It was my first day back in the office after New Year’s when the phone rang. The woman had a slight connection with the church, had been on the margins for years. It was her son. He had, I knew, struggled with addiction, barely finished high school, couldn’t keep a job. His parents loving him, had tried so hard, couldn’t figure out when to support and when to draw a line. Until the day after Christmas, when he had stolen a car and gotten arrested. They decided not to bail him out but also, in their fear, hadn’t gone to see him at all. It had been a week. Will you go? she pleaded. Please.
I called the jail, met the chaplain, got permission. I took off my shoes and belt, anxious as the guards chuckled. Through metal detectors, into a tiny elevator alone, a little camera staring at me, no buttons to push, some unseen hand guiding where I would go. The doors opened into a room that looked more like the ones on television than I expected. I sat down on a stool facing the glass. He wasn’t there yet, but I picked up the phone. Joe1 walked around the corner to face me, and dissolved onto the floor in tears. Someone came, he mouthed as he picked up the phone. He knew the only way I would have gotten there was his parents calling me. I have been here for a week, he said, and now someone is acting like I am alive, as he laid his forehead on the glass and wept…
It could be said, Tom Long writes, that the whole gospel of Matthew has been moving toward and preparing for this dramatic parable. In Matthew Jesus is the great teacher, and this parable is his last formal act of teaching, the final point, the parting lesson, the cumulative moment in his teaching ministry.2 After the triumphal entry in chapter 21, as they waved palms like we will next Sunday, the mood in Matthew has been dark. Jesus cleanses the Temple, tells of its coming destruction. He denounces the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. Then, as He knows His end is coming, He speaks of the end of the world. He speaks of signs, tells us to keep awake, and then tells four parables in a row: of a slave who grows impatient for the master to return and quits working, of bridesmaids lighting lamps in preparation for the banquet, of slaves given talents who either invest them or stick them in a hole.
And Jesus ends class with one last parable. He paints a majestic scene: "When the Son of Man comes, he says, (this term appears exclusively on Jesus’ lips in Matthew – no one else refers to Him as such3) angels will surround the throne of his glory. The camera pans back, all the nations gathered before him. ALL of them, all colors and people and races – think about the breadth and diversity around the globe. And, Jesus says, the Son of Man will begin to separate people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He culls through the crowds, one by one, checking…you, over here….you two, that way….head to this side…done with intentionality. Remember, as the scene unfolds we don’t know why this is happening. We are told a sorting is taking place, and I imagine further anxiety builds. Who gets to be in which group? Is it the ones who believe the right things? Is it the ones who look the part, who are privileged and prospered in this world? Is it those who are important, who the world says matters? You think it’s me, we say to each other. Maybe?
The King stands. Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For….He pauses as the tension builds….for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. WHAT? Try and imagine how surprising these categories would be, how surprising they remain, in our world where cameras follow celebrities around doing nothing for reality TV shows, as we covet the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as we elbow each other to simply say a word to the honored guest as the dinner. The world says the opposite of all of these things matter: the well fed and well-dressed, those who are connected, who know people, who are healthy and attractive and strong.
But the righteous, presumably the sheep to whom Matthew refers, are glad to be where they are but wonder, Lord, when did we see you all these places, hungry and thirsty or naked or sick? We don’t remember it that way. I think the point here is that they weren’t looking for Jesus, they weren’t looking for God for a reward or because they thought they ought to. They served. They reached out. They saw a brother or sister anywhere, in the pew beside you…take a moment and look around you….in the line, on the street, under a bridge, in the new fancy justice center downtown…as someone who mattered, as a human being, a creation, beloved of God, worthy of care. Truly I tell you, the king says, whenever you did it to any one of these, you did it to me.
Then he turns. This text is tough enough, encouraging us to serve ALL people, but the king continues. YOU, he says to those on his left, the goats, in the judgment pile, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and no drink, a stranger and naked and sick and in prison, the exact same list we have heard twice and will hear again, and you did nothing. Everyone stands in silence for a moment, then the sputtering begins….but, but, but, king, I mean, when was it that we saw You in any of those circumstances, we didn’t see YOU, I mean, we saw them, but that is them, those people, not YOU. We would have noticed you. We didn’t see YOU. "Truly I tell you, you as you did not to it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away, Jesus says, into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
This is a text that is difficult to have a relationship with. We flash back in our minds to the many good things we have done, and we have, we do, of meals served and people cared for, of hungry mouths fed here and around the world, of clothes taken to clothes closets, cans taken to shelters, money given, we do that particularly well, money given to organizations that do this direct work all over the place. The visiting in prison is something we could do better. But, even as we think about all of the mission trips and good work, which is amazing, we can’t help but also remember those other times. When someone asked for something and we ignored them. Of the folks at the intersections whose gaze we didn’t dare meet … I think all of this gets at the same thing. That all people, poor people hungry and thirsty and naked and lonely, all of those that tend to be most forgettable, matter. They matter profoundly, to the world, to God. And we are to serve them not because we think they are Jesus – that is an important distinction, we don’t serve because we think the person in front of us is Jesus. But we serve because Jesus loves them, just as much as Jesus loves us and our families and the governor and the congress and the fancy people who gathered in LA for the academy awards a couple of weeks ago. We don’t serve for a reward, to achieve something, because we think a homeless person might be Jesus on a scouting mission. We do it because that is who we are created to be – people in relationship. How are you going to do that? That is the question Christ leaves us with. In all of our scrambling to be important and secure and successful and take care of the people we love, how are we going to be a church in which EVERYONE, every single person, tends to the hungry and lonely and imprisoned, not with our money and our things, but by offering your very selves, your very soul, to risk knowing, as deeply as one can know something, that every single individual, no matter who and no matter where, is a real person, a beloved child of God. Do this, everlasting glory. Don’t, Jesus says, eternal fire.
And He’s done. That’s what Jesus has to say. The next verse, as the next chapter begins, tells us of the plot to kill him. You can’t just tell people to pay attention to the least of these, to change our lives and our society around THEM, and not expect anything to happen. We move into Holy Week uncomfortable. All of this drama, all of this passion and suffering mean little if we don’t live into the new reality ourselves. So that we might see that it is not just about us, but people, real people, all people, whom God deeply loves. How might we be a church filled with disciples that see, that serve?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Name changed
2. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), pp 283-284.
3. From the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on this text at The Well, 2008, Kansas City.