Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 24, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Ah, yes. The Judgment of the Nations from Matthew 25. I consider this story to be among the small handful of the most important passages in all of Scripture for telling us what the faith calls us to do, what the faith demands that we do, in response to the unconditional grace that God offers us in and through Christ Jesus our Lord. I have often referred to this passage as the Constitution for Christian social justice work. Matthew creates a scene here that expresses in magnificent, powerful, evocative language the Christian call to care for the poor, the needy, the sick, the vulnerable, the imprisoned in our midst. And itís all based on a startling, unlikely, and very difficult premise, namely, that when we care for those in need of our care we also and in fact care for Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Savior. Letís take a closer look at Matthewís cosmic drama and see just what it is trying to teach us.
The scene is set in the future, on what the Christian tradition came to call Judgment Day: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory." This is a vision of the Second Coming of the Messiah, who will judge all people and bring an end to history as we know it. So it is a cosmic drama. It deals with ultimate things, our eternal fate. The setting is saying: "This is what itís all about in the end folks. Pay attention." All the "nations," the Greek is the root of our word "ethnic," so it could also be translated "peoples," will be gathered before Christ, before Christ as cosmic judge come to pass eternal judgment on us all. As Matthew tells it, some "people," the Greek now seems to refer to individuals rather than to nations, are judged worthy of heaven, worthy to "inherit the kingdom...." Otherís arenít. To them Christ says: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire...." Even if, like me, you donít believe that our God of love, mercy, and forgiveness actually condemns people to eternal fire, it isnít hard to see that story is saying that what we do matters. It matters to Jesus, to God, and it matters ultimately.
Well, OK. But what matters? What are the criteria by which we pass or fail the ultimate pass/fail test? What is it that matters so much that our tradition can talk about it only in the mythic language of eternal salvation and damnation? Todayís lesson tells us initially that the thing that matters so much is how we treat Jesus. Those who are saved in this parable (and I think it is a parable even though it isnít called that in the text) are those who took care of Jesus when they saw him in need. They
saw him hungry and gave him food.They saw their Lord and Savior in need and responded to that need with compassion. Only it turns out they didnít even know they were doing it. When Christ tells them that they did those things, they donít get it. They say: "Huh? What in heavenís name are you talking about? We donít remember ever seeing you like that and doing those things for you. Thanks for the eternal salvation. We appreciate it. Really. But are you nuts?"
saw him thirsty and gave him drink.
saw him a stranger and welcomed him.
saw him naked and clothed him.
saw him sick and cared for him.
saw him in prison and visited him.
Then comes the punch line, the big surprise, the thing no one expected that turns the whole story on its head and give it its true cosmic meaning. It turns out that they had done those things for Jesus without knowing it because "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me." Wow! When we care for people in need, when we care for what Matthew here has Christ call "the least" among us, we are caring for Jesus himself. The risen Christ here draws a direct equation between himself and ďthe least of these who are members of my family.Ē You could write it as a mathematical formula: The least of these = Jesus. In more metaphoric language we could say: In the face of those in need we see the face of Jesus. Do it for them, do it for him. And just to make sure we donít miss the point, Matthew then has Christ turn the equation on its head. To the condemned he says: You didnít do those compassionate things for me. And like the saved, they donít get it, even though the way the story is structured it seems they must have heard what Christ said to the others about doing it for the ďleast of these.Ē But I guess the condemned are dense, about as dense as I am most of the time. So Christ says it again: ďJust as you did not do it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.Ē Itís now cast in the negative, but the equation is the same: The least = Jesus.
Now, the point seems clear enough. We love Jesus. If we found him in need, of course we would care for him, do everything we could to see that he had food, clothing, shelter, medical care, visitors to share his troubles with and show him around when he was lost in a strange place. Of course we would! Weíd love to. It would give us great joy to do it. But if youíre like me, most of the time you donít believe that you ever get the chance to do it. After all, Jesus died nearly 2000 years ago. Oh, sure, that wasnít the end of the story. He rose from the grave, but then he was on earth as the risen Christ only a short time. As we learn from Scripture and the ancient creeds he ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God. And yes, we are also told that we will come again, but he hasnít come again yet. He may be a spiritual presence on our lives. I hope he is in yours. But heís not with us in body, needing food, clothing water, and so on. At least, thatís how it seems to us.
Scripture tells us weíre wrong: "Just as you did it, or did not do it, for the least of my brothers and sisters you did or did not do it for me." We donít do it for Jesus every day! Every day we donít feed the hungry, tend the sick, house the homeless, visit the imprisoned, we fail to do those things for our risen Lord. Sometimes we do it. We give to the food bank, give to shelter programs, maybe support a prison ministry as we are doing this morning with our special offering for Matthew House. The picture isnít as simple as Matthewís dramatic story makes it seem. We are both sheep and goats. We both do it and donít do it. But you see our modest mission work in a different light when you think of it being not for the poor, the homeless, the prisoners, but for Jesus. If itís for Jesus, can it ever be enough?
And thereís one more point that I think we need to draw out of this passage. It has to do with that phrase "the least of these." That phrase has always troubled me. I mean, the whole point of Jesusí earthly ministry was that those whom society and the religious establishment consider the least are in fact not the least at all. The Gospels are full of Jesus sayings along this line. "The last shall be first." "The meek shall inherit the earth," and so on. So why does Matthew here have him call those whom we are called to serve as we would serve him "the least?" I donít really have an answer to that question. I rather doubt that the historical Jesus would have put it this way. I donít know why Matthew did. Nonetheless, I think there is something important to be learned from it. Letís take "the least of these" to mean precisely those whom society considers to be the least. Who are they? The homeless. The mentally ill. Criminals. Those in prison. Drug addicts. Those who canít care for themselves. The illiterate, the developmentally disabled. Those who donít "make it" in societyís terms. The non-white, non-straight, non-able-bodied. Those in nursing homes with no one to visit them. You could probably expand the list.
What is one thing that all these people have in common? They are for the most part people we try to avoid. We donít like dealing with them. They make us uncomfortable. Often theyíre dirty. They smell bad. They donít make sense. They donít appreciate our efforts to help them. Maybe they donít speak English so itís hard to communicate with them. Maybe they arenít from around here, so we think they are someone elseís responsibility. And maybe we think they brought their problems on themselves and therefore donít deserve our help. Maybe the prisoner really did it. The drug addict at some point made the decision to start using. The panhandler, we think, could go get some kind of job, and if that means taking literacy classes first, or getting a GED, fine, itís his own fault if he doesnít do it. Maybe the young single mother has had more children than she can support and so, in our eyes, is irresponsible and undeserving. We can think of all kinds of reasons why we canít or donít want to or donít have to help them.
But you see, in Matthew 25 Jesus doesnít say: Help the deserving poor only. Help the innocent only. Help only those people like us, or those people who live, or at least try to live, the way we want them to. He says: Help the least. Our duty to respond to human need with compassion extends precisely to those we donít want to help, those we think donít deserve our help, those we donít want in our presence, and certainly donít want in our homes or our church. They, precisely they, are the face of Jesus in our midst. When we donít help them, we turn our backs on Christ. We turn our backs on Godís call to us as faithful Christians. We fail in our duty as children of God.
Now, I said at the beginning of this sermon that I see Matthew 25:31-46 as a "constitution" for Christian social justice work. A constitution creates the basic structure of a system. It lays the foundation. It sets the parameters of the systemís life. It is not a legislative program. The Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25 does not lay out for us how we are to do these things for those who are the face of God in our midst. It doesnít tell us in any detail what to do. That we have to work out for ourselves. There can be, and in fact there is, substantial disagreement among well intentioned people about how best to fulfill our duty in this regard. What is not open to question for Christians, it seems to me, is that we have the duty. Itís not easy to do that duty. Itís a whole lot more comfortable not to. But if our words about how we love Jesus are not to ring hopelessly hollow we have to try. God does not demand more of us than we can do. God stands ready always to give us the grace to do what must be done. Are we ready to do it?