‘The least of these,’ members of my family

Matthew 25 speaks volumes to a seminary professor and mission co-worker teaching in Zambia

by Dustin Ellington, Mission Connections | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Dustin Ellington speaks with a student in the courtyard outside his office at Justo Mwale University in Zambia. (Contributed photo)

LUSAKA, Zambia — After taking the time to use a theology library and see family in the United States during December and early January, I returned to Zambia. My flight from the U.S. was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight in Istanbul. The next plane to Zambia was four days later. I gladly received the airline’s gift of four free nights of lodging, all meals included, in a city I’ve wanted to explore.

Arriving in Lusaka, I told one of my students the story. He marveled, “They gave you three meals a day for four days?” When I replied yes, he responded, “You’re so anointed!” I was a bit startled. Did the ample supply of food mean God’s Spirit was upon me? It made me wonder how my students feel about people around them who go without meals, or about themselves when they must go without meals. Do they think they know less of Christ’s presence and less of the Holy Spirit’s anointing?

Not long afterward, I had the opportunity to participate in a small-group Bible study with other Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers serving throughout Africa. We were invited to read closely Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus speaks of when he comes again and is like a shepherd separating “sheep from goats” at the final judgment. We were also invited to ask the questions: “What word or phrase stands out? How does the text resonate with or challenge you? What might the text be calling you to do, be or change?”

For me, “when the Son of Man comes” first got my attention and pricked my heart, because I know Jesus’ second coming is such an important theme in the New Testament. It gets so much coverage in the Bible, and yet we/I don’t speak much about it in American Presbyterian churches or here in the churches in Africa. I feel that gap and wonder about being unfaithful to the importance that Scripture gives to Jesus’ return.

But then I was also struck with the words, “the least of these who are members of my family” (v. 40). Jesus says that when he returns, he will welcome those who fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, visited him when he was sick, and came to him when he was in prison. We will have done all of these things when we’ve done them for “the least of these who are members of my family.” It struck me that when Jesus comes again, what is truly real and important will become absolutely evident, and we will see everything as it really is, including “all” that we did for “the least of these,” we did for Jesus, who turned out to be in them.

Then we read the passage a second time, asking how the text resonates with us or challenges us. I became increasingly struck with Jesus’ deep identification with “the least of these.” I found it difficult and haunting that Jesus would say that what we have not done for “the least of these,” we have not done for him. Why would he identify himself quite so closely with human beings? And why would Jesus identify so closely with not just humans but “the least of these”?

I knew that Matthew tends to link “members of my family” with Jesus’ disciples and those who are following him to spread the gospel (Matt. 5:47; 12:46–49; 28:10). I began thinking about my students at Justo Mwale University — certainly among Jesus’ brothers and sisters. I enjoy and love them and gain energy from them — but what about the least among them? What about those students of mine whose experience in life has left them less able, or less open, or simply less like me, than the others? Do I treat each interaction with them as though I’m honored to interact with Jesus? Or do I reserve that enthusiasm for the most able and earnest among them?

Then our group read the passage for a third time, and took moments to ask ourselves: What might the text be calling me to do, be, or change? This time, I didn’t feel haunted. I sensed an invitation. I could find Jesus not only in my students to whom I’ve naturally gravitated. I’m invited to find and recognize Jesus in “the least” of the students Jesus brings to me. And learning to meet Jesus in all my students will help me become ready for when Jesus comes again.

I’m sorry for when, in a life of ministry, I’ve overlooked seeing Jesus in “the least of these,” my brothers and sisters. I suspect God’s people do that often, whether in Africa or the United States or anywhere else. I pledge to be open to Jesus in them all, not just those who reflect my favorite traits.

I would appreciate prayer that my presence at Justo Mwale University can help our community recognize and esteem Jesus by honoring every student whom God brings our way. On one hand, as Africans, Zambians are inclusive and look after one another. For instance, despite Zambia’s relative poverty, I don’t often see homeless people. On the other hand, Christians here tend to see those among them who have a little more wealth, a little nicer clothing, and a little more food as being more “anointed,” more marked by God’s Spirit and blessing. This can be so hard on Jesus’ African brothers and sisters who are preparing for and doing faithful ministry but are somewhat impoverished. If my colleagues and I at Justo Mwale can treat them with the dignity that Jesus deserves, I think it could be empowering for many people, and it might even affect how they think God sees them.

The Rev. Dr. Dustin and Sherri Ellington are PC(USA) mission co-workers assigned to Justo Mwale Theological University, where Dustin teaches New Testament, Greek and preaching. In this region of Africa, the church has grown exponentially in the last two or three generations and has a central role in solving the region’s societal problems.

Justo Mwale, which trains future pastors for service in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and beyond, helps meet the church’s critical need for more trained leaders. Sherri serves as the site coordinator of the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in which she mentors young adults as they serve in various placements as a part of the vibrant ministry of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian-Synod of Zambia. Subscribe to the Ellingtons’ letters. Consider supporting their work in Zambia.

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