The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Last Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on how we meet Jesus in our neighbor and in the mirror. Gnaw away!
Jesus said, “The Promised One will come in glory, escorted by all the angels and will sit upon the royal throne, with all the nations assembled below. Then the Promised One will separate them from one another, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on the right, the goats on the left.
Then ruler will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kin-dom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me; in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the just ones will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we see you ill or in prison and come to visit you?’ The ruler will answer them, ‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my siblings, you did it for me.’
Then the ruler will say to those at the left, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and the fallen angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ Then they in turn will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ The answer will come, ‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
This famous passage is actually the climax of a two-chapter sermon Jesus gave to his disciples in response to their querying him after he pointed to the Temple and said, “Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” To which the disciples responded to him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?” Jesus, himself just two days removed from his betrayal, launches into an extended sermon about the end times. He tells them to guard against false messiahs, that they will be “handed over to be tortured and put to death,” that they will see the “desolating sacrilege” prophesied by Daniel, and that they must “keep awake.” He then tells the parables of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the parable of the talents … both teachings of the coming of the kin-dom and both parables of judgment.
Then finally, he talks about what the end times will actually look like. And like everything else Jesus has said and done, his vision turns everyone’s expectations on their heads. He hearkens back to Daniel’s vision of the Promised One coming in glory, but this monarch is a shepherd. And life or death will not be on how much power you have accumulated but on how you have lived as Jesus was living and would die … in deep and personal love for each sheep, articularly those who were the most lost and could least defend themselves.
A few things to chew on:
*When Jesus lays out the basis for salvation here, he doesn’t talk about doing huge things. Jesus doesn’t talk about founding large movements or changing intractable systems but about small, individual relationships of deep compassion. What Mother Teresa called “small things with great love.” They are things everyone can do — feeding, clothing, visiting, tending. The one thing they have in common is that they are about personal relationship. This Sunday, we remember Jesus as the shepherd ruler. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus the shepherd is the one who knows each of his sheep by name. Jesus isn’t telling us we need to save the world … he’s telling us that any “saving” is tied up in doing something simple and loving for another human being. In learning their name. In treating a stranger as a friend … and in so doing
*Serving the most vulnerable is not optional for we who would follow Christ. Paul Farmer has dedicated his life to serving “the least of these” — and he has done it person by person with great compassion. His organization, Partners in Health, is dedicated to the proposition that there should be one standard of health care — excellence — for each and every person. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracey Kidder’s book about Farmer, he quotes this passage in Matthew 25 as the reason he and many others are about this work of healing, but also notes that while the church isn’t shy about talking about the blessings for those who treat the poor as Christ we often neglect the other side, which is that (in Paul’s paraphrase) “Inasmuch as you did it not, you’re screwed.” The message is clear — how much we love and serve is not just an optional extra … it is everything. For all the things we either do or do not do, it and only it IS what matters.
What would you want to do if Jesus walked right up to you right now? Would you look to him for wisdom? For healing? For forgiveness? For a hug? Would you sing a song of praise?
I’m not sure we usually grasp the incredible nature of what Jesus is saying when he says ” every time you did this for the least of my siblings, you did it for me.” If each person in poverty or imprisonment – no matter how alike or different they are from you — is someone we should treat as Christ that doesn’t just mean we should be excellent hosts but we should look to that person for wisdom … for healing … for forgiveness … for a hug.
Too often service is viewed as a one-way relationship. We “other” each other, with one side being the givers and a “they” who are the takers. But that is not the way of Christ … it’s much too boring, for one thing. Relationships in Christ are always dynamic. Love and wisdom, healing and forgiveness — they spiral and turn and bounce all around.
This week, at least once, intentionally go to a place where you will meet someone who is hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing or sick or in prison. Learn their name and let them learn yours. Give them the gift of love and attention … and maybe something else they need … but be intentional about receiving that same gift as well. See what gift Christ has for you this week. And remember that as you are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, sick and in prison yourself that Jesus is saying “I am you.”
Meeting Jesus in the Mirror
My friend, Tom Etling, who has devoted much of his life to working with those among us struggling with homelessness and poverty taught me about what he called “people first language.”
He put it this way:
“In my family, we have several people who are battling cancer … but we don’t call them ‘cancer people.’
“That’s because they are people first. The cancer is a battle, but it doesn’t define who they are. So why do we talk about ‘homeless people?’ Homelessness is something some of us struggle with but it doesn’t define who they are. Everyone is struggling with something … usually multiple things … but we are always people first.”
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus is saying that we meet the Christ when we meet people. People who are hungry. People who don’t have clothes to wear. People who are in prison. People who are thirsty.
We meet the Christ when we meet people at our most vulnerable. They are not an “other.” They are not a category or a class. They … we … all of us … are always people first.
Tom was right. Not just about the people first language but that struggle is our common denominator. Some of us have more privilege than others. Some of us are better at hiding our struggles than others … but we are all struggling with something – usually multiple things.
There are many ways to be hungry. Many ways to be thirsty. There are many prisons that bind us and many ways we are naked and feeling exposed to the world. Too often we hide those places in shame. We hide them from one another and we hide them from ourselves. Yet what this Gospel reading is telling us is those spaces are the most beautiful, most precious, most sacred parts of us. Those are literally the places where the Christ resides in us and where we meet Christ in one another.
Jesus says meeting Christ in these places of incredible vulnerability is the only thing that matters. It is our salvation or damnation … not as a criteria upon which an abusive God will judge us, but as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we allow ourselves to meet one another in places of vulnerability, of God’s safe love, God will be present and we will have a richness of life that can’t be beat. Conversely, if we shut ourselves off from those places in ourselves and one another we will be shut off from that love and abundance and left to a life of isolation, loneliness and shame.
The choice is ours. And it’s a scary choice. Because the world we live in, far from rewarding vulnerability, all too often punishes it. God’s dream for us is for us, together, to trust in the love that casts out that fear. To share our struggles, our hungers and our prisons. To dare to show them to one another and to ourselves. To meet Jesus in our neighbor and in the mirror. And to let the love of Christ define us most of all.
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Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.
Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.
Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.
Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.
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