Which, Who, or Why?
A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
[photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash; for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
This week I learned that Christ the King Sunday, was first established in 1925 by, Pope Pius XI. He established the celebration to ground the church in our true allegiance: not to the various systems of power vying for control on the world stage, but to the ultimate king who will replace all nationalism, secularism, and consumerism with a very different world order.
That reorientation is clearly present in our gospel text today… but so is a strong undertone of warning and judgment, and I think this can sometimes create an unintended consequence. The natural, human response to the threat of judgment is usually defensiveness. We don’t want to be on the wrong side when the King of Heaven and Earth starts saying who is in and who is out… and so rather than being drawn to reflect on the distinctive nature of Jesus’ kingship, we turn in on ourselves. The question that controls our interpretation of this parable is “which group will I be sorted into?”
I say this confessionally, because I know that’s my first instinct. I start taking a mental inventory – weighing my volunteer work, and charitable giving, and advocacy efforts; against every time I have walked past a person on the street asking for help, or failed to make a legislative call about a threatened safety net program, or been too busy with my own concerns to respond to another’s needs. The end-time image of two distinct groups pulls me into moral accounting exercises.
And, of course, we are used to thinking in this kind of binary grouping. In/out; right/left; male/female… Coming on the heals of Trans Awareness Week, I am reminded about how inadequate either/or groupings are to encompass the complexity of human identity… but I am also conscious of how ubiquitous such systems of thinking are… and how easily they draw us into the task of assigning people to groups (starting with ourselves). So we hear a parable about blessed sheep, and cursed goats, and – of course – we ask “which one am I?”
But what if that’s the wrong question? What if Jesus’s words about opportunities to serve him by serving others aren’t actually supposed to turn us in on ourselves?
What might be a better question to ask?
One obvious question is “Who?” – as in, “who are we really serving, when we reach out to those in need?”
On Christ the King Sunday, this question offers a gratifying double-meaning. Who do we serve in the practical sense – whose hunger are we feeding? Whose illness are we nursing? Whose prison are we visiting? And also, who do we serve in the sense of allegiance – is Christ really our king, or do we bow a knee to other claims for our loyalty and obedience? The big reveal of the parable is that the two questions are related. If we want to serve Christ as our king, we need to serve our neighbor in need.
Of course, those who are judged a “goats” in the parable complain that this overlap was never explained to them:
“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?”
The implication, of course, is that they would have acted differently if they had known… If they had recognized Jesus, they would have provided the service, because HE matters. But this suggests a problem with focusing on “who” as our central question. Because… if the neighbor were not Jesus in disguise, would it be OK to ignore them? To discount the importance of their needs? To refuse them welcome or care? Do the hungry, suffering, and imprisoned not have independent worth? Are they not made in the image of God? Is that core identity not why Christ identifies with them?
If the answer to the question of “who” is relevant, then the goats are right, and we are only obligated to care for the lives that “matter.” You could even argue that it WAS Jesus’s fault that they were found wanting. How were they supposed to know that Jesus was in hiding as the poor and rejected of society?
Maybe – instead of “which am I” or “who are they” – the best question to ask is “why”? Why should we seek to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, and treat the imprisoned as people still worthy of relationship?
Is it, as the judgment parable tempts us to think, in order to earn an eternal reward? Such a motivation would probably be better than not doing these acts of service at all… but that was not the motivation of the “sheep” in the parable, those who did reach out in compassion and care. We know that because they are just as surprised as the defensive, judged group to hear that Christ was present in each person whom they served. For the “sheep” in the parable, their “why” was not about reward, it was about an orientation toward mercy.
In his commentary on this passage, Dirk Lange describes how, from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the heart of the message “is this call to an obedience that is not prescription or law or sacrifice but joyful living in mercy without calculation.” He goes on to explain the great mystery that “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.”
It seems like a paradox. How can joyful living take us to the place of suffering?
But that’s the secret of asking the right question… of hearing in this parable –whose surface is all about judgment and separation – the cry of our King on a cross …begging us to remember why he came, and why we follow him.
His why is the joy of mercy. The divine self-giving nature that reaches out in love because it wants the healing and wholeness of the whole world. That’s why we follow him, because we have been healed and welcomed by that same mercy and love.
Why is the crucial question. Why do the needs of the hurting and lonely, the hungry and homeless, the rejected and despised call for our attention and care? Because we are the people of Christ, the people of mercy and love – and suffering is a reason to draw near, not to pull away.
This month we asked the people of our community to reflect on why Abiding Peace is our congregation.
The answers were beautiful. They reflected the experience of drawing near to God through the worship and service of this community. They reflected a passion for learning, and diversity, and caring, and growth. Most of all, they reflected an overwhelming sense of welcome, love, and belonging.
In other words, they reflected that this is a community is called to “joyful living in mercy without calculation.”
The challenge for our community in this parable, and in the celebration of Christ’s kingship, is to remember that the loving mercy that drew us here must also, always, draw us back out. Mercy always looks toward suffering. It looks for the cross wherever that might be.
Mercy looks for the cross among the hungry or homeless, whether they be devastated by COVID job losses or by the long-term inequalities in our economy;
Mercy shoulders the cross alongside exhausted hospital staff battling rising caseloads and the prospect of quarantining from their own families;
Mercy sees the pain of both Black Lives Matter protestors and law enforcement officers who both feel alienated and misunderstood by the society to which they are supposed to belong.
Mercy sits in prison cells, and immigrant detention camps, keeping company with those who feel forgotten and discarded by those outside the walls.
Christ is present in each of these varieties of suffering and in so many more. And if we hail Christ as our king, then we bend the knee to him when we reach out in care to those whose suffering he shares.
Now This has been a hard year. Christ’s presence in suffering has meant Christ’s presence with us too. That is a truth for which we give thanks. And it is also a truth that draws us back to the ultimate question of “why” we are called to live lives of joyful mercy without calculation.
We are called the joyful, self-giving, cross-carrying love, because Christ first loved us.
Thanks be to God.