November 26, 2017, Half a Cloak Is Better Than One – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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There is a very famous story about a man named Martin of Tours, who lived in the fourth century, just when Christianity had been declared legal in the Roman Empire. The background of this story is that it happened when Martin was still in his teens, a soldier in the Roman cavalry, and he was in the process of studying the basics of the faith in preparation for his baptism. At that time, a person studied quite a long time before they were baptised, and during their time of study they were called “catechumens”. As the story goes, Martin was in the city of Amiens with his cohort, and he passed by a beggar, who was barely clothed in rags and shivering with the cold. Martin immediately took off his warm cloak, and cutting it in half with his sword, he gave half to the beggar and wrapped himself in what was left of it. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus himself, speaking to an angel. He saw that Jesus was wrapped in the very piece of cloak that Martin had given the beggar, and Jesus was saying to the angel, “Martin, who is a mere catechumen, gave this to me!”
Of course, this is a legend that has been passed down through the centuries and not inspired Scripture, but I would say that there is likely more than a grain of truth in a story that is so consistent with what we know about the real Martin, who was a courageous and dedicated Christian all his life, and the first person ever to be a conscientious objector – for which he was nearly executed. The great thing about this story is that it’s such a perfect illustration of two things that are important parts of the parable we read today about the sheep and the goats. First of all, when Martin saw the poor beggar, ragged and freezing, he immediately acted with compassion. He couldn’t pass by that poor, shivering man while he himself walked comfortably warm in his soldier’s cloak; his heart compelled him to action, and in his abundance of compassion he hacked his cloak in two pieces so that he could share his comfort with the beggar. He wasn’t even officially a Christian yet – but it was just something he had to do; he just knew it was right.
The other thing about the story that fits in so well with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the dream that Martin had, of Jesus clothed in his half a cloak. When Martin clothed the beggar it was an act of service not only to that poor man, but to Jesus himself. That is because when Jesus chose to be born on earth as a poor, unremarkable human being, he set his identity forever with us, his human creatures, and most especially with the poor and the vulnerable and the overlooked – the “least of these, my brothers and sisters” as he says in the parable. And so in the story, Martin’s act of kindness to a poor stranger in Amiens resounded to heaven itself.
And the idea that God takes it personally when his people are shown compassion, or when they are not shown compassion, didn’t begin in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus. Way back in the first book of the Bible, when God first called a man named Abraham out of his homeland, away from his family and everything he had ever known, to be the father of God’s own people, God promised this: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” The God of Israel tied himself so intimately, so personally, with the nation of Israel that a kindness to Israel was a kindness to God. And an attack on Israel was an attack on God. Throughout the Old Testament God’s judgment was on those who opposed his beloved people, and his blessing was on those who showed them compassion. That was part of his covenant with them.
When Israel was stubborn or rebellious, as people are, their God disciplined them, as a father disciplines the children he loves, sometimes even in anger. But always, God maintained that intimate, personal connection to his people. We know how that is in our human relationships. I might criticize my brother, maybe even harshly – but if someone outside my family were to criticize him, or to mistreat him, I would be personally offended. God chose to relate to Israel in that intimate kind of way.
Remember that Jesus was telling this parable that we read this morning to Jews, who knew all about God’s covenant love and care for them and their nation. It was their own family history to remember how he had fought against the powerful nation of Egypt on their behalf, how he had come to their aid during their wanderings in the wilderness, how he had blessed their relationships with the surrounding nations during the time of King David. They knew that it was God’s way to involve himself personally with the people he loved.
What Jesus was teaching that was a new idea was this: that he had come to do what God had always intended: to extend this intimate connection to mankind beyond the boundaries of his little nation Israel. “I will bless those who bless you,” he had said to Abraham, “and him who dishonors you I will curse. And in you,” God had continued, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In his love for all his creatures, God’s ultimate plan had never been to love only Israel and throw the rest of the world to the dogs. His heart was always set on extending his love and blessing through Israel to every man, and woman and child on the earth. “God so loved the world,” John wrote. And especially, he has tender concern and fierce loyalty to the poor and the helpless, the unloved and the unwanted in every part of the world.
And that brings us to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where, in extending that kind of tender concern beyond the boundaries of Israel to all the families of the earth, Jesus extends that original covenant promise to all the nations. “When you bless one another you are blessing me,” he is telling us, “but when you dishonor one another you are dishonoring me and bringing down judgment on yourself. A kindness to the least of my family members is a personal kindness to me. And to pass by the least one of my family members in their time of need is to pass me by.”
Maybe the most striking thing about this parable is that every one of us finds ourselves on the King’s left hand and on his right hand. We are all both sheep and goats, depending on the day and the time and how much sleep we got last night. Which of us has, at some time, even many times, had compassion on someone in need, has fed the hungry or given warm clothes to someone who was cold or visited someone who was sick or lonely. Have we opened our home to our neighbors during an ice storm or brought dinner to someone who had surgery or bought food for the food pantry? Of course! So, we are all sheep, every one of us, because Jesus says, “As you did this to one of the least of my brothers or sisters you did it to me.” But then again, which of us has ever looked the other way, pretending we didn’t notice, when we passed a homeless man begging on the sidewalk, or decided we just didn’t have time to go see someone who was lonely, or who was in the hospital? Have we ever avoided a lonely neighbor so we wouldn’t get sucked into a lengthy conversation? The truth is that we are all goats, too, really, every one of us, because Jesus also said, “As you did not do this or that for one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did not do it for me.”
Just exactly because he has chosen to set his personal, intimate love and concern on all people, we find ourselves meeting Jesus every day, and just like the meeting of Martin of Tours with the shivering beggar, every meeting is a new opportunity for blessing that will resound to the heavens. We often just think of this parable as a picture of the great judgment day at the end of time: in fact, my Bible titles this section “The Final Judgment.” And we do believe, because Jesus taught us, that there will be a final day of judgment. But remember how the parable began, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.”
On this day we call Christ the King Sunday we affirm that the risen, ascended, Jesus Christ is enthroned in his glory, not at some time in the future, but now, today, and for all eternity. And that means that the judgment between the sheep and the goats is about the choices we make, not at the end of time, but now, today and everyday. As the people of Jesus Christ, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is a warning to us to recognize our King in the faces and in the places and in the times we least expect to see him. And it is also a promise to us that when we do reach out with compassion to anyone, to our family members, to our brothers and sisters here in the Church, to our neighbors, and especially to the poor and the vulnerable and the stranger and the overlooked, those he names as his brothers and sisters, then we are serving our King and the blessing resounds to the heavens.