November 22, 2020, King Incognito, Matthew 25:31-48 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today’s gospel reading is what we generally call “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” which is actually not a very good title, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not a good title because it isn’t really a parable. And second, it’s not a good title because it isn’t really about sheep and goats. The truth is, this is a strange passage, and not altogether comfortable – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jesus is giving us a preview, or trailer, as they say, of the great day of Judgment, when he, the King of kings and Lord of lords, comes back and sits down on his throne to judge all the peoples of the earth. And the universal reaction of every person present is bewilderment. The people who are commended by the King are flummoxed because he commends them for doing something they didn’t even know they did. And the people who are condemned by the King are equally flummoxed because he indicts them for failing to do something they didn’t even know they didn’t do. The point of the story seems to be this: not one person – not one – understood what the King would be looking for when he came back to judge the peoples of the earth.
The surprise comes when the witnesses come forward to testify: they are not the people who had authority over our lives, not the people we looked up to and tried to please. Not at all. They are the people we barely noticed: The checkout lady at WalMart; the welfare mom ahead of us in the checkout line, buying her groceries with food stamps; the man who always seemed to be picking up cans along Rte. 56; the elderly woman in the nursing home who never spoke to anyone; our teenage neighbor who spent all day every day playing video games in his bedroom; the woman who cleaned the bathrooms where we worked; that person whose name we dreaded to see on caller ID; the young woman on our street who kept going back to the boyfriend who hurt her; the people who live at the group home, whose faces we so rarely saw.
The great surprise is that these are some of those whose witness will judge our lives, because these men and women and children, along with so many more, they 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 them 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.
This is the great surprise of the judgment. 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 the last and the least that our King allies himself; so that whatever mercy we show to one of these brothers and sisters 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. There is nobody here who has not shown kindness to a neighbor in need. Every one of us, at some time, has reached out in compassion. But if we are honest, it is certainly true as well that every one of us has failed at some time or other. Instead of mercy, we have sometimes condemned. Instead of kindness, we have sometimes pretended not to see. The purpose of this teaching is not to ourselves on the back, and it is not to condemn ourselves either. Jesus has given us this teaching because he loves us, so that in hearing his word and in taking it to heart, we can grow to be more like him, day by day, so that our lives will reflect his goodness more and more.
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. 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 with truth and humility we find that we are ourselves strayed, and injured, and weak. We are needy and blind and helpless. If it were not for the mercy and compassion of our God, we ourselves would be utterly without hope just as surely as the people we are tempted to despise or pity.
It is as if the parents of a big family went away on a long trip, leaving their children home and in charge of the house. And while the parents were away, some of the children worked frantically at keeping the house clean, washing every dish till it sparkled, keeping the floor swept and mopped, wiping down the woodwork, polishing the mirrors and furniture. The Parents like a clean house, these children said to themselves, when they get home they’re going to be looking for a perfectly clean house. Others of the children worked diligently at their studies, keeping up with their school assignments, practicing their instruments every day, spending an hour every single day reading. The Parents expect us to improve our minds and our talents, these children said. They’ll be really happy with us when they get home. Others of the children took on the shopping and cooking, making sure that every meal was perfectly balanced, nutritionally. They policed the others and cracked down on the consumption of candy and fast food. The Parents want us to eat healthy, these children said to themselves, when they get home they’re going to ask what we’ve been eating. They’ll be super happy to hear not one of us ate at McDonalds for the entire week. And so it went, for a month or more, while the children awaited their parents’ return.
At long, long last the children heard the familiar and much-longed-for sound of the family station wagon pulling into the driveway, and they all poured out of the house to greet their parents and tell them proudly how well they’d done while they were gone away. But the parents didn’t ask about the meal plans. They didn’t seem to notice the spotless kitchen and gleaming furniture. They didn’t ask about assignments or piano practice or daily readings. The only question they asked as they greeted their children was this: did you take good care of each other?
Our Tuesday morning Bible study group studied a book by the Rev. Jim Wallis, and in his book he tells the story of a woman who taught him a lot about seeing and serving Christ in our neighbors. When Rev. Wallis was a young man, he volunteered at a soup kitchen in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C., where he met Mary Glover. Before they began serving every day Mary would gather the volunteers, and begin with the same prayer. In all the years that have followed Jim Wallis has continued to use that prayer over and over in his ministry. Mary would always end her prayer with these words, “Lord, we know that you will be coming through this line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well — help us to treat you well. Amen.” As we cook and plan and serve and give thanks this week, in all that we do, let us remember that every face we see, every hand we reach out to, every stomach we fill and every heart we touch is Jesus to us: our Lord Jesus who is both our King and our brother. And let us take good care of one another, because in caring for even the least of these, his brothers and sisters – especially the least of these, his brothers and sisters – we serve our King.