Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2020
Matthew 25:31-46 Commentary
Why don’t we pay more attention to life as we live it? Why do we miss so much? In Matthew 25 both groups, sheep and goats alike, say they didn’t realize that the poor of the world represented Jesus.
Both missed that connection.
Ever noticed that before? The righteous are not commended for spying Jesus in the poor, the hungry, the prisoners. They didn’t. They just treated all such folks with love.
But if so, then suppose that those who had failed to do ministry were to ask the King a counter-question. First they ask, “When did we brush you aside, Lord?” and the Lord replies, “You did it every time you brushed them aside.” But suppose these folks countered by asking, “Well, how were we supposed to know that? If we had known it had been you all along, Lord, why by jiggers we would’ve acted differently!”
Couldn’t the wicked say something like, “Well, dear Lord, why didn’t you tell us it was you all along? We would have done things different if we had known.” What might the Lord’s response to that be? (Sometimes you hear this from people who went to high school or college with someone who went on to become President of the United States—“If I had known that was going to happen, I would’ve been his friend!!”)
“If we had known it was you, Lord . . .” the goats want to say. “Why didn’t you just say something!? What was up with all those coy disguises??!!”
If they asked that, maybe the reply would be along the lines of this: “You didn’t have to know it was me all along–the righteous didn’t either. It should have been enough to realize no more than that this other person was a human being created in the very image of God! If you had known no more than that (and you did!), that would have been enough. You didn’t need to know it was me. Had you simply acknowledged their humanity, their God-likeness, you would have been led to do the right thing.”
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, welfare queens, 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. (Or worse, there is at best the caricature of a face to stand in for the whole group. It’s like punching up “the poor” on Google Images—you’ll see lots of typical pictures of the category but no one whose name you’ll ever know, whose story you’ll ever hear.)
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 of those 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 his iPhone X (or XI or XII or whatever the latest version is). 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; 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 to remember 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, “Every 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 innovate excessively creative programs, that we do the social equivalent of a circus high-wire act or 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 (as inevitably we will do).
If we take Matthew 25 seriously and more-or-less at face value, then we cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” We know that we are saved by grace, and not by what we do. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 knows that, of course. It is his gospel, after all! But he seems to know also that the faith and the salvation that come from divine grace create new perspectives. Grace opens eyes to see things that we maybe would miss otherwise. Grace begins, already now, to give us a preview of the end of all things.
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?”
There has been some debate among scholars as to how to interpret Jesus’ reference in Matthew 25 to “the least of these brothers of mine” (vs. 40). The classic interpretation claims that “the least of these” refers to the poor and needy of the world, thus making this a good text for World Hunger Sunday or other services in which a focus on diaconal-like work is front and center.
But some scholars now wonder if the reference to “my brothers” may refer to the disciples (soon to turn into apostles) themselves. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is how the wider (Gentile) world received the disciples when they went forth to proclaim the gospel. If this is the correct reading, then it becomes clear that the ultimate fate of the wider world is determined not in terms of how they treated the generic poor and needy in their midst but more specifically how they received and treated the heralds of the gospel.
Although respected scholars hold to this viewpoint, it seems more likely that the traditional interpretation that relates “the least of these” to anyone who is needy or poor may be the better way to go with this passage (because otherwise it has very little ongoing application once the last of the apostles had died). Since the sheep are themselves praised for their kind treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned, it seems unlikely that those sheep would at the same time BE the hungry, thirsty, etc. Still, this debate is a good reminder that sometimes our approach to very familiar passages such as this one needs always to be scrutinized. Perhaps there are even ways to glean some possible implications from even the alternative viewpoint sketched above. Maybe we could by extension say that how we treat fellow Christians is also to be a hallmark of our discipleship.
Since the start of the holiday season is now just 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. A myriad 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. George just 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 Pulitzer Prize-winning 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, every minute of every, 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 . . .
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