Matthew 25:31-46 November 22, 2020
When you heard the scripture this morning, perhaps you thought, “I know where the pastor is heading this morning. The church is voting on a proposal to host a winter shelter, so he’s bringing out the biblical heavy artillery.” Actually, I didn’t select the passage. That role belongs to the Revised Common Lectionary, first published in 1974. For 30 years, I have preached from the weekly texts chosen to take us through most of the Bible in three years. There are weeks where the scripture perplexes me, and I feel like a fly bouncing on a window looking for a way out. Other weeks the scripture is so perfect for the moment; the sermon almost writes itself. You might think that is the case this week, that the passage is a divinely inspired message to do our Christian duty. But remember, it was chosen in 1974, so it can’t be that simple. Or can it?
I could use the scripture to bolster our proposal for shelter in a way that shames you all into it. It might work, but shame is not a good reason to do something. I see my role as building your spiritual freedom, to loosen your guilt, not to use it for moral suasion. The Gospel’s purpose is to challenge, enlighten, and transform the listener, not confirm their bias, so I am letting this text challenge me as I share it with you.
What puzzles me is how people respond to being sorted into categories of good and bad. The good and gracious sheep and the nasty, selfish goats have the same amazement about how this happened. The King first speaks to the sheep and says they are on the right side because:
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, 36 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.’
The good sheep respond, “When did we do all this? Not to question your judgment, but I didn’t see you, so how did I do these things? Are you sure I’m in the right group? I don’t want any misunderstandings a century or two down the road.” I’m interested in the surprise factor. I don’t think the good sheep were simply appropriately humble. They could have said things like, “I’m giving back because people helped me. I’m paying it forward. When I help, I get so much back in return. Just glad I could do my small part. It was a team effort.” I think they were genuinely surprised.
When the King says, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” I want to see their faces as the message sinks in.
With the goats, we have the opposite situation. They didn’t do these things to help people in need. The goats are also perplexed. “King, when were you hungry, when were your thirsty…I must have missed your email. Was there a fundraiser? I would have sent a check.” The King answers, “You walked by me every day on your way to work. You stayed inside your bubble, avoided anything unpleasant, and so in truth, you ignored me too.” I’m surprised no one in the goat group argues. “Wait, this isn’t fair. It’s a trick. I supported my family, obeyed the ten commandments (most days), and gave to the United Way campaign every year. I thought I did my duty. I didn’t mean to ignore you.”
Deep down, both the good sheep and the aggressive goats recognize their behavior. What surprises them is that they did not recognize God right there in front of their eyes. Whether they did their duty or failed, neither group saw God in the face of a suffering human being. That is not where we expect to see God. The parable sets us up at the beginning, with the setting of “When you see the Son of Man coming in glory in the clouds…”. That is where we expect God-in the clouds, in the glory of an orange burst of sunrise or a horizon of deep purple and pink at sunset or cute cat videos. I quickly sense God’s presence in beauty, which lifts my heart. But when I see someone passed out on the front steps of the church, with scattered cigarette butts and nip bottles of Thunderbird and Fighting Cock, I’m not thinking about seeing the face of God. More likely, I’m thinking, “Have some respect for yourself and our church.” It’s hard to remember that Jesus lived, was crucified, and raised from the dead for this man as much as for me.
There is no sugar coating this scripture. We may honor saints like Mother Theresa and St. Francis, but their commitment to living among the poor brought them to despair at times. Following Jesus is hard when we confront the ugly side of life. It’s challenging because we are likely to realize some disagreeable places in ourselves. We will get frustrated and angry with people. Not every situation is clear cut. Anyone who has genuinely attempted to live by this creed has confronted moral dilemmas that feel unsolvable.
For example, when is giving a cup of cold water enabling someone to continue to harm themselves? A few years ago, a man spent much of the summer living on our steps. I found him passed out on the handicap ramp before a meeting. I woke him up and said he couldn’t sleep there during the day. I always wake people up in the day since the opioid crisis. We don’t know if a person has overdosed. He apologized, but it kept happening. We talked during staff meetings for a few weeks, gave him second chances, and finally decided we had to trespass him from our property.
Trespassing involves going to the police station, filling out a triplicate form, then finding the man and calling the police to come and witness handing him the trespass notice. I saw him in front of Brugger’s Bagels across Main Street. I had to hand him a pink carbon copy. Yes, I had to give a homeless man a pink slip to stay off our property, standing on Main Street with everyone, including a few panhandlers, watching. He was shouting, “I don’t understand, I didn’t do anything wrong, why are you doing this to me?” It may have been the right thing to do, and Brendan Plant, who has worked with people on the street for two decades, said, “You had to do it.” But it felt horrible.
I saw the man again a year later, looking much better, and I said hello. He looked confused and said, who are you? I told him my name and watched it dawn on his face. “You were the guy who trespassed me.” Yup, that’s me. “You know, that did me some good. I went to rehab, and I have a place in Amherst now. I’m three months sober.” I told him congratulations.
Sometimes doing the compassionate thing will break my heart, and my best efforts are ambiguous. When I was a young minister, a woman came to my church office asking for help. She was eight months pregnant, and her husband was abusing her. I helped connect her to the local battered women’s shelter to be safe and get some counseling and support. A few weeks later, the woman called me. She was out of the hospital and had a new apartment. She wanted me to stop by and see the baby and her new apartment. And could I get her some groceries on the way, since she was still weak?
When I got to her new home, she beamed, and she showed me her new one-bedroom apartment. “Come see the baby!” I was a new father, and my son was just a few months old. So, when she grabbed her small infant by the arm, dragged him across the bed, and picked him up with no neck support, I nearly dove to catch him to keep him safe. It didn’t take long to see she was ill-equipped to care for this baby. I wrestled for a few hours about whether to call Child Protective Services and decided it was my duty as a mandated reporter. I didn’t want to over-react, so I called without saying my name and described the situation. They said I was right to call and asked me her name. When I told her name, the social worker said, “Oh, I know her. We have her other three children in foster care. I know I did the right thing, but it still doesn’t feel like it.
Here is the challenge in the scripture for me. Suppose I want to follow the God of awe and wonder, the God who meets me on bright mornings, brilliant sanctuaries, and beautiful music. God also calls me to embrace the Christ present in suffering human beings. Following Jesus also pulls me into a world where people are cold and hungry, traumatized, and without a home, sometimes obnoxious. It may bring me to a place of despair, where I face the things I cannot fix. It does help me to know that Jesus will be there too. It reminds me that Jesus will not run away from my broken and ugly places.