Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25: 31-46
Some years ago, at the campus I was then serving as Chaplain, there was a T-shirt popular among students in one of the Christian groups. It read, “ Salvation: It is not enough simply to be a good person. John 3:16.” I wanted to print up a rival T-shirt that would read, “That’s not what Jesus said! Matthew 25: 31-46.” This passage from Matthew’s gospel is one of my favorites in all of scripture because, in all honesty, it gives divine confirmation to something that I very much want to be true, something that makes great spiritual sense to me. (Aren’t these indeed the reasons that we have favorite scriptural passages? Whose favorite is “And I shall wreak great acts of vengeance with rebukes of fury, and they will know that I am the Lord”? (Ezekiel 25: 17)
I’ll admit that I don’t often concern myself with the fate of the cruel. I am concerned by the Christian exclusivism that says only believers in Christ will enjoy a pleasant afterlife while all others are condemned to an eternity of suffering. I have friends, neighbors, colleagues and relatives who do not believe in Jesus. Many of them practice a compassion and integrity immensely more profound than the Christians I know, and certainly more than me. I cannot reconcile the character of the God I have come to know, and the Christ who endured the cross we put him on, with damnation for many good people who simply don’t go to church. Jews, as we see throughout the Bible, have always wondered the same about the good Gentiles they knew, and so did the folks who were Jesus’ first followers. Jesus teaches them about the judgment of Jews, the judgment of his followers, and then come the verses before us today – the judgment of “the nations” – the pagans. It is a foundational teaching about the overflowing mercy of God.
To feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to give hospitality to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care for the sick, company and advocacy for those in prison – these are some of the things that anyone can do to receive the blessing and mercy of God. To whom must they do this? “The least of these,” which suggests Jesus’ disciples and missionaries, fanning out across the nations, voluntarily living in poverty, making themselves vulnerable to rulers and hunger, rejection and illness and violence. For those non-Christians who are generous and kind to them anyway, salvation is in store. But that’s not all. Jesus then talks about “the members of my family,” and here he broadens out the list to include not just missionaries but all the vulnerable, poor, distressed, and oppressed people of the world. Whoever shows compassion, generosity, and justice towards any hurting person will be welcomed into his kingdom.
The oppressed, Jesus says, are his representatives. They are him and he is them. He doesn’t mean it metaphorically, he means it literally. He chooses to identify with them! Not the rich, the powerful, the businessman, the Chapel deal, the teacher, the nurse, the writer; not the politician, the actor, the repairman, the biblical scholar, the A+ student, the C- student; not the firefighter, the flight attendant, the soldier or the shopkeeper, but the hungry, imprisoned, sick, naked, lonely – the suffering, the disowned, the embarrassments, the screw-ups, the mentally and physically ill, the cast-offs, the disposables, the losers, the oppressed. On this Christ the King Sunday, the King says that these people are his family. They are the royal family – the royalty of a very new realm, not like any we have on earth.
In making a criterion of salvation the accompaniment of such people, Christ asks us to take a step in his direction – to serve them – and perhaps, if our spirits are large enough, to actually identify with them, too. We participate in their lives, we go meet them in the location of their suffering; we are not embarrassed to do so, to affiliate with whatever other hideous things are said to shame the populations of prisons, impoverished neighborhoods, trailer parks, AIDS wards, foster homes, psych units, or homeless shelters. In a world addicted to power and the acquisition of wealth and privilege, we are called to identify with the powerless and needy. Christ’s is a very different realm indeed.
When we identify with people we understand ourselves to be one of them. We see the world through their eyes; we share the same perspective. I identify with my immediate family; I know myself to be one of them. I see things just as they do. This comes easily, of course; we have everything in common. If we do not have things in common with the hungry, naked, imprisoned or homeless, it can take time and significant effort to do so, especially if class, race, or sex are also at issue.
To identify with the powerless and needy requires an openness, an overcoming of defensiveness, a willingness to be challenged and changed. And it cannot be based in charity, but rather a hunger for justice, genuine compassion, and the profoundest belief in the human equality of the ones we seek to help. Jesus doesn’t call us to hand-outs but to hands out, extended in mutuality and respect.
Most poignant to me in Jesus’ teaching is the genuine surprise of the righteous ones: “when was it you we served?” they have to ask. They were never looking to score any points or do good works for their own sake. They never cared who noticed. They did care that somebody was suffering. The goats, those who are not ushered into God’s new realm, say to Jesus, “when was it you who was walking around, shivering without enough clothes on?” They blame Jesus – “why didn’t you tell us it was you and not just another bum?” Just another bum! Jesus replies, “It’s always me.”
There is more expected of Christians – faithfulness, avoiding sin – but also this same level of service to Christ in his oppressed and suffering representatives. To do it is, I think, to learn why to do it. What I mean is, in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, in just doing it, the experience can become the biggest education about who Christ is, the breadth of his love and presence, the nature of our God, how to learn the perspective of others, and what it means to have all people as our sisters and brothers. I want to share with you an experience of my own, not because I got it right or am a good person but because I was blessed to experience the kind of transformation I am trying in vain to describe. In the mid-eighties I was a recent college grad living in New York, trying to be an actress. Through my church I heard of a need for volunteers to go to Harlem Hospital and hold the infants and toddlers there who had HIV and AIDS. I love babies so I thought it would be both fun for me and a service to them, so why not. A win-win. What I found on the pediatric AIDS ward, of course, was a place of love, of suffering, of grief, of addictions and poverty, of anger and pride, of economic and racial discrimination, of joy and tenderness and grace overflowing. Christ was so present there, and in every way, not just in the love but so deeply in the suffering. The one who endured the cross was in the steel cribs, frightened, often in significant pain. There was nothing sentimental about it, nothing patronizing about any helper’s presence there. The situation was so real, so challenging and emotionally demanding, so close to the bone, so gritty that it burned off the charity and left the justice. And Christ was still there, not making everything nice but making everything redeemable: the pain, the inequities, the addictions – none of this is how we were meant to be. It is our present but not our inheritance, not our future. God, Christ and Spirit were so tangibly there, supporting; in a twist that surprised me to my core I found that ward to be one of the most hopeful places I have ever been. The experience there is what sent me to seminary. In the place no human wants to be, poor, abandoned, and dying, Christ is there, present in the little people who were suffering the most, redeeming us all one by one from the bottom up. That’s who Christ is; that’s who he chooses to be. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but he is like no other King in heaven or on earth, and his reign of love and mercy looks like no other we’ve ever known.
This is the King I want! This is the realm I want to live in – not because it’s pretty but because it’s true. Christ isn’t King of a reign that’s pie-in-the-sky, in denial, but of one that’s bone-crunchingly real. It’s about suffering and its redemption. It’s about discrimination and its redemption. It’s about injustice and its redemption. It’s about a new heaven and a new earth, ones that finally set right all the suffering endured by so many. It is about redemption. This is a kingdom that turns all others on their heads. The lines of identification are upside down – not with the powerful but the powerless, not with the insufferable but with the suffering – the sick, the incarcerated, the hungry, the poor, the naked, the homeless. It’s about redemption – the sick are made well, the imprisoned are set free, the poor have enough good things to make a life of dignity, the naked are clothed and the homeless have a real home, a place of safety and belonging and of welcome. Christ is the King of this new realm that starts from the bottom up.
Our God and Redeemer, as we see this morning, abound with mercy and compassion. Our text is no testament to any narrow debate about who’s in and who’s out, who’s a believer and who’s not, who measures up and who doesn’t, even though we may spend our lives thinking in those terms. This text is a testament to the overwhelming compassion and mercy of God who creates all things in love, seeking not to condemn but to redeem. If anything, Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and goats proves he’s looking for any good reason to usher folks over to his right side. It may be harder to fail than it is to succeed. This is no sneering judge looking for excuses to deny – on the contrary. Our judge is looking for any evidence of “the mercy we have lived” [Lange]. This is the Good News, and thank God for it!
Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Series, Westminster, John Knox Press.
Dirk G. Lange,
www.workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 25: 31-46, 11/23/08.