1. '...just as you did it to one of the least of these...'
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Our kids here sing a song which goes “I just want to be a sheep/Baa baa baa baa/I just want to be a sheep/Baa baa baa baa/Pray the Lord my soul to keep/Whooo!/I just want to be a sheep.” The second verse goes “I don’t want to be a goat/Nope/I don’t want to be a goat/Nope/Cos there’s no hope/Nope/ I just want to be a sheep.” It’s one way of looking at these words of Jesus, the last words of Jesus that Matthew record before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. There’s a choice to be made here – sheep or goat. At the same time, there’s this rather terrifying end of time vision of God judging the nations, separating people to his right and left, sending some to eternal reward and others to eternal fire. What are we to make of all this? If I walk past someone panhandling without any kind of acknowledgement does this mean I’m a goat? What does all this have to do with the Out of the Cold? How does it answer the question “Why do we do this?”
As I said this parable of Jesus comes right before his arrest. It’s at the tail end of what Biblical scholars call the Olivet Discourse. Jesus has gone up the Mount of Olives with his followers and they ask him about his return – specifically when it will happen. Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know when (despite the books that will try to convince you otherwise). It’s not even for Jesus to know when, in fact. He then reframes the question. The important thing for his followers to keep in mind is how they are to act in the meantime. How they are to wait. Jesus goes on to tell parables of faithfulness, of watchfulness, of service. I want to look at three places we see God in this passage.
First we God in the image of this king sitting on a throne. “When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory.” We have this separation of people on his right and his left. Images of judgement like this can be a bit uncomfortable, can’t they? A bit frightening. What are we to make of this? Make this of it friends. We’re talking about a matter of eternal consequence here. This is a big deal. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, are all matters of eternal consequence. They are all matters of justice, and justice is an essential attribute of God, just like love, and mercy, and patience are essential attributes of God. Throughout the Bible God is revealed as a God of justice. God’s justice is not primarily punitive, but one that seeks to restore order, to restore peace, to restore shalom to all creation. One day order will be restored. We believe that this restorative mission was inaugurated in the person of Christ, and in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We believe that one day Jesus will return and set everything right. A day that peace will reign and there will no more talk of hunger or homelessness or illness or poverty. We long for that day. We pray for that day every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. In the meantime we wait, but it is an active waiting. Our mission is to allow God to work in and through us to bring justice about.
When we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty; when we welcome the stranger, take care of the sick; we are actively waiting for the day when Christ will come. We don’t do these things primarily because we think our efforts will bring poverty or homelessness or sickness to an end. We would love for those things to come to an end. We would love suffering to end. Of course we would. It’s not our primary reason though. If it were, we might lose heart when we see suffering continue despite our efforts. We might want to give up. No, we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and take care of the sick with one eye on the day when Christ returns and justice will reign. We do these things looking forward to the day when there will be no more need for shelters or food banks or hospitals or prisons. At the same time we pray to God to hasten that day.
The second place that we see God in this passage is in the actions of the sheep. People are being separated here based on how they responded to the needs of others – there’s no getting around this. As I said earlier, things that we do and don’t do are matters of eternal consequence. This doesn’t mean that we save ourselves by our own actions. Note that the king says “Inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you before the foundation of the world.” We don’t gain an inheritance because of what we do, but rather because of who our parents are – in this case who our Father is. Everything that we are is based on who God is and what God has done in the person of Christ and what God continues to do in the person of his Spirit and what God will do one day when Christ returns. The point of this story is not that we are saved based on what we do, but that following Christ, being caught up in, a part of God’s kingdom, God’s reign, means more than simply believing in him. Being caught up in God’s reign means more than simply believing in God. Gracious acts of kindness of mercy are to come naturally to his followers.
I think this is the central part of this story. Gracious acts of kindness and mercy are to come naturally to followers of Christ. The point of this story is not to scare us. Perfect love casts out fear. Isn’t it interesting that this parable is followed by Christ’s arrest and death. Christ is about to show what perfect love looks like isn’t he? God doesn’t ask us to do anything he won’t enable in us, anything he won’t enable us for. Through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, his followers are enabled to perform deeds of compassion which reflect the same compassion that has been shown to us by God. Being caught up in God’s Kingdom is about more than just belief. How that belief is lived out matters!
This is how the Out of the Cold program had its start isn’t it? A group of people studying the Bible and trying to figure out together what it meant in their lives. A group of people stepping out not knowing what this help they were trying to give might look like but knowing that there was something to do – that there was a situation in our city that called for compassion. Do you know that at its root the word compassion means “to suffer with”? It’s easy to turn our backs on suffering isn’t it? There are many reasons people suffer. We’re called to come alongside them just as Christ came alongside us. In less than a month we’ll be starting the Advent season, preparing to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel – God with us. God with humanity in all its suffering. God revealing himself as a servant in the person of his son, humbling himself. This wasn’t a disguise that God put on. You hear folk tales of kings disguising themselves to gauge the mood of their subjects, putting on peasant clothes. This isn’t what happened with God. God revealed in Christ that part of God’s essential nature is humility and servanthood. Followers of Christ are called and enabled to do the same.
For whom are we called to perform acts of compassion? Like many parables this one has been interpreted widely. Some take Jesus’ use of the word “family” here to mean that Jesus expects these acts of mercy and compassion to be directed at those who follow him. I think that this would be too circumscribed a view of what God expects of us. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus enlarges the idea of love of neighbour to include love for our enemies. This is how God loves. Later on in the same sermon Jesus talks about how God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. I can’t imagine God ever intended us to limit our acts of mercy. Paul reminds the Romans in his letter to them that God reconciled them to himself through his son while they were enemies of God. How are we going to withhold grace and mercy in light of this?
For the follower of Christ, acts of compassion are to come naturally because God has shown compassion to us. We do it without calculation. We don’t do it to puff ourselves up or to be seen be others and have them say “Oh look at how compassionate Pastor David is!” or to have people call us saints or feel good about what good altruistic people we are. It’s an easy trap to fall into. We don’t ignore suffering because God did not and does not and will not ignore suffering. God grant that this might be true for each of us.
The third place I want to talk about where God appears in this story is in the faces of those who suffer. “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.” Just as when you gave that hungry person food or gave that thirsty person something to drink, you did it to Jesus. God is neither remote nor removed from human suffering. This is a mystery friends, one I’m nowhere near having my mind wrapped around. Mother Theresa put it like this – “My gift is the ability to see the face of Jesus in its most distressing disguise.” I don’t know that I can say the same. I don’t know that I can say I consistently see the face of Jesus in suffering. I would like to though. I’ve caught glimpses of him. It makes me want to keep looking.
Whether or not we’re seeing Jesus as plainly as Mother Theresa did, it’s plain to see we’re encountering him. This can only be a good thing. I’m a follower of Christ and I’ve been speaking about the Biblical injunction to care for the suffering as a follower of Christ. What does it look like today, this care for those who suffer? We see it every Saturday night to Sunday morning here from November to March. We see it on the first Wednesday of every month here. We see it at Horizons For Youth. We see it in Lawrence Heights. We’ve seen it all around the world – in Bolivia, in India, in Africa. We know that it’s not only Christians who are involved in this kind of work. We serve alongside one another don’t we? What does it mean that Christ is found in the faces of those who suffer? It means that to serve those in need is to serve Christ himself.
May God grant us all the vision to see Christ as the one who is coming back to make all things right. May God grant us the vision to be the hands and feet of Christ until that day. May God grant us the will and the courage to seek and to see Christ’s face in the faces of those who suffer, until the day that suffering will be no more.