Scripture: MATTHEW 25:31-46
Mary and I have a niece named Skyler. You may remember that I mentioned a trip she took to Chicago a few years ago to see the musical Hamilton. On that trip, Skyler took with her bags of supplies that she distributed to impoverished people she met on the street. This year, Skyler is doing something similar, this time in her hometown of Bangor, Maine, where I grew up. Skyler, who’s sixteen, is baking 100 pies from scratch. She’s selling them for $20 each, and contributing the proceeds of those sales to the local food bank. Pumpkin, blueberry, apple, and my favorites, pecan and tollhouse—she takes the orders and bakes the pies and gets them to the people who are buying them.
I am sometimes amazed at her energy and at the size of her heart. A hundred pies is a LOT of pies. She rolls out the crusts and shapes them in the pie plate. She pares and slices the apples. She checks the oven to see when they’re done. And she bakes these pies, she says, to “help get food to families . . . which is really important this season because about one in eight families don’t have enough to eat.” She knows so many families are lacking funds, and says, “a lot of fundraisers that would usually be happening this time of year were cancelled.” So if she gets more than 100 orders, she will keep baking to meet all the requests.
And why is she doing it? She says it fills her heart. “I just feel really fortunate. My family . . . is doing really well, so I was feeling really lucky, and I wanted to do something for people who aren’t so lucky.”
Not only is Skyler warm and appealing, she’s fabulously generous with her time and energy, and we might well say she’s a pretty remarkable person. It was striking to me that I learned about her baking project in this very week that we hear the story of the last judgment in Matthew’s gospel. You remember the story. It’s about a ruler judging all the peoples of the earth and separating the sheep from the goats. And most of us, if we were trying to sum up the story for someone who had never heard it, would likely say something about how Christ-like are the people who do what God asks of us—those who tend to people who are hungry and thirsty and homeless and shivering and sick and imprisoned. ‘That’s what it is to be like Christ,’ is how we might well sum up the story.
And we would certainly have said something important and true about the sort of service that matters to God. We not uncommonly see someone doing something unusually kind and generous, and we think or say, “That’s really Christ-like.” When people do good things for others, that’s what Christians so often think: “She’s being Christ-like.” And we may also think: if anyone is going to make the cut and go to heaven, it’s that person.
And all of that may indeed be true. But that’s not what this story says. The ones who are said to be Christ-like in this story are not the ones who feed, not the ones who offer a drink, not the ones who provide a room and donate clothes and stop by for a visit. The ones who are said to be Christ-like in this story are the recipients—the people without enough to eat, the people who desperately need some water, the people without a home, the people who shiver in the cold, the people lying in bed sick, the people who find themselves in prison.
We almost always think that being Christ-like has to do with helping. And, with Jerry Seinfeld, we might well say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But Jesus spins this story in a way we might not expect. He tells his eager listeners, just before he starts down the road to his death, that, “whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me” (25:40, The Message). The ones who are declared to be Christ figures in this story are not the ones doing the ministering. They’re the ones receiving it, the ones who are being ministered to.
It’s not the help-er who’s Christ in the story, in other words. It’s the help-ee. Which means we’re invited to rethink who’s the Christ in so many of the scenes of our lives. We might customarily say that, if a parent stays up most of the night with a crying child, the parent is the one taking the role of Christ. If we take Jesus’ story seriously, though, the Christ-figure in that child’s bedroom is the child. If I’m tutoring someone at Chagrin Falls Park, it’s that one who’s the Christ. If I forgive someone who has hurt me, that’s the person who’s the Christ. If I bring Mary chicken soup when she feels under the weather, Mary is the one who’s the Christ.
And on this Ingathering Sunday, we might well think those who bring lots of food to be delivered to St. Paul’s Church are the ones who uniquely reveal the face of Christ. We’re doing what’s asked of us, we think. And isn’t that being Christ-like? The Christ figure when we offer our food this week, though, is the one who receives that food and enjoys it on Thanksgiving. What Jesus is trying to tell us is that it may not be so much the helping ones—it’s not so much us in our generosity mode—who represent Christ during this Thanksgiving week. It’s those who receive the bounty. They’re the ones who are the face of Christ.
We’re always tempted to create helpful heroes, and to lift them up as the face of Christ: “Look how well they’re helping. Aren’t they wonderful?! Aren’t they playing the role of Christ well!” We like to pretend that sainthood is the reward for being helpful, that God’s favor is bestowed upon those who are good. This is the moral lesson we too often teach our children: “Be good, and God will love you.” What this story reminds us is that God’s love isn’t poured out as though it’s some kind of reward on a moral report card. No matter how productive and generous any of us may be, none of us can claim priority in earning God’s favor. Even those we may dismiss as somehow not making the grade are revered in Christ’s eyes. Because God’s love is expansive and all-embracing. Everyone—not just the people we may think of as the “good” ones—is included.
The great Protestant minister William Sloane Coffin told “the story of the beggar in the sixteenth century in Paris, desperately ill, who was brought to an operating table of a group of doctors who said in a Latin they were sure he would not understand, . . . ‘(Let us experiment on this vile fellow.’) Whereupon the beggar, actually an impoverished student later to become a world-renowned scholar, Marc Antoine Muret, asked [also in Latin] from the slab on which they had laid him out, . . . (‘Will you call “vile” one for whom Christ did not disdain to die?’)” (The Riverside Preachers, p. 146).
The world is full of power imbalances and attempts to establish position and show superiority. People of means look down on people who may just be getting by. Highly educated people may dismiss others who haven’t had the benefit of such schooling. Men may leave women out in business or politics or culture. White people assume a kind of superiority to Black people. Judgmentalism, sometimes thinly disguised, runs rampant.
Much of this may happen without the perpetrators even being aware of it. After a recent community forum, two women pointed out to me how dismissed and silenced they felt by one of the men participating. And all you have to do is spend a few minutes with a Black person who’s being honest and you hear how sidelined they so often feel in white culture. And how often do we who judge not even know we’re doing it.
When this is the experience of so many people, that feeling of being left out and ignored and looked down upon, it’s no wonder Jesus tells this story as the climax of his earthly ministry. It’s as if to say, “No matter how good you may be, don’t you ever just assume that you’re the Christ figure in any tableau where you’re doing the apparent giving. If and when you find yourself in the position of being able to offer something, remind yourself that the one to whom you give—that one is the face of Christ.”
Maybe we could say that this story of the sheep and the goats is something like the biblical equivalent of saying that Black Lives Matter. The easy retort to that declaration is, “All lives matter.” And that is unquestionably true. It’s not arguable. But we who have position and power already generally know that about ourselves. We know we matter because we’re rewarded in countless ways for being male or white or heterosexual or materially comfortable. We may not see that. We may not acknowledge our privilege. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Whether we can see it or not, so many of us, as we’ve said before, were born on third base and thought we hit a triple. And what Jesus reminds us is that all the countless people who may not be as fortunate as we are are nevertheless spectacularly gilded in the eyes of God. If I give you a cup of water, my role is not to bask in a sort of smug self-satisfaction, but rather to look at you with eyes of adoration, and to remember that you are the face of Christ to me. And this is equally true of anyone who is hungry or thirsty or odd or in need of clothes or sick or incarcerated. Just as we don’t need reminding that white lives matter, so we don’t need reminding that givers have a saintly quality. And just as we do need reminding that Black Lives Matter, so we also need reminding that that the lives of impoverished and lonely and sick and imprisoned receivers matter. Anyone who is easily dismissed, anyone who is materially on the underside of history and culture, matters. This is what we so easily forget. And this, says Jesus, is at the heart of discipleship.
So marginalized lives matter. There’s more to this story, though. Because so, too, do the lives of those who give. While we’re to see the face of Christ in those whom we have easily dismissed, we are also reminded in this story that those who give are blessed, that those who give are indeed welcomed by God “into the dominion prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” (25:34). Yes, says the story, those who receive mercy are possessed of a holy face. So, too, though, are those who alleviate suffering. So, too, are those who connect and feed and clothe. So, too, are those who sit with people who are sick and dying. So, too, are those who convey mercy to imprisoned people. People in need reflect the face of Christ. And people who are there for and with them know themselves as at home with God. Black Lives Matter, and it keeps needing to be said. The lives of people who are in need are the face of Christ and it, too, keeps needing to be said. At the heart of it all, though, love is the stuff of which God is made. So all generous lives are filled with grace. Not only are receivers haloed, but so, too, are givers blessed as radiant saints of God.
One of the striking details of the story Jesus tells is that neither those who have been generous nor those who haven’t are aware of the significance of their behavior. Those who have given generously haven’t given in order to be noticed or to get a reward. They have given just because that’s what a follower of Jesus does. Maybe a mark of genuine generosity is that the giver isn’t really aware of what their giving means. If we’re ostentatious in our giving, or our generosity is practiced so we’ll be recognized for it, maybe we’re off the mark. If it’s done quietly and regularly and just as a matter of course, maybe that’s a mark of what Jesus is pointing to in this story.
A Federated man—I’ll call him Ed—was participating not long ago in a white privilege class through the church. Also on the Zoom meetings was a long-ago college classmate and continuing friend of Ed’s named James. Ed is white. James is Black. At one point in the class, James, the Black friend, asked Ed, in front of the whole class, “Do you remember how we came to be friends?” Ed said, “Yeah, it’s because you were always friendly with me.” James, Ed’s Black friend, said, “No, that’s not it. It’s because, in our first year of college, shortly after we arrived, I was sitting in my dorm room talking with two of my Black friends. You walked by my room,” said James, “and saw us talking, and stuck your head in the door and said, ‘Mind if I join you?’ And without really waiting for an answer, you walked in and sat down and talked with us. And it wasn’t just that once—you just kept doing it, persistent as all get-out, even when you were the one in the minority, even when you were the odd one out. We’re friends,” said Black James to white Ed, “because you just kept showing up.”
If you ask Ed about this, he’ll say he had no idea. He wasn’t trying to earn points. He wasn’t currying favor. Without an ounce of self-consciousness, he was just living the Christ-life. James was the face of Christ to Ed. And Ed’s behavior was the hallmark of citizenship in the dominion of heaven. It doesn’t get better than that. Christ rules in sharing and connection and relentless love. And it’s all the blessing of God.