The Least of These – November 20, 2005
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Matthew 25:31-46
November 20, 2005
This is Christ the King Sunday. And the first thing we see is that Jesus’ kingdom is different. In his kingdom, there is no “normal” hierarchy where some are more important than others. It isn’t King, then Duke, then Earl, then Count (Basie), etc… There are no princes or noblemen, and there are no common people.
Remember the legend of King Arthur. Part of that story had to do with Arthur’s fear of the various influential knights vying for positions of importance in the official meetings, each wanting to sit near the head of the table. So, instead of a long table with a “High end” and a “Low end,” made it a great round table, where all were equal.
Jesus used the example of a banquet table in describing his own kingdom. He told his followers when they come to a banquet, they should sit at a “lesser seat,” just in case a more important person came later and the host ask them to “move down.” That would be embarrassing. It would be better for them to choose a lesser seat. That way, if anything, the host might say to them, “Come, move up to a higher seat.” Then Jesus ended that example with these words. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
When I was in elementary school, our social status was determined on the playground! We had at my school – North Hills Elementary – the most awesome swing set in the solar system! There were about a dozen swings in a row, on the tallest set of pipes you ever saw! I think that’s where my love of flying first started! Well, the swings on the left near the rest of the playground were for the coolest kids! Us nerdy kids had to go down to the other end by the street. We never got the cool swings! That was our version of social status. And it was understood by everybody. If you took a more important swing, and a cool kid came along, you had to move down! (After school, though, I used to go back and swing on the cool swings!)
Everything the New Testament tells us about Jesus’ kingdom is that it will be different. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, and those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who are nerdy will swing on the cool swings! That’s how God treats us. That’s the background for our passage for today. And in this passage, we find that we are to treat one another the same way!
This is the passage about the sheep and the goats. Some people are quick to read this as being all about judgment day. I don’t think Jesus meant it that way. I think he meant it for the present. (Remember the prophetic voice often framed things in the future, but the message was about how the people should be acting in the present!) Jesus was telling them that day that they were to see life from God’s perspective and think of things the way God sees them! The first shall be last and the last shall be first and the least shall be greatest.
This was hard for them as much as it’s hard for us. Remember the time Jesus’ own disciples were found to be arguing about who would be the greatest in his kingdom. James and John’s own mother asked if her sons could sit on each side of him in his kingdom. (Insert your own Jewish mother joke here!)
This is the overall picture of Jesus’ kingdom, and it was one of the most difficult things he tried to get across to his disciples. Time after time he tried to get them to understand what was really important! Time after time he tried to tell them that God sees things differently, and we are to see things differently, too. In God’s kingdom, the nerdy kids shall swing on the cool swings!
Today is “Christ the King Sunday.” This is actually the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The first Sunday in of the Church year is the first Sunday of Advent. Which is next week, by the way! (Does that even seem possible.)
This is the culmination of the entire liturgical year which is focused on Jesus’ life. He was born. He grew up. He began his public ministry. He went to Jerusalem. He suffered. He was crucified, dead and buried. Sounds like a creed, doesn’t it? He was raised, appeared, ascended. The Holy Spirit he promised came to the Church. Then at the culmination of all that, we have Christ the King. And part of this celebration is understanding his kingdom here on earth – now as well as in the future. And the overall picture of that kingdom is the last shall be first and the least shall be the greatest.
That’s the picture Jesus painted about his kingdom in this passage from Matthew. On that day, the king shall judge the nations. He will separate the sheep from the goats. And what will be his criteria? His criteria is how they treated, not one another, but how they treated who? The least of these! “For in as much as you have done these things to the least (or not done them!) you have done them unto me.” And won’t that be a surprise?! That surprise is even implied here. For both the sheep and the goats asked the master, “When did we see you a stranger or hungry or naked…” We shouldn’t be surprised! But it’s not as easy as it sounds!
Think of who he meant. Who are “the least of these?” I’ll let you think about that for a moment. Who is that for you? Is it the homeless person you saw on the street? Is it that relative who you “just don’t get along with?” Is it the neighbor that everyone shuns? Is it the guy pushing the broom or bagging your groceries? Is it the guy you saw in prison on your TV?
When we think of those people, do we think of this passage? Do we think of them as “the least of these?” In that day, they will say, “When did we see you, Jesus – You! When did we see you hungry and naked and in prison?” Do we see those people as Jesus in our midst? And if so, how do we treat them? This is a hard thing to think about?
Jesus didn’t have much of a reputation, you know. I believe half the problem the religious authorities had with Jesus is that he didn’t hang around with them! That’s what we would have thought, isn’t it? They were swinging on the cool swings, and Jesus was down there pushing the nerdy kids! Where would Jesus go if he had come today? Would he have gone to the Vatican, to our “Presbyterian Vatican” in Louisville or Princeton? Or would he have gone to the soup kitchens in Trenton and West Philadelphia or New York or New Orleans?
As we think about this, I’d like to tell you a story that Tony Campolo tells. I love this story! And I want to tell it from his perspective.
One day about noon, I was in Philadelphia, and I was walking down Chestnut Street, when I noticed a bum walking toward me. He was covered with dirt and soot from head to toe. There was filthy stuff caked on his skin. But the most noticeable thing was his beard. It hung down almost to his waist, and there was rotted food stuck in it. The man was holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee, and the lip of the cup was already smudged from his dirty mouth. As he approached me, he seemed to be staring into his cup of coffee. Then suddenly, he looked up and he yelled, “Hey mister! Ya want some of my coffee?”
I have to admit that I really didn’t. But I knew the right thing to do was to accept his generosity, and so I said, “Sure, I’ll take a sip.” As I handed the cup back to him I said, “You’re getting pretty generous, aren’t you, giving away your coffee? What’s gotten into you today that’s made you so generous?”
The old derelict looked straight into my eyes and said, “Well… the coffee was especially delicious today, and I figured if God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people!”
I thought to myself, Oh man. He has really set me up! This is going to cost me five dollars! So I asked him, “I suppose there’s something I can do for you in return, isn’t there?”
The bum answered, “Yeah, you can give me a hug!” (To tell the truth, I was hoping for the five dollars!)
He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. Then suddenly I realized something. He wasn’t going to let me go! People were passing us on the sidewalk. They were staring at me. There I was dressed in establishment garb, hugging this dirty, filthy bum! I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do.
Then, little by little, my embarrassment changed – to awe and reverence. And I heard a voice echoing down the corridors of time saying, “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick. Did you care for me? I was a bum on Chestnut street… Did you hug me? For if you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.”
When we are followers of Christ, we are changed. Our outlook changes. Our priorities change. The way we look at other people changes. And if we don’t see changes in ourselves, we should take a serious look at our commitment to Christ and to his kingdom. People should look at us and tell we are different. And I don’t mean perfect. Let’s not go there. That’s some people’s excuse to avoid the Church. We should be different in how we see and how we treat the rest of the world! So I ask you today, what about you? How different are you?
Eternal God, continue to change us. Conform us to the image of Christ, whose sacrifice we commemorate in this sacrament. Help us to love as he loved, and to reach out to the least among us. For this we pray in his name, Amen.