November 23, 2014, Pentecost 24 – A Jury of the Last and the Least
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First of all, the passage we just read is not a parable. It’s not the same as the Parable of the Bridesmaids or the Parable of the Talents, a story meant to teach us a lesson. Jesus is telling us, here in the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew, that at the coming of the kingdom of Heaven our lives, the things that we have done, and the things that we have not done, will be judged.
And I think before we can even think about judgment, we need to find our solid footing on this truth: that our salvation rests on the perfect and complete ministry of Jesus Christ. When we talk about Judgment here, we’re not talking about losing our salvation. God is not trotting out a loophole in the abundant-life contract so that oops! I guess you don’t qualify after all.
Every word in Scripture is informed by and illuminated by and balanced by every other word in Scripture. And so before we talk about Judgment, we need to affirm this truth as it is plainly found in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
So as we talk about Judgment, we are not heading back into law and condemnation and fear and slavery. Just as surely as it is true that our lives will be judged by Jesus the true King, so it is also surely true that he is our righteousness and our lives are hid in him, today and tomorrow and forever. Never doubt that.
But, just as we read last week in the parable of the Talents, it matters how we live. It matters what we do; it matters what we don’t do. God cares too much about his children to just stamp our hands with an “acceptable” mark and let us go on living as we have always lived. He loves and accepts us just where we are. But he loves us far too much to leave us there. And so, the way we live, and especially the way we live alongside our fellow creatures, will be judged.
The picture Jesus draws for us is that the Judgment will be like a trial, the nations of the world gathered together with Christ the King as judge over all. But there’s a surprise in store for us – because the jury for our trial is not what we would expect. Here are some of the members of the jury who will determine our verdict:
1. The girl who rang up your order at WalMart
2. The welfare mother in the checkout line, buying her groceries with food stamps
3. The man, mentally ill and probably homeless, who always seems to be walking along Rte. 56 with a bag of cans
4. The woman at the nursing home, with food spilled down her shirt, who isn’t able to talk to anyone
5. The young man who spends all day every day playing video games alone in his bedroom
6. The woman who cleans the bathrooms on campus
7. The unbalanced woman you try to avoid or else you end up trapped in a long uncomfortable conversation
8. The eleven year old kid who seems to be on his own at all hours of the day and night, who already smokes and has the vocabulary of a merchant marine
9. The young father whose life is always on the brink of disaster, who asks you for money every single time you see him
10. The young woman who inexplicably keeps going back to the boyfriend who hurts and belittles her
11. The registered sex-offender whose face was plastered all over the neighborhood on posters by neighbors who were afraid of him
12. The young man with Down-syndrome who bags your groceries every week
These are some of the last and the least of our brothers and sisters; these are some of those whose witness will determine the judgment on our lives, for or against, because these men and women and children, along with many more, these are Jesus Christ to us. Insofar as we have had compassion on them; insofar as we have heard the cries of their hearts; insofar as we have looked on them as beloved of God, as men and women and children for whom Jesus lived and died; insofar as we have shown them love and mercy, we have shown it to our Lord.
But insofar as we have passed one of these on the street without compassion, insofar as we have refused to recognize their need or even to recognize them as human beings with the same feelings and fears and longings as we ourselves have, the same hungers, the same pain – insofar as we have walked by these our brothers and sisters, passing by them on the other side of the road to avoid seeing them or being bothered with them, we have also passed by our own Lord in his great suffering.
In this upside-down kingdom of heaven, the jury that passes judgment on all the actions of every man and woman and child will be those accounted the last and the least in the kingdom of this world, those who were accounted of no value, the forgotten and the despised, the failures, the dysfunctional, the hopeless cases. Because it is with these last and least that our King has aligned himself; so that whatever mercy we show to one of these children of his, we have shown to our King himself.
I believe that we are – every one of us – both acquitted and condemned by this word today. But I also believe that we will be greatly blessed if we listen, because Jesus always teaches us in love, with hope, so that in hearing his word and in taking it to heart, we can grow to be more like him, day by day, and our lives will reflect his goodness more and more.
We serve a King who hears the cry of the widow and the orphan. We serve a King whose heart has knit itself to those who are poor and needy – and poverty and need wear many different kinds of faces. There are so many different kinds of hunger and thirst – there is certainly what we think of as real poverty in our community, but there are also so many people we walk among every day who are starving in other ways – starved for kindness and compassion and meaning, people who live without any joy or any hope, people without real friends or family, people without a shred of self-respect, who don’t even have the courage to trust another person.
We read these words in Ezekiel this morning: God says: I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice.
And David, the man after God’s own heart, wrote: “to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless. O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,”
There is no God like our God. We serve a King who hears the cry of the weak and the helpless. We serve a King whose kingdom is to be inherited by the last and the least, the despised and the rejected. It is a great mystery and a great joy. And it is very good news for us, because if we are able to see ourselves truly we will find that we are ourselves the poorest and neediest of people. If it were not for our merciful God, we ourselves would be utterly without hope just as surely as the people we are tempted to despise or pity.
Paul wrote this to the church in Corinth: Take an honest look at yourselves, my brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, were you? Not many of you were powerful people, not many of you were born into noble houses.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
God commended King Josiah, who was one of the very few good and merciful kings in Judah, saying: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy – and isn’t that what it means to know me?” God said it himself: “To know me is to care for the poor and the needy.” To know God is to care for the last and the least. Do we really know that? Do we really believe it?
We may – we must – have compassion on the last and the least of our brothers and sisters for this very reason – because our King is a God of compassion. Our Lord and Savior and King had pity on us, and we are also surely the last and the least, especially in comparison with the glory and beauty and perfection of his kingdom. We are truly nothing special; when our life story plays out on the day of judgment we probably won’t have anything to boast about – except for this one glorious thing: that God chose what is low and despised in this world – that God chose you – that God chose me – to be his beloved children, heirs of his abundant life, and sharers of his compassion and mercy. We have nothing to boast of in ourselves – but we have everything to boast about in the glory of our King, who is merciful and gracious to us and to every one of his children, who hears the cry of the poor and needy, even the very least, and especially the very least. And to know him is to go and do the same.