The Least of These: Matthew 25: 31-46
“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.”
This week I learned a new abbreviation: tl;dr. As someone who reads a lot of things on the internet, I have often seen this piece of shorthand in the midst snarky comments at the end of a particularly contentious article. It was only this week that I actually looked it up to see what it means. It means: Too long; Didn't read. The phrase, Too long; Didn't read, like most tools, can be used for good and for ill. In the hand of a good editor, this phrase reminds a writer to spend just a little more time crafting one's words. In the hands of a mean-spirited internet commenter, it is often simply a short way to say that you don't actually want to read all of what someone else writes, regardless of how well-crafted it may be. It can be kind of like sticking your fingers in your ears, except with writing instead of listening.
In the hands of someone very creative, Too long; Didn't read can become something as funny as the post where I read it this week. This is what one writer on the internet imagined would be the Too long; Didn't read version of the Bible.
God: All right, you two, don't do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
Satan: You should do the thing.
Adam & Eve: Okay.
God: What happened!?
Adam & Eve: We did the thing.
THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.
People: We won't do the things.
People: We did the things.
Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don't do the things anymore.
Healed people: Okay! Thank you!
Other people: We've never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.
Jesus: I have never done the things.
Other people: We're going to put you on trial for doing the things.
Pilate: Did you do the things?
Pilate: He didn't do the things.
Other people: Kill him anyway.
There's a little more in the post, but, for fear of being too long-winded, I won't read it all. I've posted the rest on the church Facebook page if you really want to read the rest (which I recommend). And, while I have a few quibbles with this interpretation, I appreciate the effort. And, it's pretty funny.
Sometimes I think people make tl;dr interpretations of scripture without realizing it. The Bible can be very complex and we humans don't always have much patience for complexity. We want very much to have a quick and simplified interpretation that cleans up any messiness or confusion we encounter in these texts. We take our cue from the medieval philosopher, William of Occam, who said that the simplest answer is usually the best answer. While I do think there is a way to see clarity that may mean narrowing our reading focus, to read too narrowly risks over-simplification. One way that I think today's Gospel reading gets over-simplified is that people stop reading at about three verses in. They see that the Son of Man, that is the apocalyptic figure who's appearance indicates the end of an age, will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. And, they stop there. They feel like they've got enough information to make an interpretation. God is coming to judge everybody and all you people who are goats are totally out of luck. All of us sheep are in the clear.
I think we stop right there because we think we know who the sheep and the goats are, and usually we think we are obviously the sheep. We have learned to identify sheep because they embody a certain set of characteristics, characteristics that we certainly embody. Sheep are well behaved and always follow the rules. Sheep are adorable and fluffy and always really beautiful. Sheep are clean and smell good, too. And, sheep are productive... they eat grass to keep the yard short and grow wool that keeps humans warm. We are well-behaved and follow the rules. We are adorable. We are clean and productive. We are also members of the right church and have the right theology. We are obviously the sheep.
The thing is... sheep aren't really any of those things, as any farmer in this room will tell you. Ok, they do eat grass and grow wool. And, the baby ones are pretty cute. However, they are rarely clean and don't usually smell good. They run off all the time and are really hard to organize. We have to train other animals, dogs, to help us keep them in line. In my mind, sheep are much different than goats. And, my great grandmother always told me not to trust a goat. Even though you can milk them to make delicious cheese, they will always sneak in your house, eat your papers, and poop on the floor. And, if we're being honest, like the sheep, we are rarely as clean, well-behaved, or good-smelling as we often claim to be. Maybe we actually are the sheep, even though we don't really know what that means or what sheep really are. See, this is what happens when we apply Occam's theory too simply. We end up smelling bad and judging ourselves and others by the completely wrong standards.
When we stop reading this scripture too soon, and too readily identify with the figures we think are the heroes, we miss something very important. We miss the description of the sheep that would help us figure out how to be more like them and explain why being like them is a good thing. As Jesus continued to speak to his disciples, he described the Son of Man explaining righteousness in the following way. Jesus invites those who are blessed, that would be the sheep, as being able to inherit the empire of heaven because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, made sure he had clothes when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. Now, if you'll notice, the righteous people have no idea when they did that. None. They are completely confused and had to ask him for some clarification. And, that is when the Son of Man surprised them.
Most people who have done something good for someone powerful would expect that they would have something good done for them. This little quid pro quo makes certain parts of the world go round. But, Jesus described a way of being in relationship that had very little do with helping the powerful and everything to do with helping the powerless. In Jesus' story, the Son of Man shocks the righteous by telling 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." Every time you take a can of green beans to the food pantry, you feed me. Every moment you spend making sure your neighbors have clean drinking water, you make sure I have clean water, too. Every time you drive down to Rockland to visit the imprisoned or drive up to Winthrop Manor to hold the hand of the person with dementia, you do the same for me.
The righteous, rather than only serving the powerful for personal gain, have chosen to serve the powerless. In demonstrating concern for others with no expectation of reward, the righteous have actually served the one to whom they have greatest allegiance, God. If we want to be like the righteous, to be sheep instead of goats, we are called to serve in the same way. We don't serve because we want God to do good things to us. We serve because we know that we are beloved, and we have the gift of sharing that sense of belovedness with all of our neighbors. Shoot, even when we count ourselves to be among the sick, poor, and imprisoned, as we learned a few weeks ago when we read the Beatitudes, we can remember that God still calls us blessed. Whether we are the ones providing care or being cared for by our neighbors, we are still beloved children of God. We still have the light of the Divine in us, even when the world seems dark.
But, serving people is not always easy. We can get distracted by our own needs and seduced by systems that tell us that we should only help the people who can make it worth our while. It can also be disheartening, as anyone who has served the poor, sick, and imprisoned can attest. We can be overwhelmed by all the need and feel like our efforts are only a drop in the bucket. I think Jesus knew that, and that's why he called the righteous sheep. Remember, sheep smell bad, are unruly, and not nearly as cute as popular culture suggests, and, if we're honest, a certain strain of Christianity has taught us. If we are going to be righteous, if we are going to be like sheep, we are not going to be squeaky clean.
First off, if we don't expect all sheep to be clean and tidy, we don't need to expect all people to be clean and tidy. When Jesus described righteousness, he did not use either of those words. So we don't make those words precursors for relationship either. As a community that calls ourselves Open and Affirming that means we make sure that when people walk in these doors, when people come to hang out with our flock, they know that they are welcome regardless of how messy they may look or feel. Cleanliness or wealth or stability are not required.
Secondly, for those of us who feel pretty tidy, we have to be willing to get a little messy. If we are going to feed the hungry, we're probably going to get sweaty lugging donations around our food pantry. If we are going to make sure the poor have access to basic necessities, we're going to have to help break through the all the gates, legislative, cultural, and corporate, that prevent them from having what they need. We will walk through some muddy pastures to find compassion and justice for people who are incarcerated. We will huddle together with the sick and broken to keep each other warm during the worst of storms. At the end of the day, when the shepherd has rounded us up, if we're acting like regular old sheep, after we've broken down some gates and splashed through the mud and stood together through the storms, we're probably going to smell a little bad. But, we'll all be together and sheep are supposed to stick together. That's what makes us a flock. So, let's not be afraid to get a little dirty. Sheep don't need to smell good anyway.
PS I still haven't figured out why goats are bad yet. We'll have to work on that another Sunday.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Greg Carey's commentary on Matthew 25:31-46: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2209
Carla Works' commentary on Matthew 25:31-46:
This Reddit post from someone called Cabbagetroll:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.