line usually translated “. . . and all the nations will be gathered before him” is really intended to read, as above, “ . . . and all the Gentiles will be gathered . . . .” Thus, what follows becomes a description of what the Gentiles, or non-believers, must do to be saved. The answer that is given is that they will be judged based on how they treat the disciples of Jesus (“these least brothers of mine”), who continue to be the presence of Jesus in the world, for in them Jesus is hungry, and naked, and imprisoned.
This different interpretation of the passage seems especially helpful and challenging in our times. We shall be judged on how we respond to those who are most unlike us, to those who are strange and besieged minorities, including religious minorities. All can be saved, but that will depend on the way we respond to the strange and the foreign among us. As history too consistently illustrates, religious differences are, more often than not, sources of conflict and violence. Given our human tendency to xenophobia and self-superiority, our default position vis-à-vis the stranger is to eliminate him or her from our midst, to overwhelm them with our truth. Jesus teaches, however, that we participate in the Wisdom of God that has existed from before creation when we treat the “other” with reverence and love. Jesus resides in the other precisely in what is foreign about them, and we realize his life in us more fully when we break through, even in small ways, the boundaries of our own fears and prejudices. Forced proselytization is never in accord with the Way of God’s holiness. It is only in recognizing the Divine presence in the other that we can come to “be saved”, not only individually but as a race.
The following passage is from an essay of James Baldwin published in the New Yorker magazine in November 1962. Beneath its specific historical references, we can hear a call to risk changing our way of being toward the other by abandoning our desire to be superior.
It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free.
This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. Whoever doubts this last statement has only to open his ears, his heart, his mind, to the testimony of—for example—any Cuban peasant or any Spanish poet, and ask himself what he would feel about us if he were the victim of our performance in pre-Castro Cuba or in Spain.
James Baldwin, Letter from a Region in My Mind, The New Yorker, November 17, 1962