The lectionary organizers designate today as Christ the King Sunday. It is intended to be the day 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 Jesus summary 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 prefacing the section with the analogy of the separation of sheep and goats we can hardly fail to notice the use of metaphor. Yet we shouldn’t fail to notice that 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.
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, or perhaps alternately 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 put the focus on the way we worship – implying it is important whether or not we say the right prayers, sit listening to the correct sermons – or are found to be singing the right hymns – surely they seem to reason, 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 affirming 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 a New Testament view of Jesus as 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.
Reflect for a moment on those TV clips where the current President of the US was boasting of his wealth, which presumably impressed at least some of his supporters. We might do well to remember how the sheep and the goats story finishes.
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. The Times related how 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, which presumably included a good number of those thinking of themselves as Christians.
I wonder if such tourists noticed 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 tribal 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 in the comment box below. It would make these notes more helpful to others)