Sermon on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46 for Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I grew up in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio – which is a small city, but large enough to have homeless people downtown.
Dayton was also large enough to have an area called the West Side, just across the river from downtown, which a few blocks west of the riverbank is quite poor. It was where Dayton’s version of the race riots of the 1960’s happened.
Most of my suburban friends had never been over to the West side, and the majority had never walked by homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks of the city. But I had. I happened to have a friend named John whose father owned rental housing on the West side.
John and I started working for his dad on weekends and summers, all through high school. So, I was on the West side a lot, and downtown too, where we often went to buy supplies. I saw poverty up close. I saw homeless people, prostitutes and pimps, drug dealers, and lots of poor people just trying to get by.
It scared me. I was always thankful, when the workday was over, to drive back across the river and to the suburbs where I felt safe. I have a confession to make. Although I grew up in a very strictly observant Christian family, it was not part of our training, and certainly not part of my perspective, to see Jesus in those people. Somehow, our approach to being Christians had left that out.
The Climactic Teaching
But here it is, as the climactic final teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, before the sequence of events that lead up to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. This is what Matthew wants to leave us with, as he tells his version of the Jesus-story. Whatever is going to happen to Jesus, the community that gathers in his name is going to keep confronting Jesus in the guise of the poor.
The church calls today Christ the King Sunday. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, so it is right to think of Christ as king. But it is only right to imagine Christ as a specific kind of king.
Israel had a long history of kings – most of them were remembered for how bad they were. Ezekiel the prophet, who was part of the community of Jews exiled in Babylon, looked back on that history of kings and assessed it a failure. He used the metaphor of shepherds. The kings were like shepherds for the people. Shepherds are supposed to look out for the flock, keep it out of danger, protect it from predators. But the kings who should have shepherded Israel, instead,
“pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [their] horns until [they] scattered them far and wide”.
In other words, they were oppressive and abusive. As a result, the flock was scattered. Ezekiel blamed the kings for their defeat and exile.
It is remarkable the way Israel told their story. In many ways, is a tragic story. The nation, that started as 12 tribes and grew into a monarchy, ended up as scatterlings in Babylon. Israel kept telling this story as a story of the nation getting what they deserved; rough justice. The way the story is told, they blamed themselves.
If living under a foreign power in exile was a kind of living hell, “Well,” they concluded, “we brought it on ourselves. As a nation, we strayed from our ideals so far, that this was the only outcome left for us.”
By the time we get to Jesus, though they had returned from exile and rebuilt their temple, they were still under foreign oppression – this time, from Rome. They considered it a kind of continued exile, like being under strict house arrest – at home, but far from free.
Jesus and Kingdom
In this context, Jesus re-imagined what it could mean to be in the kingdom of the Israelites. Did Jesus read Ezekiel and think of himself as that anticipated shepherd, cut out of the cloth of the ancient king David, that the prophet imagined would come as the proper shepherd for the lost sheep of Israel? Well, clearly the church started thinking of Jesus in these terms.
So Jesus imagined a kingdom which he called the kingdom of God, which was a radical departure from the kingdoms of men, with their goals of self-aggrandizement and methods of oppression. In Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom, the meek and the humble were considered the blessed. His teaching started, in Matthew’s telling of it, with the Beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount. And this is where his teaching concludes: with the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats.
Jesus and Separation
Israel, culturally, was obsessed with the concept of separation. The people had to be separate from gentiles whose religions and practices were seen as polluting and corrupting. Food had to be separated into categories of clean and unclean. Purity laws reinforced this idea of separation in every aspect of life. The Pharisees, who were such strong proponents of purity, took their name from the word for separation.
So, in a culture obsessed with purity and separation, Matthew records this parable as Jesus’ perspective on separation. He imagines the king at the end of the age, gathering all the nations before him. He then separates them. The sheep are the good ones; the goats are bad.
But in Jesus’ vision, the reason for the separation has nothing to do with purity. He does not separate the sheep and goats on the basis of which kept Kosher, or which kept undefiled by what they did or what they touched. Instead, the basis for separation was how they treated each other – especially how they treated the vulnerable among them.
Now, Jesus never embraced the title of king while he lived. In fact, in the one moment in which people want to proclaim him king, he pointedly refused. It fell to Pilate to name him king of the Jews as his mocking cross inscription said.
But that is fitting as well. Jesus is rightfully recognized as king at the moment of his greatest suffering. Suffering at the hands of the powerful elite for championing the cause of the weak and oppressed, is what makes Jesus king, in the Kingdom of God.
And so he tells a story of separation by virtue of willingness to come alongside the suffering. Who are the ones who are fit for the kingdom? The ones of whom you could say,
“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.”
Those who did such things for “the least of these,” in effect were doing it for Jesus himself. They saw, in the face of the suffering, the one who suffered.
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The community that calls Christ king is a community that responds to suffering with compassion.
Learning about Why
I was exposed to the suffering and poverty on the West side of Dayton in high school, but it was not until college that I began to have any understanding of it. Why were there almost exclusively black people on the West side? I became aware of housing discrimination. Why was there so much poverty? I learned about discrimination in employment.
Why were there so many homeless people downtown? I learned about the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals, and how the plans to replace them with neighborhood group homes was constantly frustrated “NIMBYism”, that is, by the “Not In My Back Yard” resistance movements from home-owners.
So, I learned that these problems were institutional. They grew out of policies, laws, justice systems and law enforcement procedures. They were a direct result of public budgets which came from the elected officials who wrote them. It was public policy that made “the least of these” least and kept them least.
I learned that the world could be a living hell for the people whose vulnerability, because of race or condition, left them at the mercy of others. They could end up living in a world that felt like it was “created for the devil and his angels.”
The Two Ways of Living
The idea of separation is unavoidable – there are two ways to live. The wisdom literature of Israel spoke of the way of the wise and the way of the foolish. There were two different ways of living that produced two different outcomes. Jesus famously picked up on this idea when he spoke of the broad way that many take, and the narrow way of the kingdom.
The idea of two different and separate ways of living, combined with the idea that God takes the treatment of the poor personally comes from this wisdom tradition too, and may well have been in mind when this parable was invented. Proverbs says,
“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (14:31)
Jesus never asked anyone to honor him. But he did say that honoring “the least of these” was the way we should live, and that the king at the end of the ages would take it personally.
Being the Community of the King
So this is what it means to be a part of the community that honors Christ as king: it means we commit ourselves to being on the side of “the least of these”. We are for them. That means that if some of their problems were created and are maintained at an institutional level that we seek to address them at that level.
We seek just laws that eliminate all forms of discrimination. We seek a just judicial system and law enforcement that will enforce those laws properly. We seek systems of care for people who cannot properly care for themselves, like the mentally challenged, along with the disabled, the elderly, and children. We seek to elect people who will write budgets that make sure these values are upheld.
And we seek to address these issues on a person-to-person level as well.
We recognize that we live in grossly separated societies today, so that there are few opportunities for white people and people of color to establish the kinds of relationships needed to break down barriers.
As a practical way of following up on the Path to Peace for racial harmony event, the church leadership has been discussing how we might join with a black congregation in activities like shared music and food, to take baby steps in the right direction. This is not something we are doing on a whim; it is a direct attempt to be who we are: the community that honors Christ as king, and therefore lives differently.
We are committed to living in such a way that truly sees Jesus in the guise of the poor and weak, the vulnerable and the powerless. We are committed to living in such a way that we will be in a position to hear the words, from our King:
“’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”.