Matthew 25:31-46 – The Reign of Christ, Final Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 23, 2014
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)
In Matthew’s Gospel, the future reckoning of the “good” and the “bad” hinges on actions in the present moment. With agrarian imagery familiar to his first century believers, Matthew’s Jesus declared the “good” sheep will be saved and rewarded and the “bad” goats will be abandoned, left out.
The bright dawn of Holy sorting is near for the good sheep! Those goats that live alienated from God, those goats that pander to the false gods of greed, avarice, deceit, and selfishness, will soon be cast into darkness.
And yet, doesn’t it always seem like the end times?
Were the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages, with their menacing swords and fervent faith, the “sheep” or the “goats” as they attacked the “infidels” in the Holy Land? Both sides claimed God’s side. Didn’t their world feel as if it were on the verge of ending then, regardless of which side a soldier’s arrow was launched from?
In recent news, a 22 year-old Union soldier earned the Medal of Honor 151 years after he died trying to thwart Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed God’s side. Didn’t their world feel as if it were on the verge of ending then, regardless of which side squeezed a trigger or launched a cannonball?
Today’s headlines shout about the battle against ISIS, the struggle against Ebola, and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warns about a new cold war. Doesn’t our world continue to take sides—if not two sides, a hundred sides—as it seems to careen toward ending?
Wars and more wars. Plagues and more plagues. Hurricanes and earthquakes and lava flows and more natural disasters. You and I could be transported with sci-fi ingenuity into any century and wherever or whenever we landed would seem to be teetering on ultimate disaster. We are a people of free will that are always scheming to wrest free will from others. The Great Wall of China was built. The Berlin Wall rose, casting grim shadows on both sides of the city. Israel erected a wall against the Palestinians; the Palestinians burrowed tunnels under the wall. Some demand the US-Mexican border has a wall, separating the tomorrows from the mañanas.
We are sheep. They are goats.
We are the chosen. They are the lost.
We are God’s good people. They are . . . not.
How will we know who is right or wrong, them and us? Though novels and films have long depicted the apocalypse—the time of reckoning—with great disasters, natural and human made, the Bible often remains modest and mundane.
Do we know that special, awful date when judgment comes?
Not if we honestly read the Bible.
But we do know what matters, if we honestly read the Bible.
Christ, you see, will appear in the mundane guise of a stranger. Not the stranger who is a danger in the future, in the mañanas, but in the present moment of the present times. In the here. In the now.
How will you (or I) treat that stranger? In a world of great walls and greater walls, will we feed and cloth and heal and give hope to ones we know not? The strangers among us emerge from the shadows of the walls we have created.
Once upon a time a kid arrived at my church office seeking help. Skinny, skittish, and scruffy, he looked in his late teens or early twenties. He didn’t want food. Didn’t want clothing. He had no open wounds in need of healing. Instead, he sought a rebuilt carburetor for his wheels. Without it, he wouldn’t continue on to Seattle, a thousand miles away. $150 was what this stranger needed. He’d pay it all back. He was good for the money after he returned to his family or his job or his girlfriend. Just a little cash, he pleaded. (He sure didn’t act Christ-like, though strangers rarely do.) He made eye contact with me. He wrote down my address to send me a check. In or out of a church’s office, I try to listen, try not to say no, try not to be cynical, try to find ways to help. I suspected he was lying and telling the truth. While mostly sure he needed a part for his car, I wasn’t hopeful about any money being returned.
The Great Wall of Larry listened . . . would I keep him in the shadows, or risk money on a stranger? On . . . Christ?
I gave him the money.
Never heard from him again. I hope his rebuilt carburetor got him home. Once in a great while, like now, I recall the strangers I’ve ignored, the strangers I’ve helped. I wonder if God, the God of love and hope and mercy and tenderness and truth and righteousness for all creation and all creatures (the sheepish ones and the goatish ones), tallies my successes and failures with strangers?
Though I don’t believe God counts my sheepish or goatish ways, I could be wrong. Judge me, if you will!
But when the horrible apocalpyse is on the verge, or when the sun of the next day peeks over the smoggy horizon, I will face decisions. Will I help the stranger or not? Will I risk seeking Christ in the light or scurry into the comfy shadows of my walls?
Odd how, in the scripture that’s most troubling and apocalyptic, the gesture the Creator longs for the creation to undertake takes so little effort. Humanity’s hope is built today on simple love and modest actions.