David A. Davis
March 13, 2016
I wonder if anyone clapped? When Jesus finished the parable of the sheep and the goats, the parable of the last judgment, his teaching about the least of these, do you think anyone clapped? When I was an undergraduate, students would often clap at the conclusion of the last class in the course at the end of the term. It wasn’t for every class. Not languages or seminars, certainly not the class in which you were stuck with a grad student. But the courses that were larger and lecture-based, the courses held in the bigger halls, the amphitheater classrooms. At the end of that last class, students clapped.
Matthew 25:31-46 is the last part of the last class for the disciples and the followers of Jesus. What comes next after the parable is this: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’” Jesus isn’t just predicting it. He is announcing it. It’s now. It’s here. It’s over. The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is the Great Teacher in the tradition of Moses. This is the “you have heard it said… but I say unto you” Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is the teacher and the teaching is now done.
The teaching started with “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “you have heard that is was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and “pray then like this…” and “ask, and it will be given, seek and you will find.” The teaching started with the Sermon on the Mount. More came when Jesus gave his sending lecture to the disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Then came some parables like the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. There was a memorable sermon moment: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And there was teaching in response to a question: ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life… Go sell you possessions and give the money to the poor.” That bit of teaching included the part about the rich and the eye of the needle and with God all things are possible.
All this teaching from Jesus in Matthew: the parable of the unforgiving servant, the parable of the wedding guests and the one not dressed right, and the owner of the vineyard and the workers in the field. And just right here in Matthew 25: the wise and foolish maidens and the parable of talents and then this, “Truly I tell you, as much as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me… as much as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Jesus is the great teacher and the course is now over. “These will go away in eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Clap. Clap. Clap. That’s James somewhere in the crowd. James, who wrote, “I by my works will show you my faith… be doers of the word… faith without works is dead.”
The Teacher’s last class, the final point, the last word. “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.” Some editors refer to the parable as the parable of the Great Judgment. All the nations gathered. The Son of Man on the throne. A great judgment scene that ends with eternal punishment and eternal life. But the judgment isn’t the most unsettling part of the parable. By the time you get to this point in Matthew, there’s been plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth and outer darkness and eternal fire. There is something about the parable more troubling than even the judgment.
What’s more disconcerting in this parable is the hiddenness of Christ. The invisibility of the Son of Man. The “un-detectedness” of Jesus. Neither the righteous nor the unrighteous were able to see the face of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. “Lord, when was it?” That’s what they both said, the sheep and the goats, the ones on the right and the ones on the left, eternal life and eternal punishment. None of them knew where Jesus was. None of them knew it was Jesus. The righteous didn’t have a leg up on piety, patting themselves on the proverbial spiritual back, believing they were caring for the Son of Man. They had no idea! They were just feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners. The accursed weren’t sent away for disrespecting the king or denying the Son of Man or for lack of faith or for failing to subscribe to every part of the creed. Judgment comes because they turned their backs, they didn’t do a blessed thing. They couldn’t have cared less. Of course that means they couldn’t have cared less about Jesus. If there is something that ought to make you squirm in your Christian life, uncomfortable in your walk of faith, it’s the hiddenness of Christ. Our inability to see the face of Jesus in the least of these.
The Teacher’s last class, the final point, the last word. “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.” For all the challenge that the parables bring to the followers of Jesus, for all the wrestling with scripture we’ve done this Lenten season — trying to comprehend allegory, trying to embrace hyperbole, trying to understand a first-century context, trying to take in all the judgment, trying to let the really difficult ones just stay difficult, for all the wonder and the mystery that come with the parables of Jesus — this last one is rather shockingly straightforward and it lands with an unadulterated punch with no need to put a finer point on it. Feed the hungry. Give the thirsty something to drink. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoner.
In his column this week, Ross Douthat of The New York Times writes about how the current presidential election process is exposing what he calls “many hard truths about American Christianity.” The core of the essay addresses how Donald Trump is appealing to conservative Christian voters despite what the columnist calls Trump’s “transparent irreligiosity.” Setting aside the political commentary and the main gist of the column, I was struck by the his mention of “a distinctively American heresy” (his term). What he means is an unfortunate turn in American Christianity over the last 50 years. A turn toward a theology that is, as he describes it, “nationalistic, prosperity-worshiping, apocalyptic, and success-obsessed.” I read enough of Ross Douthat to know that as a conservative Roman Catholic he and I don’t agree on much when it comes to theology. But his brief description of the unique heresy of American Christianity, nationalistic, prosperity-worshiping, apocalyptic, and success-obsessed left me wanting to think more and read more. To think more about how contemporary Christianity so easily becomes exclusive and tribal, self-absorbed, fear-based, and the means to justify one’s own desires and one’s own opinions. Douthat left me wondering about how different a Christian walk can be if you skip the last class.
I met this week with a sophomore from Princeton University who is writing a paper for a journalism class on the current coverage and conversation and process of refugee resettlement in the United States. She is from North Jersey. She’s Jewish. Her family is from Syria. During our discussion she asked me what motivates a congregation like Nassau to engage in the kind of program that would bring an international family to the Princeton community every 4-5 years over the last 50 years. At that point I said something boring and vague and uninspiring about the Christian faith. I’m sure in the paper it will sound something like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon (wha, wha, wha, wha). I should have told her about the “un-detectedness” of Jesus in Matthew 25. Because some want us to look at a Syrian refugees and see possible terrorists. The gospel calls us to look at Syrian refugees and see the face of Jesus.
According to the local Princeton group Send Hunger Packing, statistics on the free and reduced lunch program in the Princeton Public Schools indicate that there are about two students in every classroom from K through 12 who may not be getting enough food to eat on a weekly basis. Someone might want to let the teachers know that Jesus might be sitting in their classrooms. The national association for hospice care reports that the number of people on hospice care in the United States is increasing by hundreds of thousands every year. The opportunity for you and I to care for Jesus is ever on the rise. The United States represents one twentieth of the world’s population. The prison population in the United States is one fourth all people incarcerated around the world. Long before the term “mass incarceration” was used, long before advocates for prison reform began to question the prison industrial complex or the abuse of solitary confinement, long before, the gospel called the church to look for and to visit Christ in the millions of people in prison.
The Teacher’s last class, the final point, the last word. “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.” The title of that last lecture? The Great Judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Unto the least of these. How about “The Haunting Hiddenness of Christ.”
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