Lectionary Sermon (Homily) for Next Sunday 23 November 2014 (Matthew 25: 14-30 )
First the text:
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This Year A Sunday sometimes called called Christ the King – is intended to be when the teaching of Jesus is summarized in its true perspective. Matthew has arranged his gospel in a typically traditional Jewish form and in such a way that the teaching section is completed with Matthew’s version of a summary statement by Jesus of what Matthew selects as the key ideas in Jesus teaching. The emphasis given to judgment based on behaviour here appears to have special significance in the eyes of Matthew.
The message is a curious mixture of dire predictions about divine judgment – yet unlike the continued strange mysterious symbolism of the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel, the message is grounded in simple ethics. By introducing the story as the separation of sheep and goats the introduction at least is clearly intended as an analogy couched as metaphor. However, when Jesus outlines the basis for separation it is clear he is talking in terms of practicalities. The message could not be plainer. Yes, there is judgment, but it is not on the basis of achieved status or even past reputation. It is much simpler. It is not salvation through joining the right group, nor is it passing the right initiation ceremonies and confessing the right formulae of faith, but rather the judgment seems simply whether or not we try to live the central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.
We should not be too surprised that the message is often subverted. Religious status has always been attractive. Some branches of Christianity elevate their leaders to almost God like status. The status is stressed by title – some with a whole series of religious ranks –acolyte, deacon, priest, Dean, Bishop – Archbishop etc- sometimes too, status is stressed with fancy robes or impressive hats. And again all too often, for example, Bishops and Church presidents are feted at public gatherings – seated in the most prominent situations – honoured with special foods and offered special gifts.
There is even a picture on the Net in which a composite photo is presented of officials of some of the main faiths in full regalia. Underneath there is a cynical caption. “Religion – an age-old contest about who has the silliest hat”.
Some versions of the faith also put a great deal of emphasis on confession of faith. No doubt we have all encountered claimed status for justification like born again, like being a Bible Christian, a true believer. In apparent contradiction to this section from the Gospel of Matthew such marks of authenticity are often pushed forward by implication as the mark of a real Christian.
Still others think that the way we worship – whether or not we say the right prayers, sit listening to the correct sermons – or are found to be singing the right hymns is important – surely because this is after all what is called worship, and that should count for something.
Well maybe it does… but the hard truth is that certainly isn’t apparently what Jesus is recorded as saying. Matthew, when selecting which of Jesus’ teachings to highlight as a summary statement, has none of this. Status and religious practice don’t even get a mention. Perhaps it was this that Dr Myles Munroe had in mind when he once put it “the value of life is not in its duration, but in its donation.”
Of course much philosophical reflection goes into the wording of our creeds but on reflection if we merely used the essentials of this reading our intentions would be rendered rather more comprehensible. Imagine instead of reciting the familiar creeds, standing to insist
“we believe that we should feed the hungry, we believe we should make sure we offer the thirsty a drink, we believe we should clothe the unclothed, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoners”…….
At least we would then be reminding ourselves of the essence of what Jesus expected of his followers.
No doubt intoning: We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, …. or he died for our sins…. can be defended at one level by our learned theologians, but isn’t there also a verse in the New Testament that is paraphrased “Even the Devils believe… and tremble”
Over recent years I have come to be reminded that that Jesus the King Sunday is not part of some competition to get our description of the Christ into a philosophically acceptable form, but rather to ask what we are expected to do in order to be following this sort of king.
Part of our response is to ask ourselves the key question about how we individually should fit into the required responses. Allowing the wider Church to come up with all the action can only be part of the response. I think we make a mistake when we assume that the Church is the only means by which we might do the work of Jesus.
In the year 1885, the London Times ran a series of editorials honouring the British Philanthropist Moses Montefiore who was knighted by Queen Victoria for his numerous charitable works. It seems that Sir Moses had once been asked by a brash young man what he was worth. Instead of refusing to answer this personal question Sir Moses Montefiore barely paused before naming a sum – which was very much less than the young man was expecting. Surely the young man protested, you are worth more than that. Sir Moses merely smiled. “Young man” he replied, “you didn’t ask me how much I owned, you asked me what I was worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year, and that is the number I gave you. You see in life we are only worth what we are prepared to share with others”. In those terms I wonder what we might calculate we are worth.
A great story and on reflection we might remember that what we share may possibly be our money and possessions but it might equally be our hospitality, our time, our genuine sympathy and in fact simply caring enough to notice and respond to the concerns of our neighbours.
If we turn to Jesus words there are a number of points that at a quick reading might otherwise go unnoticed.
The first is that Jesus seems to expect that the critical behaviour he valued can be easily overlooked. Finding and responding to the Christ we encounter in the faces of those in need does not come easily. How else would it be that serious problems in places on the main tourist and travel destinations might have gone so long unaddressed despite the ready access to these places by tourists and representatives from various churches and aid organisations.
Take just one example with the Ahkra hill tribes in Thailand. These are the estimated two million stateless mountain and hill people who live at total subsistence level in the hills of South East Asia. They carry no passports in that they are recognised by no Government, their children are trafficked to the brothels and in terms of poverty with $1US per day considered the level below which genuine poverty occurs, the few workers trying to improve the tribes-people’s lot estimate that they fall well below that level with some families subsisting on 50 cents a week. They are driven off their lands by local and nationals and when the government confiscates their land many are forced into forest areas where they exist by foraging in the jungles. When the tribes-people send their children to beg in the cities, I have been told by rescue workers, the children are picked up by the police, are often sexually molested by the police then sent to the local brothels as sex slaves. They are not entitled as non nationals to education or welfare, and without passports they cannot seek travel to more hospitable countries. Again rescue workers tell me the adults are often captured by crime lords to be used as drug-couriers. When they cease to be of use they are executed.
The regular aid agencies often seem powerless to help them. I have been told of containers of relief materials sent to these people in Thailand by well-meaning donors merely to have the containers confiscated and effectively stolen by officials under the pretence that there is something wrong with the paperwork. A small number of volunteers who are indeed beginning to make a difference to these people are those who are prepared to live among them and work with them on a daily basis. The embarrassment and I would even say scandal in the West is despite years of tourism (including sex tourism) it has taken years for the problems to start to be recognised and addressed.
So must we help all? That is clearly impossible. The scale of the problems prevents us from dealing adequately with the needs of all. There are many lonely and needy in our Church and in our community. There are something like one billion without security of food supply – and as it says in another place the poor are always with us.
Jesus is more realistic. “As you did it to one of the least of these…..” I suspect he is saying we do what we can. It is only when we do not have the listening ear, the sympathetic eye – the will to care – that we deserve condemnation.
Given that we can at least bring ourselves to start to look about us with the attitude that Jesus most clearly explains, it will then be up to each of us individually to determine how to express what we know we should do.
(If you note errors or have an alternative angle on the reading – please share it. It would make these notes more helpful to others)