I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you invited me in

iStock_000023070342LargeAs Australians we are proud of our nation’s ideal of a ‘fair go’. What would this look like in practice if we lived accordingly to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, often referred to as ‘the Inasmuch Sermon’?
Article by Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO

What if our national anthem and motto contained a powerful Gospel message? No country does that, does it? Not quite. Yet a dependency of Australia, Norfolk Island, has the solitary word ‘Inasmuch’ as its motto; while the Pacific Island territory of Pitcairn has these words as its Anthem:

Then shall the King
Say unto them
On his right hand:
Come ye blessed of my Father
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world
I was hunger’d and ye gave me meat,
I was thirsty and ye gave me drink
I was a stranger and ye took me in,
Naked and ye clothed me,
I was sick and ye visited me,
I was in prison and ye came unto me
In as much ye have done it unto one of the least of
These my brethren
Ye have done it unto me,
Ye have done it unto me.

Listening to two Norfolk Island women sing these words to me in 2012, Matthew 25 immediately came to mind. I thought how wonderful it was that these two specks of territory had more than a century ago opted to convey the powerful message of Jesus’ ‘Inasmuch Sermon’ through their national symbols.

There is a lot of history that lies behind why the ‘Inasmuch Sermon’ has such an important place in Pitcairn and Norfolk Island (not the least being the aftermath of the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty), but it has made me think a lot about the power of this part of the Gospel in our own community. How do we respond to Jesus’ call for us to be there for the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger at the gate, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned?

The beauty of the words incline us emotionally to say that we would do all that Jesus would expect; but the reality is often very different. More than that, we can too easily miss some key points in these words; for Jesus actually expects much more of us than merely giving charity to those in need. In these few gospel verses, he lays before us profound challenges.

In encountering need in our community, there is often the tendency to do so by encountering problems rather than encountering real people. We start doing this by labelling – we talk of the poor, the hungry, the sick and other such terms that, in their plural sense, strip away the individuality of people leaving us only with their problems standing before us.  Yet in the ‘Inasmuch Sermon’, the word ‘I’ keeps appearing:

 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.’ [v35-6]

This is no anonymous approach to those in need. The ‘I’ in the needy other demands to be recognised.

However, there is an even greater point to be understood here. Jesus not only personalises those in need, he also strips them totally of their ‘otherness’ by immediately equating them with himself (‘the King’).  And in this way, he creates a unity out of the ‘two greatest commandments’ – Loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. By not merely likening himself to those in need – ‘imagine that it was I who was hungry …’- but by being definitive – ‘I was hungry’- Jesus becomes the marginalised. So, if we are to love God (Father and Son), we must find ourselves loving our marginalised neighbour as ourselves.

This leads to yet another level of understanding – the strong Kingdom component of the ‘Inasmuch Sermon’. In these verses, Jesus speaks as the King, bringing into our focus the words of the Lord’s Prayer – “Your Kingdom come”. In doing so, he asks that we encounter the marginalised in a kingdom-building way. By this I mean that he asks of us that we prophetically forth tell a world where the marginalised of our contemporary world may be freed from the bonds of their marginalisation. In the words of Isaiah, we are called to participate in acts that:

loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. [Isaiah 58:6]

This cannot be done by merely reacting to need when we encounter it by bringing immediate help, important as that is; it also requires that we consider what we as Christians can do to challenge the causes of such need and seek to take on the prevailing direction of world’s social winds that promote belief in the inevitability that such marginalisation is simply the way things are. Jesus tells us that he came that we ‘might have life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). He does not mean by this that a select group of ‘us’ will be the beneficiaries of his coming, he intends it to be a universal ‘us’, absorbing all the marginalised ‘them’.

How are we to do that? If we look once more at the ‘Inasmuch Sermon’ we see that Jesus upends prevailing convention – he includes both the ‘worthy’ and the ‘unworthy’ from the world view as meriting his call for compassion – the prisoner and the stranger at the gate rank equally with what the world might deem the deserving needy. He sweeps away the earthly anticipation of a King resplendent in glory with one who is clothed in the wretchedness of those he describes. Essentially, he takes on the prevailing direction of the world’s social winds. How then can we, who profess to follow him, do anything other than the same.

I guess our national anthem and motto won’t be changed any time soon – but what if our self-ascribed Australian virtues of ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’ became synonymous with the true spirit of ‘Inasmuch’?

Then shall the King
Say unto them ….

Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO was the Labor Premier of South Australia in 1992-1993. After leaving politics, he worked for World Vision from 1997 to 2007 and for Anglicare SA from 2008 to 2012. He was ordained as a deacon in 2013, and now works with those who are marginalised in the community.

Author: Rise Magazine

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