Isn’t it amazing what a difference it makes to change one small word in a sentence? Isn’t it surprising what a difference it makes to change for to to? At the risk of being accused of hubris, I will attempt to update a famous quotation. It is my favorite passage in the New Testament, Matthew 25:35-40.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” [Emphasis added.]
In this beautiful passage, we are told that if we treat the least of humanity with kindness, it is as if we had treated the Lord Himself that way. We are warned not to take people at face value. Just because someone is homeless, or poorly dressed, or a foreigner, or needy, or sick, or even in prison, this is no reason to assume that he or she is worthless. The Almighty may see that person quite differently.
Perhaps it is even possible that the person may be an angel. That word evokes images of peculiar creatures with wings. But the word, in both Hebrew and Greek, means “messenger.” This raises the worrisome possibility that the person who appears to us as a worthless bum may report back to the Lord on how we treated him. Even if we are not actively religious, that thought may motivate us to treat people with kindness.
Who can judge the true value of a human being from his outward appearance? Ted Bundy looked like a handsome, clean-cut college student, but he was a serial murderer. Mother Teresa appeared quite homely as an older woman, but she devoted her life to helping the poorest of the poor.
Some time ago, a man with a cut hand arrived in the emergency department of my hospital on a Sunday. He was unshaven, dirty, and dressed in old clothes. The staff kept him waiting while they told jokes. Next day the same man arrived in a good suit and a white coat. He was the new chief of the department and had been working in his garden. Needless to say, changes were made. If an earthly chief can arrive unkempt and observe how “low-class” people are treated, is it possible that a higher Chief might do something similar?
But meaningful as this biblical passage may be, how might it be worded if it were written today? Have we taken a beautiful story and turned it into an ugly one? Have we changed for to to?
For I was an early fetus and you aborted me. You tore me limb from limb. Didn’t you listen when I told you, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”? How could you claim that a human being I know is just a worthless blob of jelly? Why do you imagine that you have the power to define some categories of human life as less than human? Then what is to prevent others from defining you as less than human?
I was a viable fetus and you not only aborted me, you left me to die when I was born alive. You left me on the stainless steel sink in the soiled utility room, as if I were a dirty rag. I was cold, but you didn’t cover me. I was frightened, but you didn’t hold me. And then you elected a man as your president who three times voted not to require care for me when I might have survived. If you choose a person like that as your leader, what does that say about your respect for innocent life? What does that say about you?
I was severely disabled and you murdered me slowly. You dehydrated and starved me to death over 13 days, even though my parents and siblings begged to take care of me. I was thirsty, but you gave me nothing to drink. I was hungry, but you gave me nothing to eat. You accepted the word of those who said I was unaware of my surroundings, but disregarded the testimony of those who said I was aware. You even called me a “vegetable,” a “cabbage” and other vile names in order to dehumanize me. Don’t you remember that the Nazis called the disabled “useless eaters” who were a “drain on the Fatherland”? Don’t you remember that murdering the disabled was the physical and psychological prelude to the Holocaust? Did you learn nothing from that terrible lesson? What does that say about you?
I spoke up for the traditional concept of marriage, which has existed in all cultures since the dawn of history. I was an artist, but you caused me to lose my job. I was an old lady, but you frightened and assaulted me. I was in church, but you tried to terrorize me. I was a breadwinner, but you took food off my family’s table. You desecrated my house and slandered my friends. You focused your hateful propaganda on a specific group because it is small in numbers, has the reputation of being wealthy, and is especially peaceful in its behavior. Today it is the Mormons, but yesterday it was the Jews, who were persecuted for similar reasons. Doesn’t that similarity make you feel guilty, or at least uncomfortable? Do you even recognize the similarity?
Truly I tell you, whatever you do to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me.
It has been two millennia since the New Testament was written. Many things have changed since then, some for the better, some not. Frankly, I prefer the original version of this passage. Perhaps, if we try really hard, we can restore it. Perhaps, if we really work at it, we can change to back to for.
This is an update of a prior column. Contact: email@example.com. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.