There are a few good standbys for progressive Christians when it comes to Scripture: Micah’s answer to what the Lord requires of us, Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians about the nature of love, and Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment with the sheep and the goats.
I love this story, but like most time-worn Biblical stories that we know inside and out, it is hard to preach on because it is so familiar. Many of us, in Episco-world, can recite the end of Matthew 25 in our sleep. We know who “the least of these” really refers to, and we know our job, and we know to develop a healthy suspicion of goats. What more can be said?
So this year, I took a tack that several other of my colleagues are taking–the idea that Jesus’ final speech in Matthew is all of a piece, and so the sheep and the goats image is an answer to the stories that have come before. In a sense, the image of the sheep and the goats is a response to the truth of the current garbage fire the world finds itself in.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
November 26, 2017
Last Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Matthew 25: 25:31
We’ve reached the end of the liturgical year. We’ve been hearing about the endtimes, and being watchful, and next Sunday, we will turn the page and start Year B, where Mark takes up similar themes.
So the gospel today picks up where we’ve been the past few weeks–Jesus is discussing what will happen in time to come. In Matthew’s gospel, this story, the slaves hiding money story from last week, and the ten bridesmaids story all come in a row, and all occur in the middle of Holy Week as Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem. As he is days away from crucifixion, he’s telling the disciples what to expect coming down the road, so to speak.
And here’s the story this all wraps up with. Like I said last week, the story of the sheep and the goats is the capper. It sums everything up in these stories that have come before it.
Arguably, the bridesmaids started it off, and it’s all of a piece. Here are these bridesmaids who weren’t prepared, and so they were left behind. Here is this horrible landowner who abused his servants, and that was also Very Bad. But when the Son of Man comes, then things will be different! Then things will change! The three stories, told together, are a sort of mini-Revelations. A microcosm of an apocalypse.
And remember, an Apocalypse, in the biblical sense, is not the world ending. It is a prolonged allegory that explains both how bad things currently are in the world, and reassures the oppressed that even though all hope seems lost, God will step in and flip things around. That’s what we have here. In the story from last week, we have a picture of just how bad Things Currently Are. The people in power–here, the landowner–are absent, are greedy, and clearly don’t care about the welfare of those under them. They take what little the poor has and give it to the already-rich. Please apply that to whatever current situation you would like.
So, it’s clear Things Are Bad. People are suffering. God is not pleased with this state of affairs–another major theme of apocalyptic literature. But we are also told that 1. Things won’t always be like this and 2. We need to Stay Alert.
In our story for today, Jesus reassures his flock that yes, things are bad and unfair now, but they won’t always be this way. Change is coming, and coming soon. Part of the power of apocalyptic literature is the validation that comes with someone affirming your sense of suffering. Indeed! You are suffering, the world is unfair, and God sees it. So to be told in this parable that not only does God see your suffering, but God participates in it is amazing.
That’s the further step that Jesus takes here. Normally, God just validates the suffering of the faithful. Here, it is revealed that God IS suffering with the afflicted. When the rulers of the world act unjustly, when they cause anguish and pain, when they oppress and divide, that doesn’t just hurt humans–that hurts God too. That causes the heart of God to break.
Occasionally, in the church, when we talk about outreach or doing good works, we fall into the trap of speaking like the poor or the oppressed are somewhere outside our doors, and so our job is to first find some poor people and then to sort of charity at them. To serve AT them. Regardless of their feelings on the matter. This comes from a very well-intentioned excitement from reading this sheep and goats passage and wanting to be a sheep. So, quick, let’s find a suffering person and help them. Maybe the lure of this comes from believing that we, ourselves, could never be as vulnerable as Those People, right?
But really, the power of this story is that we are told to help the sick and suffering, the poor and the oppressed, NOT so we will be rewarded. And not so we will feel good. We are told to do so because that is where God is. God is always with those who are vulnerable, who are afflicted, and who are left behind.
Because when we are sick, when we are suffering, God is with us. God is not out there, apart. God does not just view our suffering with compassion–God is present with us in our pain. And so, the pain of the afflicted is and must be present within the Church. If we want to call ourselves Christians, and believers in God, then we cannot hold ourselves apart from where God is. But also, we can be assured in the knowledge that when we suffer, and feel abandoned, God is right there with us.
And in those moments, God waits, with us, for the rest of the world to show up and care, because that is how, in God’s redeemed creation, things will work.
Yet here we are, in the middle. Stuck between the World of the Landowner and the World of the Sheep and the Goats. The world as it currently is, and the world as Jesus promises us it will be one day.
Our job, in the here and now, is to pay attention, to stay alert to those glimpses of that redeemed creation and the way we can help it inch along. We are called to be bridesmaids–waiting for the wedding party to arrive so the feast can begin, and making all the final preparations. To watch for God, where ever God might be in our midst. Anxiously preparing the way for God, and looking for the divine presence everywhere we go, and ready to assist in bringing forth renewed creation.
We enter Advent next week, but really, we live in an eternal active Advent. We wait and watch. Watch for all signs of the Divine among us. Wait for all tiny growth of the kingdom in our midst, secure in the knowledge that one day soon, there will be a huge party breaking out, and when it comes, we’ll be ready.
So get ready. Trim those lamps, and start searching.