The Problem with “Finding Christ” in “The Least of These”

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St. John Chrysostom once said, “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.”

For me, the truth of this statement is hard to deny. It points to the root of Jesus’ message.

However, I find myself having quite a lot of trouble with what I see as the intent of the message.

It’s a message that I speak of frequently: loving “the least of these.”

A simple way of expressing actually seeing and loving those marginalized by society is to speak of seeing the Christ in them – for if God is love and Christ is of/in/with God then loving a person means, among other things, to see the Christ in them.

I take some issue with St. John Chrysostom and, by extension, even with myself, because of the intent behind choosing a beggar.

The assumption is that if you can see Christ/love in the very least of these, a beggar, you can more fully see God. My new resistance to this kind of imagery is with how it removes some degree of the responsibility of marginalization from us personally and instead casts us in the role of rescuer or savior.

That’s not so much seeing the Christ in others as much as being the Christ for others.

I’m left to wonder if the real test of fully realizing the love of God is found in seeing Christ/love in those whom we directly marginalize.

It is actually much easier to see the Christ in someone who needs our help and wants it than it is to see Christ/love in someone who we dislike, disagree with or even have disassociated ourselves from.

It is much easier to invite into our lives a person who was marginalized by others or by society than it is to invite into our lives someone we ourselves have forced out of our lives. One casts ourselves as the hero the other admits we’ve played the role of villain.

Perhaps the lowest common denominator, in terms of the people we must learn to see the Christ/love in, is the very people we have chosen not to love. Chosen by the way we treat them, by the way we ignore and avoid them, chosen by the way we marginalize them out of our lives, chosen by the way we make them the least of all people in our lives.

If we hope, as Chrysostom says, to find Christ in the Chalice, perhaps we must first find Christ/love in the person who sits in the pew behind us, with whom we haven’t spoken for months because they had the audacity to suggest that God wasn’t male.

Perhaps we must first find Christ/love in the child that runs up and down the sanctuary isles. Perhaps we must first find Christ/love in the young adult who goes barefoot in the church because he is on “holy ground.” Perhaps we must first find Christ/love in the preacher who challenges us rather than simply makes us feel better about ourselves so that we can “make it through the week.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” – Matthew 5:43-44

Perhaps those people we sometimes think of as “enemy” or “other” or “wrong” are simply offering us a new opportunity to meet Christ, a chance to understand love, in a way that people who are closest to us are incapable of expressing it.

Considering that we are frequently the ones marginalizing others, persecuting them, perhaps reaching out to them is a chance to receive the gift of love from one who is praying for those who persecute them – a chance to experience God’s radical grace.

I’m not saying that it is less important to see Christ/love in a beggar than it is to see the same thing in people we have persecuted. I still believe very soundly that we must outwardly express a radical love to those society marginalizes.

I am saying, however, that we should feel a little less proud of getting to play the role of hero/savior and, instead, spend a little more time recognizing the times we have played persecutor and then be willing to risk opening ourselves up to the possibility of receiving grace and love from the very people we marginalized.

I’d like to challenge us all to revise the quote from Chrysostom to say, “If you do not find Christ in those you’ve marginalized in the church pew, neither will you find him in the chalice.”

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