by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 1, 2017
Alright, how are we all doing? Everyone still awake? This whole doing church on Christmas day and New Year’s day is a little rough after a night of merry making isn’t it? But perhaps not as a rough as today’s reading from Matthew. Can I get an “amen?” Good to know someone is awake.
Seriously though, the separation of the sheep and the goats…Jesus description of the last judgment…”whatever you did for the least of these…you did for me,” ….there are certain passages that haunt you as a Christian, aren’t there?
Certain passages you hear in the back of your mind at the most inconvenient moments – right? – and for me at least, these verses from Matthew 25… these are words I just can’t shake.
Who here thinks of these verses every time you pass someone on the street asking for money? I do.
Just as I feel the truth of these verses every time I go to visit someone who is sick. I will admit that it’s often hard to find the time, energy, or inclination, but these words spur me on.
And they are often affirmed when they do because I almost always leave the visit feeling blessed, as if I’ve been in the presence of some thing holy; some one holy. But without these words, I don’t know that I’d go as often as I do.
I am so thankful to be part of a church that brings meals to the cot shelter and Cathedral in the Night – aren’t you? – part of a church that raises money for organizations like Heifer and provides space for those in recovery.
It reassures me, because deep down I know that even if everything else falls apart – even if we screw all this up, at least we got that part right. You know?
And I have to confess, I feel this bizarre combination of self-satisfaction and desperate relief every time I go to visit someone in prison. Because, you see, the truth is, I’d probably never go if I didn’t have specific people I needed to visit there, but because I’m a pastor, I do.
Therefore, I can mentally check “visited Jesus while in prison” off my Things To Do Before the Final Day of Judgment list, and that always makes me feel perversely better. Honestly I’m not even sure that I believe in a final day of judgment, but I swear to you I think of these verses every time I exit the jail.
Of course then I wonder if any of this counts since it’s my job to do all these things, which brings me to my first point:
I know this passage and I know it well. It lives in my head. I have preached on it many, many times, and yet the more I try to get a handle on it the more I feel like it’s handling me.
Anyone else feel that way? The truth is, after all these years, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.
I mean for one thing, is this prophecy or parable: a glimpse of the future judgment that awaits us all or just a clever story designed to reveal the state of our hearts in the here and now? How literally are we to take a passage about talking sheep and talking goats?
Is our treatment of the least of these what life, faith, Christianity is really all about? Does our salvation rest on whether we dropped a dollar at the light on our way home from the mall?
Do you really, as my friend Andrea likes to say, need a letter of recommendation from a poor person to get into heaven?
Or does it make more sense to fall back on Paul who says we are saved by the grace of God through faith, not our works, lest any of us should boast?
And don’t even get me started on the whole eternal fire thing. Really not loving that.
The truth is that as seriously as I take these words and seek to live up to them, this pericope about the sheep and the goats raises huge questions for me. It always sends me back to the commentaries, back to the sermons of preachers much wiser than myself, and, when all else fails, back down the rabbit hole of the internet to see if anyone has a new take on this that can help ease my anxiety a little.
So imagine my relief when I googled “Matthew 25 Christians,” – thinking I’d learn something from Christians who have taken these words as their guiding principle and learned instead, courtesy of Christianity Today, that I’d simply been reading this passage wrong all along.
According to Andy Horvath, author of the very first article that popped up after wikipedia – meaning this article has gotten a lot of traction – “the least of these,” mentioned by Jesus are not the poor, the needy, or the most marginalized members of our society.
He believes that “the least of these” refers instead to the 12 disciples Jesus sent out with no food or money to preach the gospel. For were they not also hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned when they left with no food, money, extra clothing, or Marriott reward points, to go preach about the coming of God’s kingdom?
Did Jesus not say to them, “whoever receives you receives me,” and “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – read the least of these – because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Andy also points out that whenever Jesus talks about his “brothers,” as he does here in Matthew 25:40 he’s always referring to the disciples.
What Andy doesn’t seem to notice is that sisters are also mentioned in our passage for today – at least they are in the NIV which is the translation I’d assume he is using – and that the Greek word for “least” (elachistos) is etymologically distinct from the word “little” (mikros) but hey that just complicates an interpretation of these words that has so much more to offer if you keep running with it.
For one thing, if the “least of these” aren’t the poor and needy, but Jesus’ disciples, then we can reconcile the (quote) “unseemly tension between the (teachings of) Jesus and Paul,” (unquote). these verses produce. That is, we can side with Paul and keep believing in salvation though faith alone.
We can expect people to receive and serve us, indeed it would be in their best interest for us to encourage such service as it will help them get into heaven. Just as we can wash our hands clean of those who don’t agree with us and receive our words as gospel because they’re going to get what’s coming to them when Jesus returns.
And best of all – I kid you not this is a direct quote from the article: – “We don’t have to be terrified that our salvation is at risk if we pass by a poor person on the street.”
I’m totally not making any of this up.
Now in all fairness to Horvath, he does go on in his article to make a case that we should still care about poor people – because Jesus and the rest of the Bible, and I have to admit that his Greek is good and his exegesis isn’t horribly tortured. I’m sure I’ve preached sermons on flimsier evidence to get myself out of a tight theological corner.
But as much as I’d like to, I still don’t buy it.
I don’t buy it, number one, because this is Jesus we’re talking about, our Emmanuel, who “emptied himself,” of his divinity in order to fully assume our humanity.
Jesus who could have been born to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, yet chose to be born to a poor girl, in a stable, attended by no one more important than shepherds. Jesus who spent his first few years as a refugee before his family returned home to raise him in the backwater town of Nazareth.
Jesus who began his ministry claiming, in the words of Isaiah, that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – that is the year of jubilee when all debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and lands restored.
Jesus who wandered homeless across the countryside – preaching, teaching and healing all regardless of class or creed – before dying – thirsty and broken – upon a cross as an enemy of the state, an insurrectionist, nothing more than a common criminal.
Our Emmanuel didn’t just come to help the poor or love the poor, Jesus was born poor and he died poor. He didn’t identify with “the least of these” he was one of the least of these.
So I think it’s a real stretch to say that Jesus was speaking figuratively of his disciples rather than literally of the hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned when he refers to the “least of these,” in Matthew 25. I have a hard time believing that he meant anything other than what he actually said.
And yes that leaves me feeling uncomfortable with the story as a whole. It leaves me with problems I don’t know how to solve. But honestly, I think that’s the point.
I don’t just reject Andy Horvath’s interpretation because of how contrary it seems to the life and teachings of Jesus. I reject it because Andy’s take on it is just too neat and tidy. It makes it all too easy. And if there is one thing we know about parables, it is that these sorts of stories might be simple, but they are never easy.
A good parable is designed to surprise you – not affirm you, provoke rather than comfort you.
Jesus taught in parables because a good parable reveals truths you would just as soon keep hidden – especially from yourself. They challenge our preconceived notions – not just about the world or about God, but about our own souls.
Parable are stories with teeth, so if you don’t feel the bite, chances are you’ve probably read it wrong.
Parables are stories with teeth… and this one about the sheep and the goats bites down hard and doesn’t let go because that is how Jesus designed it to work. I believe he meant for these words to haunt us… to make us uncomfortable, to disturb and destabilize us.
I think he wants us to think twice about things like mass incarceration and access to clean water. These words should come to mind when you pass someone on the street in need or when you find yourself too busy to visit your mother in the nursing home for the second weekend in a row.
Therein lies their power and their genius. And, somewhat paradoxically, therein also lies the love and good news for us this morning.
Because dear ones, no one likes to be made uncomfortable – I know that as well as you – but Jesus left us with this and many other such stories because he believed in us, believed that however good we are we can still do better…we can still be better.
Jesus loved us all enough to challenge us to do the next hard thing because it is right and the next right thing even when it’s hard.
For Jesus himself made us all just a little lower than the angels and when we failed to live up to that calling he loved us enough to come among us and show us just what that means, what it looks like when love takes on human flesh and dwells here upon the earth.
His words may haunt us but it is his Spirit that dwells within us – all of us – such that when I let the Christ in me love the Christ in you and when you let the Christ in you love the Christ in someone else, heaven comes down, the kingdom breaks through, and God comes to dwell ever more fully with God’s people.
So do no be afraid. Do not be afraid to let these words of Jesus work upon your heart. Do not be afraid to let them break you open, for whatever you do for the least of these you do for him who believes in you. Amen