It seems to me like it’s been kind of a dizzying week. High hopes for a vaccine are updated daily, but for most of us, the ability to get it is still pretty far away. As summer made its way into fall, many of us found modified ways of doing a few normal things, but meanwhile the numbers were climbing, and now we are trying to figure out how to make the best of a diminished Thanksgiving—not to mention Christmas. In the midst of all of this, I looked to this Sunday’s appointed scriptures hoping for a softball from the Bible: “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” or “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Instead, today, we get Jesus at the last judgment, separating the sheep from the goats. What is God up to this week?
This passage is a difficult read. So, let’s begin by acknowledging that this is a parable—a story Jesus crafts in order to catch our attention and make a point. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that because it is a parable, we know that this story is not description, it is imagination. (Brueggemann, in “Money and Possessions,” Interpretation Commentaries). This is not on-the-scene reporting about what takes place when we die; it is an act of Jesus’ imagination and he wants us swept up in it.
I have a three-year-old son at home, and his imagination is on fire! Much of the time these days, if you ask him, he is not a little boy, he is a baby elephant. Everything he eats, though it may look like grapes or bacon to you…is actually peanuts. He is so fully in character that the little stinker will refuse to do things like put on his own pants, saying, “I don’t have any hands, Daddy! Just a trunk!” When he’s not a baby elephant, he loves to get out his tools and be a worker in the yard with me, sometimes for hours on end; he calls me “Mr. Dad” and will only answer me if I speak to him in a “worker voice” and call him by the name “Mr. Beagle”—and we have no idea where he got that name! He is a three-year-old child and his imagination is on fire.
Imagination is about being so immersed in a story that it becomes your whole reality—your vision of what might be. This is what Jesus hopes to draw us into when he tells a parable; he is creating a world of possibility, a vision, and he wants us swept up in that vision.
In this parable, this imaginative story, this vision, Jesus invites us to see him. This is a chance to meet Jesus. He asks us to imagine that at the last judgment, all of the nations are gathered before the Son of Man and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, with the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. What separates them is that when they were confronted in life by the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the prisoners, some responded with compassion and care, but others did nothing. The profound and radical element of the story is when Jesus tells them that in these vulnerable people, who Jesus refers to as “the least of these,” they were actually meeting him. “[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”
It is a powerful image. It has real world application for any of us who have looked into the eyes of a needy person standing in the median. You may not realize how much traffic Knox gets from vulnerable people here in Cincinnati–people seeking help with rent, utilities, or transportation; people seeking help to avoid eviction or making it to work, or making a good start after getting out of prison. They make appointments to come and see Jana and me, and thanks to your generosity we can help many of them, especially in these days when joblessness is so high and the risk of homelessness is so great.
Helping is complicated. These people share stories of real hardship and unfortunate mental illness, and the structures and systems that make the grip of poverty so hard to break. The pastor in the church I served in Chicago once said—in reference to today’s parable—that Jesus doesn’t invite us to try to distinguish the genuine need; he tells us to see the face of Christ in all, and to help. In that sense, “Matthew 25 makes me pretty uncomfortable when I think about it much.” (Buchanan, in Feasting on the Word, Year B.) That’s what he said. I have to agree. How can we help everyone who has a need? What’s the right way to do it? These questions aren’t easy.
I never have managed to make peace with what is absolutely the right thing to do or the right amount to help. As long as suffering is out there, maybe we’re not supposed to at peace with it. The Rev. Diane Moffatt is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and is the leader of our denomination’s Matthew 25 movement; Knox has made a commitment to that movement. We’ve committed to three churchwide priorities: building congregational vitality, eradicating systemic poverty, and dismantling structural racism. Diane Moffatt says that “we cannot fix what we do not face.” (See the sermon posted for November 22 at pcusa.org/matthew25) So even when the reality of suffering is hard to look at, even when we know that the problems are too big for us to solve on our own, we have to be willing to face them—to see suffering and to say that it’s there and do something about it. And in this parable, Jesus tells us that’s the way for us to see him.
Here’s an insight about this parable I’d not thought about before last week. Diane Moffatt also points out that the goats and the sheep– the people on Jesus’ left hand and on his right hand—none of them knew they were looking at Jesus. Both groups ask him, “Lord, when did we see you?” (Ibid.) So, it’s not as if there are some of us who are enlightened, who get it, who know the truth and have the answers and another group who can’t understand these things. The distinction seems to be that some have a willingness to see things for what they are—to see the realities staring them in the face, while others prefer to pretend otherwise.
Martin Niemoller was a German pastor during World War II. He initially supported Hitler, but eventually became part of the opposition; he was imprisoned and narrowly escaped execution. He is widely known for his poem, “First They Came.” A part of the poem reads this way:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
It’s obvious to claim that suffering is hard on the one who suffers, and that’s what’s most important. But it’s also important to remember that the very existence of suffering and injustice or the act of pretending it doesn’t exist—those things harm all of us. The fabric of our communities is weakened when we allow injustice to go on. That is one of the reasons our church engages in so many acts that seek to serve people who are suffering. That is why this year we engaged in an act of confession and truth telling about racism in our history. That is why during this pandemic, we continue to act generously toward people on the margins, and particularly communities of color, who have been most hurt by the pandemic. We may not be able to solve every situation, we can work to make our communities stronger. That work has to continue because ignoring suffering weakens everyone; and because paying attention to it makes us whole.
Here’s the thing: As I said in the beginning, this is a parable—so it’s not description; it’s an invitation to imagination. Who, upon reading this story and being swept up in its wisdom, is going to aspire to be one of the goats? No one! Of course not. The possibility of this story is that we might be swept up into the being more like one of the sheep. We might see suffering more honestly and live more generously. We might see so clearly that we even get a glimpse of Christ—an encounter with God. And that’s where we see that, yes, this parable has a social message, but it also has personal one. Our humanity is diminished when we allow suffering to continue, and our humanity is enriched when we see suffering and act.
Coming back from imagination for a moment: the reality is that we are human; so sometimes we live like sheep; and sometimes, we live like goats. Sometimes we help, other times we don’t; and no matter how much we help, we can’t fix everything. So, what shall we do?
Dr. Amy Acton, who most of you know from her time as Director of Ohio’s Health Department published a video this past Friday. In that video, she of course warned against the threats of the virus and entreated us to be safe. And she also said that there is nothing more important now than for us to be compassionate and kind toward one another. We are headed into difficult days with a third wave of the virus that will cause sickness and death. This third wave will also have dramatic social costs as people find themselves and their families hungry and jobless, and also frustrated, depressed and alone. You may find yourself facing those feelings.
“Be gentle with yourself and with others,” Acton said. “Reach out in kindness to people in your circle who need it. Do not quit in your efforts to encourage health care workers and essential workers. Do not allow your generosity to wane. Do not isolate yourself from others for it is physical, not social distancing that we seek. We need one another.” (from video posted November 20, 2020, paraphrase)
Even with our masks on, or through a screen, we can look into one another’s eyes and acknowledge the humanity of the person who is there looking back. Those are also the eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ. “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.”