A Beautiful Paradox

First Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 25:31–46

I was looking at my Facebook feed yesterday and ran across a video of comedian and actor Tim Minchin giving the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, a few years ago. In it he offers the graduates nine life lessons that he has picked up in his 37.9 years of life. Some of them are kind of garden variety truisms, although presented in a humorous way—things like, “Don’t seek happiness…. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you get some as a side effect”; and “Be a teacher…. Rejoice in what you learn and spray it.” Others are more interesting, such as when he decries the tendency in our culture to become overly invested in communicating ideas and things and people we are opposed to. His seventh life lesson, then, is, “Define yourself by what you love…. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.”

Then there’s number eight, which is the closest Minchin comes to what I would call a Christian worldview. He says:

Eight. Respect people with less power than you. I have in the past made important decisions about people I work with, agents and producers, big decisions based largely on how they treat the wait staff in the restaurants we’re having the meeting in. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room. I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.

You know who else does that? Jesus.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, the Son Man, after coming in glory, accompanied by all the angels of heaven, gathers all the nations of earth before his throne and “separate[s] people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (v. 32). Then he says to the sheep:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (vv. 34–36).

A few verses later he turns to the goats, saying, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). The criteria for judgment are the same: the goats are punished because they did not feed the king when he was hungry, care for him when he was sick, and so on.

The funny thing about this scene—funny curious, not funny ha-ha—is that neither group knows what in the world he’s talking about. The goats protest, Lord, Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and not feed you, naked and not clothe you, and all the rest? We would never deliberately neglect you, Lord! For their part, the sheep, far from being smug in their blessedness, say in confusion, We never fed you when you were hungry or visited you when you were in prison, and those other things. The king replies that the sheep are blessed because “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40), whereas the goats have been found wanting because they did not care for “the least of these.”

I can just hear the goats, after this pronouncement, doing their best impression of a motorboat: “But-but-but-but-but, Lord, Lord! We assumed those people were—well, disposable! If we had known it was you, we would have treated them better! But you didn’t tell us! It isn’t fair, Lord! … Lord?” I imagine the king just walking away, shaking his head sadly as the bailiffs step in to usher the goats out of the courtroom. I imagine, too, a faint echo of something Jesus said back in chapter 7, in the Sermon on the Mount:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:21–23).

These goats get the brushoff because they gave the brushoff to the poor and sick and prisoners, the wait staff at the restaurant, the hotel housekeeping crew, the farmworkers out in the fields. In other words, the least of these. They did not realize that Jesus had gone incognito and was walking around among the rummies and junkies, the ex-cons and hookers, the disposable ones. It comes as a terribly unpleasant surprise when they hear that Jesus, the guy on the throne with rank upon rank of angels and archangels lined up behind him, actually cares about those people.

The goats may be surprised, but what’s our excuse? We in the church have been telling this story and hearing it told for nigh onto 2,000 years now, and it seems that too many of us still haven’t got the message. We still jockey for temporal power and social standing; we still align ourselves with those who can help us ascend the ladder of so-called success; we still seek our own advantage while ignoring the plight of those we consider beneath our concern. And all the while we tout our piety and parade our righteousness, crying, “Lord, Lord!” with gusto whenever we sense that someone will be impressed.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, of course. When I say “we” I don’t mean all of us. Many—I hope most—Christians are faithful and sincere followers of the way of Jesus who seek to help the poor in Jesus’s name, who try to do the right thing, who act with compassion and empathy, who care about justice and peace, and who try to bring a little light into this dark world any way they can. They are the sheep, the blessed ones.

But there are goats, too. We all know people who claim to be Christians who are filled with hate instead of love and fear instead of faith. We know those who prefer gossip over truth-telling, judgment over compassion, dogma over truth. We know of politicians who tout “family values” but enact policies whose effect is to marginalize and damage families that are not like theirs. We know of Christians who claim to love Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies” and “Do not judge,” but who then use the Bible as a cudgel to punish and demonize those who are different. These goats are headed for a rude awakening.

So again, I ask, what’s our excuse? I say “our” deliberately this time, because none of us is perfectly pure and unstained. Nobody is all sheep or all goat. We are blemished sheep at best. We each have our moments when we would rather say, “Lord, Lord,” and do nothing than make the effort and take the risks that go along with reaching out to Jesus in the midst of the least of these. Leave it to the blunt and sometimes abrasive theologian Stanley Hauerwas to lay it out in stark terms. In his commentary on Matthew he writes, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid the ‘least of these.’” As Tim Minchin would put it, so there.

Our guiding theme for this season here at UBC is the idea of Incarnation. We have just come out of the celebration of God’s incarnation in the birth of Jesus, and now we turn to an exploration of the implications of that incarnation in our individual lives and our common life as a congregation. And that brings up a sort of holy paradox.

Paul describes the churches in Corinth and Rome using the metaphor of the body of Christ. Each person is important, but no person is all-important. We each have a role to play in the living out of the mission Jesus has given us, and we are stronger together than we are on our own. The reason the church is so important in the life of the Christian is because our individual spiritual fulfillment is not the endgame. We have been called for a purpose—to bring the good news of God’s reign to a world in dire need of some good news. That’s why the “yous” in St. Theresa’s Prayer are plural in number. “You are the hands, you are the feet, you are his body” is really, “Y’all are the hands, y’all are the feet, y’all are his body.” It is vitally important to remember that grammatical fact.

So we have something of a paradox on our hands, but it’s a beautiful one. We are called to incarnate Christ in the world, just as Christ incarnated God. Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good. But when we walk those feet into the places to which Jesus beckons us, and when our eyes see people who are poor, hungry, degraded, and forgotten, we are really walking toward and looking upon Jesus himself. He is present in the least of his brothers and sisters, and he is present in us. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the source and the goal simultaneously. It’s a mystery; a beautiful paradox.

The only hitch in this plan is that we can refuse to participate in it. We can take these hands and feet and eyes that are supposed to be employed in the service of Christ and use them for other purposes. Selfish purposes. We can ignore both the call to be part of the body of Christ and the cries of those whom Jesus identifies with most closely. Most despicably, we can don a woolen suit and disguise our goatish bleat as a sheepish baa, and try to pass ourselves off as one of the righteous, one of the blessed. I have done this once or twice in my life. Maybe you have, too.

But it’s never too late until it’s too late. We are called to do good works, to minister to the least of these, but we are only saved by grace. We do not feed the hungry and visit the prisoner in order to earn God’s grace; rather, we do these things out of the overflow of grace that God has already poured into our lives. Even the funkiest goat in the herd can be changed when that grace flows in. Even you can be changed. Even I can be changed.

So let us open ourselves today to the beautiful paradox that says we embody Jesus by serving those whom we ultimately find out embody him as well. The beautiful paradox that grace makes us, as Martin Luther says, completely free servants of none and completely bound servants of all. Let us open ourselves to the overflow of God’s grace and love, and let us be swept along on that wave into places where we might not choose to go, but where if we do go we will encounter the living Christ in his purest form. Let us be the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Lord, Lord! Here we are; send us!

Robert TurnerComment