Archive for November, 2020

“When was it that we saw you?” (Sermon, November 22nd 2020)

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “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.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, 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?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Matthew 25: 31-46

Well, here we are again with yet another uncomfortable parable about judgement and in-groups. We made it through the parable of the talents last week, we took up our triannual battle with the bridesmaids two weeks ago, and now we’re at the end of the year and the end of time, with the Son of Man on his throne, the sheep and Paradise on the right, and the goats and eternal fire on the left.


Where’s the good news here? Well, it seems like great news for the sheep, the goody-two-shoes who always do everything right – and without knowing it!

Wait, let’s walk that back.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

That’s interesting. Reminds you of the bridesmaids, right? Some were prepared and some were not, but they all fell asleep.

Still, not good news. It seems fatalistic, like the people who will win Paradise are just better than all of us and there’s no point in trying. Surely none of us are able to help every single hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, struggling precious one out of their predicaments? Man, what if we ARE the struggling precious ones ourselves? What happens to us?

Real respect for Scripture is asking it tough questions, not letting it off the hook, maybe even getting a little rude. If it’s a living thing, let’s treat it like a living thing, rather than Snow White locked up in a glass casket. Let’s wrestle.

Verse 31: The Son of Man is coming in glory. Not “if,” “when.” And that’s appropriate, because in the very next chapter, Jesus is betrayed. Fascinating as well that Jesus refers to this figure in the third person. The Son of Man is powerful on his return, but on earth he’s a criminal. No wonder he wasn’t recognized.

Verse 32: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats[.]”

The Church often sees “all the nations” as referring to her people. Those of us who are progressive then feel awkward when we see that tell-tale phrase in verse 40: “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.”

Does the Son of Man mean the whole human family? Or is he referring only to the family of the Church? Is he telling us, the Church, to keep our own house in order, and damn the rest? I’m sure some Christians read it that way.

Who is Jesus really addressing here?

Something changes dramatically when we imagine that Jesus is not addressing the Church, but “the nations,” or those outside. Instead of a simple morality tale, Matthew may be doing something much more radical.

Here, Matthew seems to suggest that Jesus knows, accepts, and elevates those who care for the oppressed, no matter their creed or colour. What’s even more shocking is that they’re accepted without ever confessing or even recognizing Jesus. Likewise, neither do the goats.

In Matthew’s time, the infant Church was being persecuted. This context gives us some insight into where those strident calls for separation and judgement come from. Matthew’s community wanted to hear that their detractors would get their just desserts, and so perhaps the writer wants to encourage Christians to recognize the hospitality of those outside the in-group, to make sure the Church knew that God would reward those who treated them with care. This would not only be comforting, but may help guard against too much inward focus. Not everyone on the outside is our enemy, this story suggests.

But then why, at verse 45 when talking to the goats, does the Son of Man omit that part and say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Does this suggest that the goats were the kind of people who never extended kindness to anyone?

The shock of the goats puts me in mind of the kind of person who spends their schooldays as a bully and only feels regret when they discover that one of the kids they bullied grew up to be a celebrity. “I never would have done those things if I’d known!”

The way they rush through those acts of care so carefully listed by the Son of Man and considered one by one by the sheep is interesting. “Lord, 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?” It may simply be a narrative choice – the writer already listed each one twice. But why not, for our purposes, consider that the goats were not as mindful as the sheep in their interactions? Why not consider that they may have rushed through life the way they rushed through that sentence?

These are all questions worth asking, but they haven’t really brought us closer to an answer. Where’s the Good News? We, the North American Church, are not dealing with persecution on any level comparable with the Christians who compiled Matthew’s Gospel, and we’re surely not being called to be only passive recipients of help from others.

What should we take from this story? Are we the sheep and goats, and is our salvation dependent on little more than being the sort of insufferably perfect person that many of us think we know but that ultimately doesn’t exist?

The message here is surely more complicated than that.

It’s certainly more complicated than, “Always be perfect and gracious because you never know when God is watching you.” Advent starts next Sunday, it’s too early to apply Santa logic to Jesus here!

No, I think the answer might lie in a rather sweet illustration I found when working on this sermon, from writer Fritz Wendt.

Fritz uses an old Peanuts comic strip to reflect on this passage. Linus, of the ever-present blue blanket, watches television. Lucy, his sister of the ever-present psychiatric help stand (5 cents!), comes in and says, “I don’t want to watch that program. I want to watch MY program.” Linus responds, “Alright, I’ll go upstairs and listen to the radio.”

Lucy follows him. As Linus sits down near the radio, she growls, “I don’t want to listen to that program; I want to listen to MY program.” Linus sighs, “Fine, I’ll go to the next room and play a few records.”

Lucy follows and yells, “I don’t want to listen to those records. I want to listen to MY records.” Exasperated, Linus announces, “OK, I’ll go outside and look at the stars for a while.”

Once again, Lucy follows him and shouts, “I don’t want to look at those stars. I want to look at MY …” This is when she stops, glares at her little brother, sighs loudly and walks away[.]”

Fritz writes, “The “Peanuts” vignette illustrates two kinds of faith. Lucy’s is a small faith, which essentially says, “I believe in me and nothing else.” Linus’ faith is wider and more mature, as he points his big sister toward the stars which neither he nor she can ever call their own.”

Perhaps, in these latter days when the world around us encourages fear, complacency, and mistrust, this parable calls us not to anxious cataloguing of our good deeds, but to imagine a world where every person is an image of the Holy One, helped and helper.

This is not meant to label helpers “invisible Christians,” which colonizes the goodness all religions encourage – indeed, this very parable has a counterpart in the Islamic hadith.

Rather, it calls us to embody a more mystical mindset outside the narrow labels we build, and imagines an expansive world of endless opportunities for love.

So let’s not worry about whether we’re sheep or goats. Let’s instead go out into a playful world of hide-and-seek with the One who loves us, and calls us to imagine new landscapes of love and friendship with all living things.