Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-resilient faith.
But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.
Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. David Lose writes, “they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”
“Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.
“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.
Lord, make me a sheep.
The sheep feed those who are hungry. The sheep give drink to those who are thirsty. The sheep welcome those who are the strangers. The sheep clothe those who are naked. The sheep take care of those who are sick. The sheep visit those who are imprisoned. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in the vulnerable, but they saw the vulnerable. The goats saw neither.
This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.” The good news is that we are on the receiving end of this unconditional love first. Christ is present in us in faith so we can be present to our neighbor in love.
“Therefore,” Luther writes, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.
Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us,” Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.”
Who can do those things? Generally it’s not those who struggle with hunger and thirst, who are lost and naked, those who sick and imprisoned. The ones who can do all this good work are those who are better off! The behavior the Lord commends here is the work of solidarity with the vulnerable. The behavior the Lord condemns is the failure to do that work.
Lord, make me a sheep.
We live in a representative democracy. We can certainly respond to those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are lost and naked, those who are sick and imprisoned on our own. Personal acts of lovingkindness are part of the discipleship life. We, however, have far more power than that. We can work together for policies and practices that put in place public responses to the needs of the vulnerable.
There is no discussion in the parable of whether the vulnerable are worthy or unworthy. For Jesus followers that is not part of the conversation. We know that theologically if we understand the grace of God in Christ. No one is worthy — not even one. If worthiness were part of the equation, we’d all be screwed.
If that’s God’s standard for us, why should we apply a different standard to those God loves? Look, serving with the vulnerable is going to draw us into policies and politics whether we like it or not. Only the privileged oblivious get to avoid such concerns.
I’ve worked with those in prison. It took me about ten minutes of that work to start wondering about our corrections policies and practices. If you’ve volunteered to feed the hungry, it’s probably taken you about that long to wonder about our food policies. If you’ve had chronically ill friends or family, you’ve struggled to understand our medical system and health insurance practices.
In my experience, trying to live as one of the “sheep” has always pulled me into politics and policy issues. The only way to stay out of those issues is to look the other way. But that is “goat” behavior.
Friends, this is not just about “those people over there.” This is about us. Most of us are about one medical catastrophe from bankruptcy. Most of us are about one lay-off from disaster. Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from going hungry. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who worry about food has gone from 40 million to 80 million. Chances are that one in every four people you know is worried about whether they will run out of food before they run out of month. Maybe you are one of those folks. And many of those folks wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at the end of that month.
So this Sunday (and every Sunday) I want to hear politics from the pulpit. When we keep politics out of the pulpit, we’ve made a political decision. We’ve decided to support the people who benefit from the way things are. Those folks generally are not among the hungry and thirsty, the naked and strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Those folks are generally not much like you and me.
These days the truth is that a disproportionate number of the vulnerable are black and brown people in the United States. Race and racial conflict are tools used to keep people in their economic and social places. But lots of white people are among the vulnerable as well. Advocating for the least of these is a form of multi-racial politics that will make life better for all of us. When we are Christ to the neighbor, race, class, ethnicity, gender — they are all real, but they are not barriers to loving community.
Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”
Lord, make me a sheep. Amen.