Jesus Is Everyone

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus Is Everyone

November 26, 2017      Maple Grove UMC

 

          In this parable, there is good news and bad news . . . or what may feel like bad news.  The good news is that Jesus is everywhere.  No matter where you go, Jesus is already there, Immanuel, God-with-us always and everywhere. Good news!  The bad news is that Jesus is also everyone.  He is present in every beggar, every prisoner, every stranger.  That's a lot to take in.  But as is often true of the Gospel, the bad news is the good news, if only we can learn to see it that way.

 

          This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, what he's been leading up to for 25 chapters. Immediately after this begins his arrest and crucifixion, so this is it, his last chance to get his message across.  We’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel this whole year, so we know the kind of things he's been teaching.  We’ve watched as he’s touched the untouchable, in the form of lepers.  We’ve seen him include a despised a tax collector in his inner circle. We heard him say of an officer of the occupation Roman army that he had more faith than anyone in Israel.  We saw him repeatedly heal on the Sabbath, insisting that loving people is more important than keeping rules. 

          Given all that, who knows whom Jesus would ask us to touch and include and love today?  Well, actually, we do know, because in this culminating parable, he tells us quite specifically:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  Only now instead of just modeling for us how to touch and include and love these people, he tells us that’s how we’re going to be judged at the end of time—by how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  That’s quite a culminating teaching!

 

          I want to say first of all that this is a theological story.  That is, it’s not just an ethical story about how we should live and treat people; it’s a story about theos, about who God is and how God relates to the world.  Speci-fically, this story is Matthew’s version of the incarnation, the Christian doctrine that in Christ God became truly human, in Christ God entered our world as one of us. The scripture usually referred to for the incarnation is John 1:14:  “The Word became flesh and lived us. . .” Matthew’s version takes it one step further:  not only did the Creator of the universe become human in general; the Creator of the universe chose to become poor, hungry, a stranger.1  This story is theology.  And here’s how theology matters: Mother Teresa said, “We should not serve the poor as though they were Jesus.  We should serve the poor because they are Jesus.2

 

          Now here’s a little aside about this parable, a truth that I won't dwell on, but at least want to mention in passing.  Did you notice who is brought before the judgment seat of the Son of Man?  It’s not you and me as individuals.  Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him.”  So in the final judgment, it won’t be about whether or not I personally fed the hungry or whether you on your own cared for the sick.  It will be about how we’ve done collectively, as a nation. This is not a parable about personal charity but about what John Wesley called “social holiness.”  Again, I’m not going to dwell on that today, but I thought you’d want to be aware of it.

 

            One of the things that can make it hard to care for the hungry and homeless and outcast, is that the sea of need can be so impersonal.  If we don’t know any prisoners, for example, it’s easy to assume they’re all alike, that they don’t need or deserve our care and support.  If we don’t know any homeless people, it’s easy to be afraid of them or blame them for poor choices.  And if we don’t know any immigrants, we may not understand the desperate decisions they’ve had to make. 

          It’s when we know someone’s name that our hearts shift, that compassion wells up.  I had lots of assumptions and judgments about homeless folks; and then I volunteered in a shelter once a week in Atlanta and I got to know guys like Rodney, and Bob, and Antoine.  Real people, sons and brothers and fathers, people with demons and dreams, people who laugh and cry, people who play cards and watch football.  People, I discovered, a lot like me.

          Our family used to have a neighbor who said horrible racist things.  He was against all black people . . . except the ones he knew.  Laticia and Jackson and Lawrence, they were different.  Why?  Because he knew their names; because they were real people to him.  Knowing people's names makes a difference.

          Here’s what Jesus does in this parable:  he gives a name to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger.  He gives a name to the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  From now on we do know their name—it’s Jesus.3  From now on there is no one we can ignore or stereotype, for we know them individually and care about them personally—their name is Jesus.

 

          That Jesus makes a list of certain kinds of people is troubling to some. He names six specific kinds of people:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  These, he says, are me. Jesus should have known that any time you make a list you’re asking for trouble.  "What about us?" cried people with disabilities. "What about us?" cried the elderly?  What about me, is what we mean, I suppose.  Why just these six kinds of people and not others?  How can we tell exactly which ones are you, Jesus, and which ones we can safely ignore?

          One of my teachers grew up on a farm. One time their mule got out and his mom sent him to fetch it. Finding the mule involved going over a hill and across the woods where there was an old family cemetery.  And before he left, his mom told him, “Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on any graves.  Graves are sacred.” He remembers how ridiculous he must have looked, tiptoeing and taking first tiny steps and then giants steps, trying to avoid graves he couldn't even see.  When he got home, he said, “Mama, I can’t tell what part is sacred.”  And she said, “Well, I know it looks the same.  But if you’ll treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.”4

          Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying: if you just treat everyone as sacred, you’ll never miss. If you feed every hungry person and give a drink to all who are thirsty, if you welcome every stranger and clothe every ill-clad soul, if you care for all the sick and visit at least someone in prison—if you do all that, you can't miss me, he’s saying. And if you want to help persons with disabilities, too, and care for the elderly and be kind to yourself, all the better.  If we’ll just treat everyone as sacred, we’ll never miss the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

          Now, this parable may sound daunting, like it’s trying to force us to do things that are scary or uncomfortable.  Maybe a little, but I don't think that's the main point. After all, it’s not a grim duty, not some horrible task, to feed and welcome and care for Jesus; it’s a privilege, the highlight of life.  And sooner or later, most of us wind up being down and out; and I sure hope when that's me, someone will see in me the face of Christ.

 

          One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, tells of being the only guest one Sunday night at a women’s monastery.  So the sisters invited her to join them in statio, the community’s procession into the church for worship.  The prioress was her partner, so she could give Kathleen instructions along the way.  The procession, Norris writes, ended like this:  The prioress told me, “First we bow first to the Christ who is at the altar.” So I did.  “And then," the prioress whispered, "we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each of them.”  “'I see,' I said, and I did.'”5  I really did.

 

          Jesus is everyone--the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  We give our food, we risk relationship with those who make us uncomfortable, we share our precious time, we reach out across all differences, and we bow to the Christ in everyone.  Yes, Jesus, I say, I see you there in that neighbor.  And on a good day, I really do.

 

 

1 See Miguel A. De La Torre, “A Colonized Christmas Story,” Interpretation 71/4 (October 2017), 414-15.

2 Alive Now (March/April 1999), 37.

3 See Penelope Duckworth, “The Body of Christ,” I Am: Teaching Sermons on the Incarnation, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 73.

4 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 91.

5 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 162-63.

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