November 26, 2017
Last Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
American humorist Robert Benchly once said, “There are two kinds of people in the world– those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.” Which do you think Jesus is?
Today’s gospel reading has traditionally been read on this last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes called, “Christ the King,” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. As the church year comes to an end, we read those texts which remind us of God’s ultimate plan or goal for us – this description of what will happen as Christ returns to claim us for eternity. We sing songs of God’s power and might, and celebrate the good news that no matter how bleak our lives may become, no matter how much chaos or despair the world may face, our God will one day come to set things right, and to bring about the promised day of justice and reconciliation. It’s a vision worthy of our hopes and celebrations.
But this text doesn’t always help me find that hope. Sometimes it leads me to worry and concern. Rather than offer me a vision of a coming day in which we will all know God’s eternal goodness and justice, Matthew’s story of the sheep and goats can frighten me. It reminds me that I live too much of my life focused on my own problems and concerns, and don’t care for others whose needs are more obvious.
Rather than reassure me of God’s reconciling love and inclusion, I can read this passage and get a guilty conscience. When did I encounter Jesus in the least — in the hungry or the imprisoned or the sick– and neglect to offer food or compassion or companionship? Yes, I stay overnight at Project Home, and I write a check for the Food Pantry, but is that enough? Do I need to give more? Do I need to sign up for a prison ministry? What is God asking of me? and how could I ever be assured I’ve done enough?
Throughout the ages, the church has often used those feelings of guilt and concern to encourage good works. The truth is, nearly all of us can say that we haven’t done as much as we could to help others. Our prayer list is full of names of people who are sick, fearful of what their future holds, who long to have someone listen to their fears and hopes. Strangers worship with us every Sunday, who hope to be welcomed or simply greeted with kindness. Neighbors deal with food insecurity daily, and worry about not having anything to eat tomorrow. People are homeless. Prisons and nursing homes are lonely, harsh places. Refugees flee lands of violence and deprivation. The list of needs can be overwhelming for any of us.
But when we join our efforts with others in the congregation, we find there are ways in which we can respond to the needs of our neighbors. Last Sunday we offered $4300 and 1200 pounds of groceries for Keystone Food Shelf. While we can’t each personally create enough affordable housing in our community, Project Home allows us as a congregation to offer our guests a safe, warm place to sleep in December[i]. We may not know how to resettle refugees, but our denomination’s Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service gives us means to collectively respond to people caught in conflict or facing persecution throughout the world[ii].
So while individually we may not know how to respond to the overwhelming needs of people in poverty, church organizations and congregations offer us opportunities to join our efforts in making a difference. I value those ministries, and find them helpful. I’m not the first pastor who has used Jesus’ words from this story to encourage projects of this sort. “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. Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The trouble isn’t with the way the text reminds us to help people in need. No, it’s with the ways we’ve used it to focus the Reign of God into a division of people into two types: sheep or goats, saints or sinners, good or bad, accepted or included, us or them. And I think that meaning is exactly contrary to Jesus’ original message.
This interpretation of scripture makes God come out like a list keeper on the North Pole, marking all the little boys and girls as having been naughty or nice. Good, loving, caring sheep receive blessings, but selfish, mean, awful goats are in store for despair.
Too many times our understanding of the coming Reign of God turns our description of God into a Score-keeping Judge, ready to dole out eternal reward or punishment, based on how we’ve treated others. And while I do think God cares about how we treat others, I’m not sure this is a faithful interpretation to Matthew’s text.
A couple of notes about that. You may have caught the way I read a slight variation from what is printed in your bulletin. The translation we use in scripture changes one of the pronouns in verse 32, saying “people” rather than what’s indicated in the original Greek, “them.” What’s the big deal about that?
If you read carefully, you’ll see that when the Son of Man returns in the story, it’s the nations who are gathered before him. What the original text seems to imply is that the King is judging each nation as a whole body, not individual people one by one. Just as the prophets of old, Jesus is using the image of God’s people as a united flock. And it is the whole flock, the whole nation which is being judged to be a sheep or a goat.
Furthermore, the nation is judged not in the ways it normally might be, not by its Gross Domestic Product or its military strength, not by how its wealthiest or most powerful have fared, or how wonderful its leader is. Rather the flock is recognized for how it has treated its poorest, most impoverished or neediest members. The nations that have cared for the least of their members are those included in the reign of God.
I didn’t change the way I read the last sentence of the text, but some theologians wonder about the meaning of the phrases used there, too[iii]. When Matthew describes “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” the phrase he uses might better be translated as “the age to come.” And while the church has normally thought of that as the final age, when Christ returns, the early followers of Jesus and Jesus himself seem to have anticipated a day coming very soon.
In other words, the original impression of the story might have been not a warning of what God will do to us as individuals at the end of time, but a description of a more obvious fact: When nations care for the needs of the least of their members, they experience life as God designed us to experience it. When nations neglect to care for those in need, their civilizations end in chaos and destruction; the needs of the most impoverished will ultimately lead to the ruin of the culture.
Could it be that Jesus isn’t so much warning us about God’s eternal punishment of individuals who fail to care for others, as much as he’s describing the pain and loss every culture experiences when it ignores God’s design for us? When we are careless with the well-being of creation, we experience the damage of pollution and crop failure. When we disregard the health of our bodies, we deal with disease and physical challenge. When we ignore the needs of our loved ones, we become estranged and separated from our families. And when nations abuse and neglect to care for the least of their civilians, there are cruel consequences for all of them. In every case, when we fail to live as God intends for us to live, we miss the chance to experience the delight of God’s reign.
For when we divide the world into “us” and “them,” we’ve already missed the goodness of God’s design.
Here’s the really good news in this text, the one point you don’t have to miss, no matter how you read the original Greek. Jesus is in our midst. Christ is present in the least of these our brothers and sisters. Jesus lives in the places we never think to find him. Jesus shows up in prison and on the streets, in the faces of our guests at Project Home, in the lives of immigrants and refugees.
What if this isn’t a text about judgment at all, but is instead yet another message of amazing grace? What if the reign of God isn’t only God’s ultimate plan for us but is already here for us, right now, even in those places we least expect to see God’s presence, maybe even in our own lives?
What if the Reign of Christ is ready to be revealed every time we share our bread, and pray for healing, and comfort the suffering, and hold the grieving? God’s love is apparent in the ways we serve one another, in the care we offer to a friend who is sick, in the kindness we show strangers we encounter, in our generosity in helping those who are hungry and naked.
Maybe there is no “us” and “them,” righteous and punished, accepted and despised, but only all of us, beloved children of God. Maybe there is only love[iv] – God’s love in each person, God’s design for all creation, a constant prayer for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
Next week begins a new church year, as we enter the season of Advent. Once again, we will have a chance to lean into the promise of Immanuel, God is with us. Once again, we will be reminded that God shows up in unexpected places, in a manger, in the life of an unmarried, peasant woman, among an impoverished family fleeing the violence, in a child who will grow up to face suffering and a cross. Once again we will remember that God’s love will not be thwarted no matter what.
Advent will usher us into a new hope for a world in which all people are treated as God intended from the beginning of creation; in which angels proclaim to each one of us, “Fear Not;” in which the sky fills with a song of peace on earth, and good will toward all; a future in which we are held in the love of God’s promise to never abandon us to guilt, but like a Good Shepherd, ever lead us into abundant life and everlasting joy.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
[ii] See more about their work here: http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Immigration-and-Refugee-Services
[iii] Many fascinating ideas about this are summarized in this article: “Christ the King Sunday – Proper 29A,” Girardian Lectionary, November 20-26, 2017, http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/xrstkinga/
[iv] Fritz Wendt, “The Politics of a Love Beyond Dualism—Matthew 25:31-46,” Political Theology Today, November 20, 2017, http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-a-love-beyond-dualism-matthew-2531-46-fritz-wendt/