In Matthew 25:31 -40, Christ says that He will judge us based on how we serve the poor and oppressed. In many other passages, Christ instructs us “not to store treasures on earth” but to store them in “heaven.” He says that “to whom much is given, much will be required.” And He says that when we have a banquet we should invite the oppressed and not necessarily those who are well off. Why would He speak so much about the poor and oppressed and even link our salvation to them? Aren’t we saved by “what Christ did on the cross?” Why would Christ judge us based on how we treat the poor?
There is certainly a philanthropic goal that Christ is commanding the Church to partake in. Christ does indeed desire that the poor be literally taken care of because of our link to them as fellow ‘humans.’ We are to serve them because this is how we would want to be treated, as Christ said, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There is a sense of communal cooperation in Christ’s teachings that is centered within humanity itself, the very caring of people; because we each know what it is like to suffer and thus should not be so quick to turn away from helping eliminate the very problem so that we can all enjoy life together.
But there is much more! Christ desires that we care for the poor and oppressed because, as He says, as we do unto them, we do unto Him: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). The poor and oppressed are sacramental to Christ! See how Saint John Chrysostom parallels the oppressed with Christ:
“For He was not satisfied even with death and the Cross only, but He took up with becoming poor also, and a stranger, and a beggar, and naked, and being thrown into prison, and undergoing sickness, that so at least He might call you off. If you will not requite Me, He says, as having suffered for you, show mercy on Me for My poverty. And if thou are not minded to pity Me for My poverty, do for My disease be moved, for My imprisonment be softened. And if even these things make you not charitable, for the easiness of the request comply with Me. For it is no costly gift I ask, but bread and lodging, and words of comfort; but if even after this thou still continuest unsubdued, still for the Kingdom’s sake be improved for the rewards which I have promised. Have you then no regard even for these? yet still for very nature’s sake be softened at seeing Me naked, and remember that nakedness wherewith I was naked on the Cross for you; or, if not this, yet that wherewith I am now naked through the poor. I was then bound for you, nay, still am so for you, that whether moved by the former ground or the latter, you might be minded to show some pity. I fasted for you, again I am hungry for you. I was thirsty when hanging on the Cross, I am thirsty also through the poor, that by the former as also by the latter I may draw you to Myself, and make you charitable to your own salvation. Hence also of you that owest Me the requital of benefits without number, I make not demand as of one that owes, but crown you as one that favors Me, and a kingdom do I give you for these small things. For I do not say so much as put an end to My poverty, or give Me riches, and yet I did become poor for you; yet still I ask for bread and clothing, and a small solace for My hunger. And if I be thrown into prison, I do not insist upon your loosing My bonds and setting Me free, but one thing only do I seek after, that you would visit Me, Who was (or am) bound for you, and I shall have received favor enough, and for this only will I give you Heaven. And yet I delivered you from most galling bonds, but for Me it is quite enough, if you will but visit Me when in prison. For I am able indeed to crown you even without all this; yet I would fain be a debtor to you, that the crown may give you some feeling of confidence. This is why, though I am able to support Myself, I come about begging, and stand beside your door, and stretch out Mine hand, since My wish is to be supported by you. For I love you exceedingly, and so desire to eat at your table, which is the way with those that love a person. And I glory John xv. 8)–> in this. And when the whole world are spectators, then am I to herald you forth, and in the hearing of all men to display you as My supporter. Yet we, when we are supported by any one, feel ashamed, and cover our faces; but He, as loving us exceedingly, even if we hold our peace, will then tell out what we did with much praise, and is not ashamed to say, that when Himself was naked we clothed Him, and fed Him when hungry. Let us then lay all these things to heart, and not be contented with passing mere praises upon them, but let us even accomplish what I have been speaking of. For what is the good of these applauses and clamors? I demand one thing only of you, and that is the display of them in real action, the obedience of deeds. This is my praise, this your gain, this gives me more lustre than a diadem. When you have left the Church then, this is the crown that you should make for me and for you, through the hand of the poor; that both in the present life we may be nourished with a goodly hope, and after we have departed to the life to come, we may attain to those good things without number, to which may all of us attain by the grace and love toward man, etc.” Saint John Chrysostom – Homily 15 on Romans
Why does Christ do this? Why does He choose to be represented by the poor? He does this because the poor represent a broken humanity, the very result of a self-centered culture, a result of the Fall. Christ came to deliver us from self-centeredness and heal ALL peoples by uniting them into one kingdom. The devil tempts us to divide from other people in order to “gain the world” for ourselves.
The devil has been at work on humanity since the beginning of our time, and this is precisely what Christ is saving us from: The works of the devil, as Saint John says (1 John 3:8). What are Satan’s works? He is a divider and a conqueror. Division is his primary goal. He has been at it since the beginning. He does not want God’s people to be whole, because the very consummation of the Gospel itself is for the Church to become whole. This is why Christ speaks of us all becoming unified in John 17, and why He says He is not coming back until the Gospel is “preached to the whole world,” and grows from a “mustard seed to a tree” (Matthew 13:31-32). This is also why Saint Paul speaks of how the clergy is here to help us “till we all come in the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:11-13), and why Saint Paul says that Christ will “reign until He puts all enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).
When we serve the poor and oppressed we mend humanity back into place. We heal what Satan has destroyed. We conquer what Satan has previously conquered. When we minister to the oppressed, we prove to Christ that our hearts are given toward Him, the one who said “He became poor for our sake!” We put Christ on the cross through our divided and self-serving culture (what the west might call “nature”). We have become a very “evil generation,” as Christ puts it. And through His death and resurrection, we can begin to heal this sickness within us.
One reason why the early Church raised so much concern over the nature of Christ, going as far as to excommunicate people to heresy for confusing Christ’s human and divine nature (and emphasizing Mary’s role in Christ), is because Christ, to them, represented the human race, and the human race feels pain and suffering and is both tempted and cleansed through this pain and suffering. Their theology was dependent on Christ’s suffering, in His daily life and on the cross. After all, it is “by His wounds” that we are healed (Isaiah 55:3, 1 Peter 2:24). This does not mean that Christ “paid the price” for us, as the west states. Christ did not earn our salvation through a works covenant (which never existed). Christ did not suffer because God owes us all a death sentence, either. Christ became humanity’s representative. Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20- 21, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
God became our “scapegoat.” He became our sin for us, and we are now to participate in this by “becoming the righteousness” of Him. We become righteous through becoming reconciled to Him and the creation that He has given us. This is not solely based on the elements of nature, but God does indeed use nature to heal us. He uses people to heal us; those who are led by the devil as well as those who are led by the Spirit are used to heal our souls. The devil tests us and the Church restores us! But within both the Church and the world, there are the poor who are sacramental to Christ and that is where we are to come into contact with Christ! To love God and neighbor is our greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-40).
St. Paul says in Romans that the entire creation groans for its redemption and that the heavens themselves declare the majesty of God. You and I are a part of this creation! We cannot separate ourselves from it. When we offer ourselves to God, we offer all that we have and all that we are a part of. As the Russian Theologian, Nicholas Berdyaev says, “In Orthodoxy salvation is understood “not only individually, but in sobornost, together with the entire world,” which is why the striving for universal salvation has appeared on the soil of Orthodoxy.”
The Lord asks us to pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is His will that people be cared for and healed so that we may become the heavenly reality here on earth as it is in heaven, waiting for His return one day to finish this transformation for us.
“The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” — St. John Chrysostom