Matthew 25’s Call to Community

A Letter from Tracey King-Ortega, serving as regional liaison for Central America, based in Nicaragua, currently in the U.S.

June 2020

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Dear friends,

I was recently invited to preach at my home congregation on Matthew 25. Given the current complexity of crises around us, I was feeling apprehensive about how to approach the passage and deliver a meaningful and pertinent message. I decided to bring my whole self to the writing process.

Having lived and served in Latin America most of my adult life has shaped who I am, how I understand who God is and how I approach the Bible. A key tenet of Latin American Theology is the “preferential option for the poor.” Throughout scripture we see how Jesus sought out “the least of these,” talked to them, touched them, ate with them, treated them with dignity and invited them into community. As we read in Matthew 25, on the final day of judgement, the question asked is simply, what did you do for the poor and needy. For many of our mission partners in Central America, with whom I have worshipped, served and studied scripture, these are the lenses they use when interpreting the Bible. They analyze what is happening in the world around us and ask what scripture has to say about that. How does the Bible help us to understand what God is calling us to do? And in particular, they look to see how the poor and vulnerable are being further impacted and marginalized because they understand that the gospel directs us to bring good news to the poor.

Another thing I have learned during my years in Latin America is to think communally and about systems, about the powers and principalities at work, about systemic violence and poverty; all traits of our current society that are the antithesis to the Kingdom of God and what God desires for God’s people. Christ teaches us not only to show compassion through individual acts of charity but to also challenge and change the structures that oppress.

This pandemic is like an X-ray revealing the vulnerable in our society.

Taking this approach with Matthew 25, I look to see what is going on around us and ask, “in today’s context, who are the “least of these” who Christ is referring to?

We find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. Everyone is affected in some way or another, but clearly some are more impacted than others. I am currently in the U.S., so my first point of reference is what is happening immediately around me in this country. This pandemic is like an X-ray revealing the vulnerable in our society. With staggering unemployment numbers akin to the time of the Great Depression, we are seeing increased demand at food pantries. Essential workers are bearing the brunt: they can’t stay home and are being hit in disproportionately high numbers by the virus. The coronavirus is exposing our racial divides. People of color are being hit the hardest. Those impacted most by the virus are those who have always been on the margins of our society. If we are paying attention, not only do we see great suffering around us, but there are patterns to it. Our systems and structures are not working for most.

I am also trying to wrap my head around how the pandemic is impacting Central America. It is a mixed bag. Costa Rica seems to have done a good job of containing the virus with reasonable restrictive measures and universal healthcare. Both Honduras and El Salvador have had strict lockdown measures in place to try and prevent the spread, but the economic impact in already impoverished communities is almost too great a burden. In El Salvador, some families have taken to placing red or white flags outside their homes to indicate that they have no food to eat. Just as is the case we are seeing in the United States, the impact of this virus is not even, the poor are being hit the hardest. It is a privilege to be able to stay home and social distance yourself as a protection measure.

Perhaps God is doing a new thing and we are invited in.

The challenge sheltering-in-place brings to the working poor, to those dependent on today’s earnings to feed their family today, is part of the justification of not implementing any quarantine measures in Nicaragua. This so-called “Swedish Approach” has not fared well. It is utterly painful to watch as dear family and friends are being infected. Every day we hear of someone else, everyone knows someone who has died. The official government numbers are not reliable, but the devastation is undeniable and there is no end in sight. I share this now without any answers to follow. I am grateful that as a denomination we have been able to respond in tangible ways throughout the region with solidarity grants from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance that allow our partners like the Presbyterian Church of Honduras and CEPAD in Nicaragua to ameliorate in some way the current crisis. Though travel for the foreseeable future is a challenge and I won’t be visiting our partners, we remain connected. We carry one another’s burdens as siblings in Christ, trying to make sense of the times in which we are currently living. The weight of the world is heavy, here, there and everywhere. We are also a people of hope that believe in the promise that God has great plans for us. This current extended pause we are in provides an opportunity for us to take stock, to rethink what church looks like, what “normal” life will look like as we slowly start up again. Perhaps God is doing a new thing and we are invited in. I pray that we take this time to be intentional in re-creating what and who we can become. We still have time. Our mission partners in Central America are asking the same questions and there is hope in that. I pray that we envision together a post-COVID world that is more faithful to the principles of God’s Realm. I pray that we can be a church that recognizes Christ in the face of “the least of these” and responds in meaningful, transformative ways.

Peace,

Tracey


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