Sermon Sunday, November 20, 2011

Matthew 25:31-46

“Now THAT’S My Kind Of King!”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Preacher

NO Podcast this week… Sorry!

To see this sermon on video, go to:

Power.  In today’s text it is specific, but it has been pulsing through the scripture lessons of the last few weeks.  Two weeks ago Rev. Elwell spoke of the ten bridesmaids, five who were foolish and unawares and five who were prepared and wise and whose readiness had eternal consequences.  Last week we explored a master who left his investments in the hands of three of his servants, and then judged them based on their response.  Today we hear Jesus talk about sheep and goats and how we treat the least among us and what this means for our salvation.  Behind all of these stories, and much of the gospel, are perspectives on power and how power is used for ultimate purposes.

Power, especially in the hands of those at the top of the human pecking order, can transform everyday people into prime ministers, presidents, princes, princesses, potentates, queens, and, of course, kings. A song or two from the world of animation may come to mind in the reading of this text about the Son of Man sitting on his throne of glory.  For those of us in the over 40 age range, we might be prone to sing the words of King Louie to Mowgli from the Jungle Book:

Now I’m the king of the swingers

Oh, the jungle VIP

I’ve reached the top and had to stop

And that’s what botherin’ me

I wanna be a man, mancub

And stroll right into town

And be just like the other men

I’m tired of monkeyin’ around! (1)

Or, if we’re in the under 40 crowd, we might be more likely to quote a line or two from The Lion King and sing (the young Simba, with Zazu):

I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware!

I’m gonna be the mane event

Like no king was before

I’m brushing up on looking down

I’m working on my roar

Oh, I just can’t wait to be king! (2)

In both of these instances, King Louie and Simba represent not only those who yearn for or actually have power and exercise it in high places, but every single one of us who must use our God-given power daily and yet think at one point or another that just a little more power might be helpful, might move us to a better place, a more effective position, or at least an easier life.

These past few months I’ve been feeling a little down on myself.  No, no special reason.  God knows many of you have far greater reasons to feel downhearted and discouraged.  May God Be With You!  My minor aches and pains, my growing winter doldrums, my every day sort of frustrations are hardly worth noting, but in the end, they are mine.  And I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about power, but every now and then a little notion of how a tad bit more money, a smidgen more authority, a dash more of recognition and respect might allow me the leverage to pick myself up, improve my lot, make the sun shine just a little brighter.

Now, I’m not saying that any of you would think that when you’re feeling down-and-out.  And certainly none of us would go as far as King Louie or the young Simba and desire power just to be able to lord it over others (although in our weakest moments, we might just play with that imagery!).  But, nonetheless, I think it is perfectly natural for each and every one of us to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that a little more power would make life better for me… US, and for our loved ones.

And who could begrudge a person for that?

“If I were a rich man…”

Lord who mad the lion and the lamb,

You decreed I should be what I am.

Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?

If I were a wealthy man.

The Last Judgment, Peter von Cornelius, 1850. CGFA

And in walks Jesus.  And not just any Jesus, but “King Jesus!”  Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the author seeks to help those who will read his work to understand this Jesus of Nazareth through the lens of power and authority.  But not just any power and authority; a unique and transformative brand of power and authority.  From the first words in the first chapter, Matthew sets the tone for this distinctive monarchy as he relates the genealogy of Jesus from none other than the greatest King the Hebrew people have ever known, David, but tracing that lineage through mischief makers, no-names, prostitutes, and scoundrels.

The Good Shepherd, African Mafa Gospel Art

And throughout the book Matthew tries to help folks see that this unassuming figure who teaches with great authority, heals the sick and exorcises demons, who walks on water and multiplies loaves and fishes, who sets little children on his lap and names them as ushers of the reign of God, is, in fact, the King they all have been waiting for!  It is a tall task, because this Jesus, child of Nazareth, is not your typical royal magistrate!

And perhaps that is exactly why we see in him the potential to change the world!

Today’s text is the culmination of several chapters and numerous narratives and parables about Jesus that are intended to prepare us for a new and very different reign of God than the one we are primed for by earthly powers.  Whether it was the Court of Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, the cult of Caesar in the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the Congress of the United States of America, try as hard as they may, no earthly power will properly prepare us for the kind of power that we will honor and that will be invested in us when God’s reign is fully realized!  And for this truth, thanks be to God!

So, what kind of power will it be?  Well, Matthew relates Jesus parable in such a way as to pinpoint the differences.  It begins with all the pomp and circumstance of any earthly power: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he sill sit on his throne of his glory.”  But then, almost immediately, the image of regal authority begins to meld, or crash into more aptly, into the pastoral image of a shepherd herding sheep and the goats.  From King on a throne to Shepherd on the hillside in two short sentences!  A powerful transition that should not be lost on us!

And, of course, the heart of this story is in the actions of King/Shepherd Jesus as he separates the sheep from the goats.  The allegory is made, fairly stridently, that the sheep represent those who in their lifetime served the Lord by caring for others; those who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, and imprisoned.  The goats, on the other hand, were those who did not do such things for “the least of these” and therefore did not do it for Jesus.  The parable ends with a very powerful and terrifyingly monarchical dictate: “And these will go away into eternal punishment.”  As if they were cast into the dungeons of the castle and the key thrown away.  The sheep, the righteous, however, are gifted with eternal life.

Now, lest our modern limited knowledge make this text too easy and too simplistic, there’s not always such a huge difference between sheep and goats!  First, goats can be as “useful” to us humans as much as sheep are, for they give meat and wool and milk, too!  Plus, I am told, there are many, many varieties of each that don’t always look as traditional as our plush stuffed animals might suggest, such as bighorn sheep and cashmere goats! (3)  Separating them may have been tougher than we think!

So, what do we, everyday people just trying to get by with the minor aches and pains and frustrations of our lives, do with this odd understanding of power and this dual image of King/Shepherd and Shepherd/King?

Well, first and foremost we must acknowledge that all of us have power and all of us must use power wisely.  The parable could just as easily have talked about more royal responsibilities such as negotiating treaties with other nations, collecting taxes, authorizing major public works, or other such important acts.  But he didn’t.  He talked about everyday things like feeding someone, offering water and welcoming people.  Jesus forbids us to throw up our hands and refuse to do anything because we have no power.  We do!  We have our power, and we must exercise it wisely and faithfully.

Likewise, we should understand that this mandate comes to everyone, at all levels of responsibility and authority.   The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible does us a disservice by translating the greek word “ta ethne” as “peoples.”  It is much closer to the more familiar word “nations.”  And all the nations at that!  What this tells me is that there is no part of our world that should not be about the task of caring for our neighbor in need, the least of these.  Certainly individuals, families, and communities.  But the specificity of “the nations” reminds me that corporations, governments, and all levels of society have a responsibility in securing the welfare of those most in need.  Abdicating such care to churches and other non-profits does not fit what Jesus is calling us to in this parable! (4)

Similarly, we must see a particular urgency about our own salvation – as individuals and as communities – in this text.  This is an apocalyptic text, which clearly echoes themes in Daniel, Ezekiel, and foreshadows Revelation.  Our salvation is dependent upon how we treat one another in the here and now!  Notice, in this parable, there is no questioning of the sheep and the goats as to what they believe, who there pastor was, or even if they gave money to the temple!  It is entirely based on how they treated the least of these!  And lest we think this is the only text that demands social justice as a requirement for our salvation, there are over 300 biblical texts that address matters of social justice and instruct us how to treat the least of these, including Proverbs 14:31 which clearly underlies this text in Matthew when it instructs, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (5) (6)

Finally, and this is essential to the text and to our interpretation of it, it is clear that this care for the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the outcast, is not a task to be done, a campaign to be waged, a project to be managed.  This care, compassion, hospitality is a lifestyle!  And we know this because those who are sheep are surprised, actually confounded, by the notion that they did anything special.  “Exactly when did we do all this wonderful stuff to and for you, Jesus?”  If we do things, no matter how nice and helpful they may be, in order to get our salvation, the equation falls apart.  Compassion is a lifestyle that has to be practiced, like any discipline, over and over, again and again, every chance one gets.  And if it doesn’t seem to come naturally, “Fake it till you make it.”  Your soul depends on it!

So, my beloved, we have power and we are called to use this power on behalf of those who are “the least of these.”  And lets be honest, even if we feel like we are on the bottom rung of the ladder of life, it doesn’t take a minute to look around and find someone more down on their luck, in a deeper well of despair, hurting more than we are.  Our task…  No, it isn’t a task.  Our ultimate and eternal calling, is to nurture a lifestyle in ourselves and our communities where all are fed, no one is thirsty, all are welcome and no one sick, those who imprisoned know they are loved.  And may we all live up to the words of one of the greatest admirers of Jesus, Mahatma Ghandi, when he said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” (7)

May it be so.

Amen.

(1) http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/the_jungle_book_soundtrack/louis_prima_wanna_be_like_you-lyrics-80364.html

(2 ) http://www.lionking.org/lyrics/OBCR/JustCantWait.html

(3) November 15th, 2011 at 8:14 am response by Trudy Stoffel on The Hardest Question blog “Drawing Lines Between // “The Other:”

Is our tendency toward selfishness and judgment by nature, or by design?”

by Mike Stavlundat found online at http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/christhekinggospel/

(4) For a great explication of this concept, see:

“The Politics of Matthew 25:31-46,” Timothy F. Simpson, Political Theology, 2011.

Found online at: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/?p=1197

(5) My thinking on this was, in part, inspired from: “Four Spiritual Practices for Preaching on Matthew 25,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2011.  Found online at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/four-spiritual-practices-for-preaching-on-matthew-25-a-progressive-christian-lectionary-commentary-on-mt-25-for-nov-20-2011/

(6) I like the list of Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized found in Commentary, Matthew 25:31-46, Carla Works, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

Found online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=11/20/2011&tab=4

“The charge to care for the poor and the disadvantaged can be found throughout scripture, but it is especially exhibited in the ministry of Jesus. In this Gospel, Christ has announced the arrival of God’s kingdom while he cures the sick (e.g., 8:28-9:8, 9:18-38; 12:9-14; 14:34-36; 15:29-31), welcomes the despised (9:9-13), and provides food for the hungry (14:13-21; 15:32-39). He orders his disciples to carry on his ministry by doing likewise (10:5-15, 40-42).”

(7) This, and several other perfect quotes for today’s topic, can be found online at: http://askville.amazon.com/measure-civilization-treats-weakest-members-accurate-quote/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=4718239

Advertisements