In one of the hagiographies Oden cites in her excerpts constellated around the difficulty of recognizing the least of these, the saint is implored three times by the same man deceitfully dressed each time in different rags. The third time, aware that advantage is being taken of him, the saint doubles the alms he previously gave. Leontius writes, “Soon the man came again for the third time to ask for money and the attendant, carrying the gold, nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man, whereupon the truly merciful and beloved of God said, ‘Give him twelve nomismata, for perchance it is my Christ and He is making trial of me.”
What strikes me as so remarkable about this passage is the way in which the obvious deception of the false beggar, marked by the attendant and apparently by the saint as well, is enfolded not within a sort of broadening of charity pragmatically erring on the side of caution—as is common in so many of the excerpts Oden selects here—but rather within the possibility of a greater deception on the part of Christ. This possibility relays something additional about the strangeness of the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that moves through the body of these excerpts like a current—a strangeness that is principally described by how the parable (or is it a prophecy?), set on the day of judgment, describes an ignorance among Christians that the parable itself renders impossible. In what sense can the parable be true if the defense can no longer be mounted, the question of when Christ was or was not acknowledged no longer asked? That Christ might deceive, as this saint comments (not bitterly it appears but doxologically), intimates, I want to argue, that the strangeness of the evangelical passage might be taken as more than simply an illogic produced by the dramatic of the parable. That is, the claims of ignorance of those condemned in the parable might reveal something not primarily about the absence of a precedent for seeing the least of these as Christ but rather about the difficulty of taking (or accepting or acknowledging to offer a variety of emphases) the least of these as Christ. The claims of ignorance indicate that a rule for charitable seeing might not work to transform our vision simply—that Christ remains hidden because hiddenness is something other (or more) than not knowing this parable (because, that is, hiddenness importantly names something about ourselves). The excerpt from Leontius unfolds a complexity comprising the absence of certainty and the malice and closures that feed upon our fear of our own ignorance.
That the parable’s declaration itself does not just inaugurate a new type of seeing is evidenced not only by the amount of exhortation in these excerpts (exhortation generally directed, one can know by the various excerpts’ media, to those who have encountered the Gospel passage). But if these exhortations primarily address the recalcitrant greed of the wealthy (i.e., a refusal that is uncontestably a refusal), the excerpts also contend with the difficulty of judgment that attends the command. This is so because the command itself entails a discrimination—Christ is not found in everyone but in the least of these, and to some degree there seems to exist the need to determine who is at need. That such discrimination is not always easy, that a complex of deception and dessert attend the command, is evident from the number of excerpts that deal with judgment itself. It is acknowledged most emphatically and explicitly by John Chrysostom (63, 66) and Macarius (73). What resonates across these passages is a sensitivity to the difficulty of judgment—most often an awareness and critique of how discriminating between the authentically and inauthentically needy is troubled both by greed and by refusals of common humanity. The answer to this difficulty, as both Chrysostom and Macarius write, is not to learn how to judge better but to refuse such discrimination as the mediation of generosity entirely.
This censuring of judgment indexes the hiddenness of Christ as the apparent inconsonance of his identity with the least of these to a hiddenness produced by judgment itself. Christ is hidden, that is, not just by appearing as the sick and impoverished and imprisoned but also, inseparably, by the judgments by which we recognize and categorize sickness, poverty, and imprisonment. I cannot help but comment here, perhaps tangentially, of how the Matthew 25 passage that animates these excerpts has been hidden by the syllabus of this course itself. It has been hidden beneath the layers and weeks of reflection on the stranger (on the Strangerone might say to signal something of the force of the absent presence or present absence of the constitutive aporia Levinas treats), hidden by the refugee—hidden, I mean, by the various horizons of otherness that crystallize into stable identity in being discussed and that nevertheless depend in their philosophical and theological meaningfulness on escaping the very stabilities by which they are imagined.
If all this suggests something of the complexity and difficulty of seeing Christ (of accepting the rupture of divine presence as an infinite alterity in the conventions of human life, if it suggests a limitation inherent to human language that often masks what it names), then deception appears as the deepest concern. In the absence of certainty, the act of preying upon ignorance attacks the fragile conventions for which there is no better substitute. Yet in Leontius’ hagiography Christ may be the one who deceives, and a reversal is enacted. The hiddenness of Christ in the least of these, the excerpt demands, is not the inauguration of a new, final and stable evaluation. It is, instead, the opposite; it is the revelation (as Rowan Williams points out in speaking of the resurrected Christ’s strangeness) of the absence of such stability. In Leontius’ excerpt, it is Christ who finds the lacuna between judgment and certainty, who takes up the place of wounding in which hiddenness is shown to arise both from our own ignorance and our hatred of our ignorance—who takes up the place of wounding, and in it blesses.