Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King – Matthew 25:31-46
I am glad it’s so easy and clearcut for St. Matthew. He continues to draw these lines and has no doubt about who is on which side. He has no questions. It’s all pretty simple for him. Feed the hungry. Give the thirsty something to drink. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoner. (Matthew 25:31-46)
He’s just so sure. He’s so clear. But that’s not been my experience of life. I wish it were as easy as going through a check list and categorizing people as either a sheep or a goat, those who cared for “the least of these” and those who did not. But it’s not that easy for me and I don’t think it is for you either.
Last week I was on the way home from running some errands. I stopped for the light at the square and a young man walked across the street in front of me. I recognized him as one of “the least of these.” I recognized him as the guy who came by my office just few days before. I recognized him as the same guy who had come by the office five or six times in the last week and a half. I recognized him as the one to whom I said, “I will not help you and you need to leave.”
So am I a goat? Accursed? Bound for the eternal fires of punishment. I don’t know. Because I also recognized him as the same guy who came by the church six or eight months ago and I said to him, “You are always welcome here. Let me get you some food. How can I help you? What do you need?” So was I a good sheep? Righteous? Blessed by the Father? Bound for eternal life? I don’t know.
I just don’t think it’s as easy as categorizing ourselves as either a sheep or a goat. The reality is we are both. I’ll bet each of you has a story just like mine; a time when you fed, clothed, visited, cared for one of the least of these, and another time when you drove past, looked away, or pretended not to see the man or woman holding a sign asking for food, work, or some other help.
I could tell you all the reasons I did what I did, why I helped one day but not another. I could defend and justify my choices. All my explanations would be based on this other guy’s story, his life, his circumstances. I don’t think that’s at all what today’s gospel is about. It’s not about telling the truth about him. It’s about telling the truth about my life and your life. It’s about getting really real with my story, my life, my circumstances. I might wonder whether he’s scamming me, but maybe the better question is whether I am scamming him or scamming God.
The least of these always seem to have a way of revealing to us, most profoundly, the truth of who we are and what our life is about. They do that so much more clearly and directly than do those I consider to be an equal or those I consider to be above me.
The least of these are in all our lives. They do not always fit our stereotyped images. Sure, it might be the guy on the street corner asking for a handout. It might be a welfare mother asking for food or the guy who just got out of prison, again. Sometimes, though, it is one who lives under the same roof as me or sits across the table from me. And it’s not always about physical needs. The least of these also have emotional and spiritual needs.
The least of these are in all our relationships. They are the people over whom we have some sense of power and control. They are the ones who have less resources and options than do we. They are the ones overwhelmed by life and underwhelmed by support. They are the ones who feel they are hanging on by a thread and they look at us as if we hold the scissors. They are the ones we can do what we want and not really worry about their response. They are the ones we threaten or intimidate simply because of who we are, what we have, what we can do.
Who are the least of these in your life? Some are anonymous. Some might be sitting next to you.
I think we all want to make a difference. We want to make a difference in the life of another, in the world, in the church. Maybe that’s why we sometimes struggle with our decisions and the choices we make. It’s the reason we ask guidance from others. It’s the reason we pray for God’s will. Deep down we really do want to make a difference. We want to do what’s right.
Well, I have some good news for you and I have some bad news. You don’t have to try to make a difference. You can quit trying. You already are making a difference. Every single one of you is making a difference. I am making a difference. Here’s the bad news. I don’t know if that’s for good or ill. We often don’t know.
The people gathered for judgment in today’s gospel have no idea what difference they are making. They are just going on about their lives. One cared for the least of these and the other didn’t. They seem oblivious as to the consequences or effects of their actions. They both ask the same question. “When did we see you?”
Let’s not literalize this story. Let’s not make this into a search for the least of these so we can be helpful and caring and get to heaven. Let’s not start counting and keeping score of how many people we helped and how many we passed by, overlooked, or said no to. How do we measure that anyway? Do we need 70% to pass? Are we plotted on a bell curve? Do we just total up the two columns at the end of our life and see which is greater, cared for or didn’t care for?
I just don’t think that’s what today’s gospel is about. That’s too easy. We already know we should help and care tor one another.
I think this story names the reality in which we live. It’s a reality that pulls us in different and sometimes opposite directions. It’s a reality in which we often contradict ourselves. It’s a reality in which we always have a choices before us and what we choose always makes a difference – for good or ill. It will always matter and always make a difference in someone’s life.
Maybe the goat and sheep metaphor worked in Jesus’ day but I don’t think it makes much sense to us today. We need a new metaphor. We need a new way of understanding what’s going on. Maybe what’s really being said is that there are two ways. We are pulled by God in one direction and our humanity in another. Or we could see it as the conflict and contraction between our humanity and our inhumanity. Another way would be to say that we live in the light and follow a path of light and we that we also live in the darkness and follow that path. It’s never just one or the other. It aways both.
If we are really honest with ourselves, if we look deep with in we will see our humanity and our inhumanity. We will see both our light and our darkness, our divinity and our humanity.
What if this story isn’t so much about assigning reward or punishment, determining an eternal location? Maybe it’s pushing us to look a the truth of our lives, to look at the choices we make, and to be aware that our choices matter.
Those metaphors and the choices they present are always coming to us. Look at the headlines in the news and you can see the choice between light and darkness. Don’t you see it in the attack on the Egyptian mosque, over 300 killed? In the allegations and accusations of sexual harassment by powerful and prominent men? In the Sutherland Springs shooting? The Las Vegas shooting? The little guy who walked across the street in front of me. They all present a choice.
You might say that you didn’t bomb, harass, or shoot anyone. I don’t doubt or dispute that. That’s not the point. We may not be guilty but we all are responsible. We are responsible for the choices we make – to choose light, to choose life, to choose the least of these. What does it mean for you and me to choose light in the aftermath of these events? What might that look like in each of our individual lives?
These are not choices that live outside us. They live in each one of us. How we choose begins to set a trajectory and direction for our lives. I don’t think any of us get to that final place – whatever it is or however we understand it – overnight. It’s not a one time event or a single decision. It’s a series of choices and the further down the road we go, whether it is the road of light or the road of darkness, the harder it is and the longer it takes to return. Maybe we even reach that point of no return, a point where we just can’t find our way back. That’s a judgment on our life but it’s a judgment each one of us makes, chooses, for ourselves. The King, sitting on the throne of his glory, simply names what is, what he sees. What do you see when you look at your life? What are the least of these showing you?
I’m guessing that just like me you see choices of light and choices of darkness. Everyone of you could look at the situations you are in today and see choices being made between light and darkness. These choices matter not just for you but also for another human being, choices that will affect their life for good or ill. We have the ability to open the channels of life, beauty, generosity, justice, compassion, just as we have the ability to block and close those channels.
So don’t hear this story as a final judgment on your life. Hear it as a wake up call. Let it be the chance to see yourself through the eyes of one of the least of these. What do they see? Is that who you want to be? What choices will lead you on the path of light? What choices will help you discover the light and beauty within yourself and within the other? That light and beauty describe who we most authentically are. But I also know that that light and beauty can be cruelly tested by the vulgar, the ugly, the impoverishment, and the violence in our world. And yet the choice remains; light or darkness. Who and how do you want to be? What will we choose?
What if we approached every person, every place, every circumstance, every choice as if we see Christ, and if we don’t, if we can’t see Christ, what if we approached every every person, every place, every circumstance, every choice, as if Christ sees us? Either way there is a seeing taking place. What if we allowed those seeings to push us deep into ourselves to uncover, rediscover, or maybe even discover for the first time, the light that is who we most truly are, and in that light we made our next choice?
What if we made our next choice based not on the truth of the other’s life but on the truth of our own life? My guess is that sometimes we would choose yes and other times we would choose no. But every time we would choose in favor of the least of these.
That guy I told you about at the beginning – the one who came to the church, the one I helped, the one I ran off, the one who walked in front of my truck – I don’t know the truth of his life, and maybe I don’t need to. It’s enough that he has shown me the truth of my life. That’s what the least of these do for us. They set a choice before us, and it’s not just a choice to help or not help. It’s a human choice – a choice that has a face, a name, a life, hopes, fears, needs. It’s a choice between our light and our darkness, our humanity and our inhumanity.
A choice awaits each one of us. What will we choose? Who will we be?
I’ve been closer to “the least of these” financially than I have “the most of these.” During the last couple years God has actively, and I do mean actively, changed my orientation both through my prayers and His grace. Recently there was a story of a homeless vet who used his last $20 (from panhandling) to get gas for a girl who had run out as she got on the highway late at night. She responded with a GoFundMe campaign that gifted $360K for him, and he’s using it to pay it forward.
I still struggle when I see people in need. I always keep a certain amount in my wallet – my God Pocket pocket (Bruce Wilkinson) and sometimes I so feel the need to help everyone I see that I “stop” seeing them. Sometimes God actively speaks to me to pay attention to a particular person, which feels different than when I (emphasis on “i”) want to do something. Sometimes the ones He calls me to speak to are ones I wouldn’t have noticed. One time early on I “botched” it, and so I asked God for a do-over. Wouldn’t you know the guy was at the grocery store the next day? Had never seen him prior and never saw him again after that.
A few years ago in foreclosure, at one point I had $18 left. That was all I had. As long as I had that $18 I could buy whatever I wanted. Then God told me to get rid of it – so I sent it to Rev John at Golden Key. When God started me tithing (I KNEW it was Him – I was busy clutching every dollar in my fist), He taught me something valuable. The story of that vet sticks with me – as does this post.
As always, Michael, thank you for your thought-provoking and honest post.
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Judi, thank you a beautiful and honest sharing of your insights and experiences. I think you have lived – are living the parable o the sheep and goats. I preached this text Monday at a local assisted living facility from the perspective of “the least of these” – the experience with which you began your comment. It’s easy to focus only on the sheep-goat question but, at some point, we are all one of the least of these, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. That, as difficult or painful as it might be, seems to be a place of identity with Jesus.
God’s peace be with you,
but, at some point, we are all one of the least of these, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Thank you, Mike. The above sentence, along with your own story, helps me to remember growth in God isn’t a straight line, yet His love and grace remain constant. Saying I’m grateful for that is an understatement. I’m also grateful for those He works through – like you – from whom I can learn, and that He’s changed me as substantially as He has, so that I, too, am a way for Him to reach others. I hope whatever He wants me to do just keeps getting bigger.
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I’ve admired your insight for years. This is one of your best. Fabulous insight. Thank you signed..
A lay person who tried to preach this this week
Thank you very much Kevin. I appreciate your kind and encouraging words. I am glad you had the chance to preach. Lay or ordained, I suspect we are all trying to preach – to interpret and live the gospel as faithful witnesses.
God’s peace be with you,
Our choice is to choose at every moment to be a disciple of JESUS. When we act we will not concern ourselves if we are acting in the light or in the darkness. As a disciple we will do what we believe JESUS would have us do. He will determine if we are acting in the LIGHT or in the darkness. He will determine if we are sheep or goats. Because we are human we will not do anything perfectly., However, JESUS loves us and will take us to his kingdom.
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