The View that Changes Everything
This is the best text in the whole Bible. It is familiar to us, and it’s meaning is clear:
The time is the end of time.
The setting is the great judgment of all people on earth: God, the King is the judge.
The outcome is simple: there are two groups – winners and losers, sheep and goats, righteous and unrighteous.
This is exactly how everybody who heard Jesus tell this parable expected it to be. And if this way of thinking did not involve us in deep contradictions, it would be easy. But it does, and so, it’s not.
The central fact of our faith, that we depend on, is that God has been merciful to us, not on the basis of our good works, but solely by his grace. We are not saved by works, but by grace alone, through faith.
But this parable suggests the opposite: that the basis for God’s judgment at the end of time is precisely what we have done or not done.
To make matters worse, last week we spoke of the long, hard, dangerous period we are in – the period of waiting for Jesus, the bridegroom, to return.
Well, if we are to discern Jesus in every person who needed food, water, clothing, and support, then we are not waiting for him to appear, we are seeing him already. What is going on?
First, let us begin with the fact that this is a parable.
This is not to be read as if it were a literal description of a scene beyond the grave, anymore than the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (who, in the parable, can see each other from their two different locations in the after-life). Parables make make their points, sometimes by subverting realism.
This parable also subverts realism, but not at the beginning. It starts affirming the world that was quite familiar to Jesus’ audience. At the end of the age, God, the king of the universe sits as judge, determining the eternal destiny of all the people on earth.
Almost everybody is looking forward to this day: justice will finally be done; the bad guys, even if they died old, rich, and happy, will finally get what they had coming to them. Tyrants, murderers, liars, thieves, and brutal people will be punished.
And on the other hand, the people who tried to do what is right, who kept to the straight and narrow, who suffered, who were the victims of cruelty and injustice and evil will be vindicated.
The people who went to church, paid their taxes, and saw their children successfully into adulthood, even at great personal cost, will be rewarded. This is what everyone expects. That is how the parable starts.
But this picture gets subverted – albeit in a subtle way.
Yes there is a judgment, and yes it separates good guys from bad guys, but the criteria of judgment has become precise and focused.
It is not just about being a good guy in general, or about being a recognizably evil person either. In this parable, there is a set of actions at the heart of goodness and a set of in-actions at the heart of evilness that finally become the defining criteria of judgment.
And it does not start with: “Did you bow down to an idol, did you commit adultery, murder, give false testimony, dishonor your parents…?” – in other words, keep the 10 commandments.
The criteria here is all about people – how we treated other human beings. To be even more specific, it’s about how we treated the weak, the vulnerable, the unprotected and the forgotten; the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the ill-clothed, the sick, the condemned.
These people in particular are singled out as the subjects of Gods special care. This is God’s “special interest group.” The manner in which we treated them makes all the difference.
But that’s not all. The level of intensity goes up by a quantum leap in the picture the parable paints for us.
The king at the end of time, the judge of all people on earth, so thoroughly and completely identifies with these poor, weak, people that he takes personally everything that is done to them – or not done for them.
He takes it as a personal benefit to himself when a hungry person is fed, when a sick person is cared for, when a non-native is welcomed, when a condemned person is visited.
And he so identifies with these poor, weak people that he takes it as a personal affront to himself, when these people are neglected.
- a non-native stranger
- condemned and imprisoned – guilty of anything or not
- fed ME
- gave ME something to drink
- welcomed ME
- clothed ME
- visited ME
God so identifies with hurting people, that he takes personally everything that is done to them – by us.
How did Jesus come up with this parable?
Jesus had a vision of life as it was meant to be; life as it was created to be; a vision of “Shalom”, the way God’s will is done in heaven, in spite of how it is not done on earth.
Jesus’ vision comes right from the beginning; from Creation. You know the story: God, who is the source of all being, existed before the world existed.
God who is utterly transcendent, who cannot allow images of himself because he is a being nothing on heaven and earth could possibly represent with out limitation and therefore distortion, this God made a physical world.
He made the world good, and he blessed it and he pronounced it, in fact, “very good.”
He began by creating the spaces – the oceans, the dry land, the sky. Then he filled the spaces with life – starting with the simple – the plants and trees, and moving to the complex, birds of the air, fish of the sea, land animals of every description.
And on the final day of creation, as he crowning achievement, he made the most wonderful, complex beings of all: humankind, male and female.
And the God who strictly forbade any image of himself, lest it diminish his greatness, himself said that they are made in his own image.
And God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God created he humans; male and female created he them. And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, (Gen 1:27-28)
Of all creation, the creatures that come the closest to being like God, the ikon or image of God, are humans.
Human life is sacred, and must be protected. Human life is God’s personal passion. He loves the creatures he so carefully made.
He loved us enough to become one of us, putting on our flesh, feeling – yes in spite of how cliche and banal it has become to say it – feeling our pain.
From the first cry of pain of separation from our mothers to the last cry in the night we make as adults, God hears, and holds our lives as sacred to him.
And when conditions on this earth force people to become hungry, and poor, he cares personally about them and how they are treated.
When people get sick, with cancer, with leprosy, with HIV/AIDS, or with depression – he cares personally about them and how they are treated.
When people are strangers, aliens, immigrants to other lands, he still cares personally about them and how they are treated.
Even people who wind up behind bars – are still people – human beings, made in God’s own image, about whom he cares personally, and whose treatment he takes personally – whether they are at the county-jail, on death row at Holeman, or in Guantanamo Bay; it makes no difference.
The fact that they themselves may be guilty of being brutal to other people-made-in-God’s-image and should be behind bars does not diminish their humanity – their image-of-god-ness. They too are the objects of God’s concern.
And so, when we feed the hungry who crowd into the Christian Service Center, their Creator takes it personally; we are feeding him.
When we provide medical care to sick people, we are tending to Jesus. When we welcome people who are different from ourselves, aliens to our way of life, strangers to us, we are welcoming Jesus.
When we go to Holeman death-row and say to those men, most of whom who have done terrible things, “God still wants to redeem you, to conquer evil with good,” we are witnessing about God’s love to whom? to Jesus.
Do you recall the witness that Rev. Jim Robey gave at the men’s breakfast, of the Leprosarium in India where the nuns say,- referring to the sore-covered patients for whom they care, “Now it is time to bathe Jesus”.
Now let us come full circle: Jesus’ vision of the end of time comes from his vision of the beginning of time.
Every time we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying that this world now would be more like the way God intended it from the beginning. We are praying to be filled with the vision of Shalom, the vision of the bountiful Garden to be realized in our world, as it is in heaven.
This is the vision we live-into – the vision that changes everything. This is the vision that motivates us and fills our service with joy and satisfaction: when we give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, we are giving it to Jesus!
In the face of every poor person, we see the face of Jesus.
In the face of every suffering person, we see the face of Jesus.
In the face of every one who is forgotten, discriminated against, left behind or different, we see the face of Jesus.
Not just in the nice ones, the polite ones, the ones who promise to be better next time, the ones who appreciate what we are doing for them – not just those – but every human being made in the image of God.
Now, I know that these are unusually difficult times for all of us. And they tell me that they may get even worse before they get better. Believe me, with the life-savings of a missionary and with a child ready to start college, I know that this is not an easy time.
But this was not a vision born out of the luxury of good times – not when Jesus first told it, and not when Matthew wrote it down. This is not bourgeois or utopian: this is Christian, right here, right now.
That explains why, in the hyperbolic terms of the parable, this is the criteria of judgment at end of time: God cares passionately and personally about all of his image-bearers, and we are not given options about how to treat them.
To be clear, we are acceptable to God because of his great love and mercy to us, through Jesus Christ – not because of our good works. That truth is absolutely essential.
And when God’s love is alive and active in us, we see the world through his eyes. We see his vision. We see Jesus, all around us, right here, right now.