We are at the end of the liturgical year, the end of our reading of the Gospel of Matthew. I find myself reflecting not just on where we’ve come with this gospel but how my reading and preaching of it have been shaped by the challenging times in which we live. Matthew’s underlying theme of an embattled, perhaps persecuted Christian community called to ethical purity and discipleship is an appealing vision for those of us who seek to live out a Christianity shaped by Jesus’ teachings, ministry, and death, rather than the so-called Christianity based on greed, white supremacy, and nationalism that seems ascendant in our day.
I have turned to this parable repeatedly over the last year. It helped to shape Grace Church Vestry’s public statement on immigration and inclusion that was published in January and has guided my own thinking as I seek to help us as a congregation and as individual Christians to navigate the treacherous waters in which I find ourselves. It is so appealing because it seems to place an emphasis not on doctrinal purity or personal experience but on outward ethical behavior and it clearly connects Jesus, the one whom we follow and proclaim as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not with the powerful and wealthy, but with the hungry, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
“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 sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
What reassuring words for progressive Christians who may not be quite certain about what they believe or what it all means. It’s a story that conforms to our assumptions concerning what Christianity should be about and confirms our suspicions that we are right in focusing on social justice and everyone who doesn’t is misguided.
There’s another way in which this parable reassures us. After the last two Sunday gospel readings, two parables of judgment and warning about the return of Christ, two parables that make us uncomfortable both in their urgency and in the message of judgment they proclaim, the judgment in this parable seems to support all of our prejudices and values.
But let’s explore the theme of judgment a little more. In the parables we heard the last two Sundays, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents, we noted that they were parables of judgment and warning. In fact, the judgment passed out in each seemed rather arbitrary, even cruel. The five bridesmaids who were kept out of the wedding banquet had their fate determined by the bridegroom’s delay, not by their own actions. The slave who was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, did only what his master asked of him, to take care of his master’s property until his return (he wasn’t a member of an investment club).
In today’s reading, we are inclined, thanks to two thousand years of Christian reflection on this story, to see the separation of sheep and goats into good and evil as obvious, a given. Well, not so fast. In the ancient near east, goats were a prized animal. Their milk and meat were staples. They were not seen as evil—a goat was an acceptable sacrifice in Israelite religion.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that it was a common practice to keep goats and sheep together in a single flock. The only time the two animals were separated by the shepherd was on cold nights, when goats needed more protection. In short, in this reading as in the two preceding parables, the separation of sheep and goats into good and evil, is rather arbitrary. In fact, that’s something of a theme in Matthew’s gospel, that one can’t distinguish good from evil until the time of judgment—remember the parable of the wheat and the weeds, when “the devil” sowed weeds in a field and the farmer said that at the time of harvest, the wheat and the weeds would be separated and the weeds burned. So there’s something typically Matthean about this whole passage, something that Matthew as a gospel writer is especially interested in. It’s probably a result of something I mentioned a couple of Sundays ago, that a central concern for early Christians that Jesus had not yet returned.
There’s another turn of phrase in this passage that is both typical of Matthew and that complicates our reading of it. And that is the phrase “the least of these.” We hear it here where clearly it refers to the naked and the hungry and don’t give it another thought. There’s a similar passage earlier in the gospel where Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple… none of these will lose their reward.” And elsewhere, little ones or the least of these refers to members of the Christian community. So from the context of Matthew’s gospel, one might conclude that in our passage, “the least of these” refers to non-members of the church, gentiles if you will, or the nations, who provide aid for the little band of Christians.
There’s something else that puzzles me about this passage. Neither the sheep nor the goats have any clue why they are judged as they are. The sheep are not aware that when they ministered to the naked, the hungry, and those in prison they were ministering to the Son of Man, to Jesus. Nor did the goats realize that their failure to minister to those in need was a failure to minister to Jesus. In fact, both groups are shocked to learn that Jesus is present among the naked, the homeless, the hungry, and those in prison. In other words, those who rewarded have not ministered to the needy because they knew Jesus was present among the needy; their motives for ministry were different, probably a natural outgrowth of their discipleship and their response to the commandment to love one’s neighbor.
How might all of this become relevant for us who are programmed to see the face of Jesus Christ in the faces of the hungry and the homeless? The fundamental question is whether, in spite of the lip service we pay, we do see Jesus in the faces of the homeless and hungry. How often do we simply pass by the person on the street, or view the group outside the City-Concil building as little more than an eyesore or annoyance? How often do we avert our gaze or cross the street to avoid an uncomfortable encounter?
And even if we truly believe that in the face of homeless person or a prisoner, we see the face of Christ, are there faces, people, or groups of people who we can’t imagine might embody, make present, Jesus Christ to us? Where in our daily lives, where in our outreach efforts, where in our relationships might we be surprised by the presence of Jesus Christ?
For this text to be more than a manifesto for another plea for social justice, or a mission statement for a new social service agency, we must be open to encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ in places and in ways we can’t imagine or expect. We must see Christ the King ruling in majesty in the face and body of someone lying on the street next to us. We must also see the face of Christ in those whom we revile or regard as enemies, and that includes people whose political views we reject, or those whose version of Christianity we find objectionable. In fact, if you reflect carefully on this parable, that might be precisely where its meaning hits closest to home for us, for like both sheep and goat, few of us could imagine recognizing the face of Christ in a white supremacist.
In Matthew’s gospel, this is the very last thing Jesus says as part of his public ministry. He will go from here to the Last Supper, to his betrayal and arrest, to his crucifixion. As I think about that journey, as I reflect on the journey I have been on over this last year, the journey we’ve all been on, and this day when we remember Christ ruling in majesty and the coming reign, the proclamation of which was at the heart of his public ministry, I’m reminded of something else about the reign of God, central to Jesus’ proclamation of it, central to this parable.
One of the central themes of Jesus’ parables was the hiddenness of God’s reign. It’s all around us, but not apparent unless we look at the world with new and different eyes. That same hiddenness is here—neither sheep nor goat recognized the face of Christ in the faces of the naked, the hungry, the prisoner.
That leaves me with a final question. In these dark and difficult times, when it seems the justice and peace for which we pray, work, and hope seem more remote than ever, are there signs of Christ’s coming that we don’t recognize, faces of Christ around us that we can’t see? As this liturgical year ends and we begin again next week with the season of Advent, can our hope be revived, can our vision restored, so that we see Christ at work in the world around us, and see signs of his coming reign even now?