“You Did It To Me”
A Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 for Christ the King: the Last Sunday in Ord. Time, Year A; Preached November 23, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
I don’t particularly care for this morning’s gospel reading, to be honest. Perhaps an odd confession for a preacher to begin a sermon with, but it’s nevertheless a true one. If I had to choose, Matthew is admittedly not my favorite among the four gospels—funny, I know, given my name and all—and this selection we have today on the final capstone Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, and thus the last time we’re going to hear from Matthew for another two years (the Epiphany story of the “three wise men” being the exception)… it just isn’t going to make me sad to be moving on.
Why, I suspect you are wondering, do I feel this way? After all, I know there are a good number of us among the liberal-leaning or progressively-positioned Christians who like this passage quite a bit. In fact, at the UCC church I served just outside Washington DC, back before I was ordained, every week the congregation was invited into the weekly offering with a responsive litany of: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” and so on, through “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” and with the worship leader then concluding with the admonition “Let all you do be done in love.” Every week, every week, these words of Jesus, the ‘Son of Man’ as ‘King’ on the throne, they spoke to us of why we should offer of our finances and our lives. Liberal and progressive leaning Christians, like most of us here in this church, we tend to love this text because it seems to drive home the idea that the Christian life isn’t in the end about what sort of doctrine a person believes, but instead is about how we treat each other as fellow humans, and especially how we treat the so-called “least of these.”
What makes me worry, though, is when the conversation stops there too quickly and too simplistically. There are many nasty sand traps lying along the fairway of this vision of Christian discipleship. We who live in relative privilege among the peoples of the world—remember, even standing at the bottom of the income ladder here in North America puts you above a significant majority of the world’s population—it’s easy for people like us to become satisfied with feeding a hungry person and never press on to ask why we have hungry people in the first place. Or even if not the ‘why’ question, then at least whether there’s something that can be done to reduce the number of hungry people needing to be fed, or the number of people left naked or in prison.
Of course, another hazard along the way is the nagging question of what—if anything—is ever “enough”. I suspect many of you feel the weight of this one… that gnawing sense of wanting to be able to do more, of feeling like what you can offer is insufficient. In the scene in our story this morning, the ‘king’ on the throne says “just as you did it to one of the least of these…” So does that mean as long as I reach out and feed or clothe or visit one person in need, I’ve done what’s needed? Probably not, of course. I don’t imagine Jesus was trying to tell us to make sure we’ve gotten our charitable service ticket punched on the way to eternity. On the other hand, also in our scene this morning, the ‘king’ also says, to the other group, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these…” So, does that mean any of us who have failed to help a single person in need are “accursed” and destined for “eternal fire”? Well, if that’s the case, then I guess at least we’ll all have some good company there, because I imagine that there’s not a single one of us who hasn’t walked past the street person or shy-ed away from a stranger or wearied of being the caregiver for someone sick. Even in our best and most holy of intentions, the simple reality seems to be that none of us can help everyone, and presuming we could even come close just seems like a quick path toward a load of guilt.
All of this makes me wonder ultimately where God is in any of this. This scene, the only scene we have in the New Testament of a “final judgment”, it seems to make it all about whether I’ve been good enough. It’s a bit of a ‘Santa Claus coming to town’ of image of God… you know “He’s making a list, and checking it twice; Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice” and “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!” Sure, for some of our Christian sisters and brothers on the more conservative side of things, that ‘list’ would be about how much you drink and who you have sex with and whether you’ve said your prayers. But even when you make it about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned, it’s still a list of whether my own actions have been enough and have been good enough for me to achieve the reward.
Except, this is the same Jesus who in the same gospel tells that story about the laborers in the vineyard, the ones who make the same wage whether they worked the full day or just an hour. And it’s the same Jesus who in the same gospel speaks of the shepherd leaving the 99 to pursue the one sheep who has gone astray. So maybe the scene isn’t quite as simple as it first seems.
This whole speech from Jesus, of which today’s passage is the conclusion, begins with a question from the disciples: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And here, by the end of Jesus’ response, he has painted a scene where when the Son of Man comes, it is on a throne that declares judgment between those who have served him while hidden in the face of the “least of these” and those who have not. That throne which stands in judgment against the ways of the world is nothing other than the cross of Christ. The cross unmasks our idolatries and complacencies and comfortable compromises, the place where it is revealed what we would condemn the Compassionate One and kill the Innocent One. The cross is that place where the glory and presence of God is most certainly and clearly there, under the guise of that which seems so very opposite—the truly innocent looking like a criminal, the all-powerful submitting to the wrath of the world, the creator of the cosmos hanging on a cross.
In the story we’ve heard from Matthew today, we’re taken from the Son of Man coming in glory to the king saying when you did it to the least of these you did it to me. And then, if we were to read but one sentence further past the end of today’s passage, we’d hear Jesus tell the disciples—remind them, really—that the “Son of Man” will be handed over to be crucified.
All of this makes me wonder if the real thrust of today’s story isn’t, in the end, about what we do or do not do—after all, if it were only about that, I have a hard time thinking of anyone I know, including myself, that wouldn’t end up among the goats. I wonder, rather, if this isn’t about where we expect to see Christ… where we expect to find the presence and glory of God among us. Do we seek Jesus among the halls of power or the harrowing realities of poverty? Do we expect to find God in the sublime or in the suffering? Are we looking for the coming kingdom to arrive with trumpet blast and military might? Or do we see it having already begun in the sorrow of the crucifixion of an innocent man, in the solidarity on that cross of God with our human pain, in the embrace on that cross of all of us who know not what we do?
 Matthew 23:3, NRSV.