Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations
Jesus said “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne ol his glory, All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goals at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom pl’euarerl l or you from the l oundat‘lon ol the world; for I Was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sirk and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then ‘lhe righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gaVe you something to drink? And when Was it that we. saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ’Truly I tell you, Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his lelt’ hand, “/ou that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal lire prepared {or the devil and hls angels; {or I was hungry and you ryave me no food, I Was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a strum/yer and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, suk and in prison and you did not vlsi’l’ me,‘ Then they also will ansWer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?‘ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, ,just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it tn me” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,“

Let the wards of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength at our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Since the start of the holiday season is nowjust around the corner, it is likely that at least a few of us will soon watch some or all of the classic holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In the story, a man named George Bailey despairs that his life is so worthless that it would have been better had he never been born at all. in order to prove him wrong, Clarence the guardian angel lets George experience what the world would have been like had the man George Bailey never existed. As most of us know, George discovers that his seemingly humdrum life affected far more people than he could have guessed. All kinds of little, and not-so—little, things that George had done over the course of his lifetime combined to make his hometown of Bedford Falls a better place. Georgejust never realized all the good he had done, and all the bad he had prevented, simply by being alive and by being himself.

A similar point is made in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. The play’s central character, Emily, is given a chance, following her death, to view a scene from her past. She is told that it cannot be some obviously important day but should be a fairly ordinary time from her bygone life—indeed, she is told that re-visiting even the least important day of her life would suffice to teach Emily something very important. Emily chooses to re-visit her 12th birthday, only to discover a vast array of things about that day she had completely forgotten. More than that, however, she is stunned to see how fast life moves and how little she or anyone paid attention to what was happening when it was happening. In the end, Emily cannot bear to watch. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn‘t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” she asks. The answer is no. Instead, Emily is told, for the vast majority of people, what it means to be alive is “To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”

Emily didn’t realize. George Bailey didn‘t realize. They simply were not aware of the larger meaning around them every minute of every day. A similar phenomenon plays a surprisingly large role in Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats. Sometimes the most important things we do in life are things that, at the time, we see no real significance in. Like meeting Jesus in prison, at a food bank, at a homeless shelter. . .

In this final discourse, we rediscover another theme that has been running throughout Matthew’s Gospel-the theme of discipleship. At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is this call to an obedience that is not prescription or law or sacrifice but joyful living in mercy without calculation. This joyful living takes believers to an unexpected place. It takes them to the cross; it takes them to the cross in human lives, to the cross in the life of family, community, society, nation, and world. It takes them to the place of God’s suffering in the world.

Much attention has been given in the history of interpretation to the identity of the lowliest people.
• Are they part of the community of believers or are they outsiders?
• Do they belong or not?

Yet, the parable itself doesn‘t seem to be concerned about their identity other than to identify their suffering (hungry, naked, imprisoned, etc.). The parable of judgment is far more focused on the life of mercy that has or has not been lived by those who call out “Lord, Lord!” The criterion ofjudgment is not one’s confession but the mercy we have lived. The parable is far more concerned about how believers have lived out their baptismal vocation and let their light shine before others so that all may see their good works and give glory to God (5:16). The only identity that seems to worry Matthew in this description ofjudgment is the identification of the other with the King, the Son of Man, with Jesus.

Once again, the “good works” has less to do with ethical actions than with living a life of mercy in which the Son of Man is revealed—if only on the last day. This entails, for the believing community, a considerable change in self-perception. Rather than considering ourselves holders or keepers of the mystery of God, we should know that God is always already outside the circle we draw and the boundaries we create. Mission itself becomes redefined when we consider the move outwards as a move towards God! The community is sent out from the Lord‘s Supper as body of Christ only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting for the community in those suffering in the world. Then, in yet another Gospel reversal, it would appear that the judgment we are all subject to is not one from on high but a judgment that is spoken through the need of our neighbor.

What jumps out to me this year in reading this parable is less as one ofjudgment and more of a teaching of visible grace. And, by choosing the word “visible,” i want intentionally to link this interpretation to our understanding of the sacraments as “visible words.” More specifically here are some things thatjump out at me this year:

First, I believe Matthew isn’t actually warning his community that they will be judged by their treatment of the poor, but rather is promising his beleaguered flock that the “nations” (usually referring to Gentiles or “foreigners”) will be judged in accord with how they treat them, that is, Matthew’s community. That can feel like a problematic interpretation given the church’s influence and power through most of history, but would have been a very meaningful and comforting word to Matthew’s vulnerable and harassed folks.

Second, Everyone is surprised. Sheep and goats, righteous and unrighteous. No one knows or anticipates that, when they are dealing with the most vulnerable and overlooked — the “least of these” — they are actually interacting with the Lord. As with the surprising appearance of God in both manger and cross, God continues to show up where we least expect God to be. The command to care for the most vulnerable is clear throughout Scripture; the promise that God is revealed to us when we do is the surprise.

Third, God’s presence is not only on mountain-top experience, or the result of an arduous spiritual journey, but instead is in the normal circumstances of life. Want to see Jesus? Look to the needs of your neighbor and, especially, your most vulnerable neighbors. A promise of salvation attached to a command of Jesus involving a physical element and surprising us with God’s unexpected presence. Sound familiar? Pretty much the hallmarks of the way we today, as well as Luther and other 16th- century Reformers, describe the sacraments.

Just here is perhaps as much our challenge as anyone else’s in this world.
• Can we see the true humanity, the image of God, in the needy people of this world?
• Do we take care to remind ourselves of that fundamental, basic identity of the poor and the marginalized?
It seems that too often we are content to talk in generalities—in broad strokes that conveniently lets human specificity fall away. We lump problems and people together: the homeless, the welfare class, the Third World, the mentally ill, the unemployed, illegal immigrants. There is scarcely a human face to be seen in any of those broad categories.

We summarily size up, categorize, characterize, and sometimes dismiss literally millions of people via a blanket label. We reduce all the homeless or all the unemployed to one basic sub-heading. We assume every person in a given category is more-or-less the same. But can we put a name or a face with anyone who actually lives in one ofthose Segments of life? Or are we content with acknowledging no more than that this or that problem area of life exists? And if so, might it be the case for me and for many of us that we sooner or later start to forget that the people who are homeless really are people, God’s very image among us?

Someone once suggested that it would be a good spiritual discipline for all of us to go to a place like O‘Hare Airport in Chicago or Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta (two of the busiest airports in the world), sit down somewhere, and just watch the people go by. You maybe know up front what you’ll see: you’ll spy the harried mom with three little kids under the age of 6. Two of the kids are hollering or begging to stop at the McDonalds even as the mom is snapping in anger and maybe even being a bit profane. You’ll spy the rather obese person who lumbers along the concourse short—of—breath, You’ll see the more well-to-do person waiting in a gate area, impeccably dressed and reading something off their iPhone 12.

You’ll see a little bit of everything eventually But in your heart, it would be a good discipline to say of each person, “Jesus died for you.“ Jesus died for him, for her, for that skinny one, for that chunky one. Jesus died for that stressed-out mom and for that arrogant-looking teenager because each one of them, somewhere under all that exterior stuff, is made in the likeness of Almighty God himself. We dare not reduce them to statistics alone.

The writer Jonathan Kozol, who has devoted much of his career to studying children in places like the South Bronx, says that he is now embarrassed toremember some of the ways by which he himself once talked. Kozol says that he used to march up to Capitol Hill in Washington to advocate for more money for good programs like Headstart. And when he did, he’d say things like, “Ever dollar you invest in Headstart today will save the country $6 later in lower prison costs.” But now, Kozol confesses, he’s ashamed he put it that way: all dollars and cents and bottom lines. Now he says, “Why not invest in them just because they’re babies and they deserve to have some joy in life before they die!?”

We Christians can do better than that: they’re God’s kids, chips off the divine block as surely as any one of us. Kozol also notes that he has run across people on the East Coast who spend upwards of $30,000 per child each year to send the child to an upscale private school. After giving speeches in which he has advocated for our pouring more resources into poor areas of this nation, Kozol has been asked by some of these people if he really thinks spending more money will solve the education problems of the poor. His reply is, “Well, it seems to do the trick for your children, doesn’t it?”

Jesus is not suggesting that we perform miracles. He simply asks us to see God (and by extension, Jesus) in the people around us. And so perhaps it would be a useful exercise for us to try, as often as we can, to say an actual person’s name whenever we are dealing with broad categories of social problems. i leave you with this thought: Grace lets us know that if one day we ask the question, “Lord, when did we see you?” Jesus’ answer will quite probably be, “When not?”