*Originally preached at SLSM in 2017
In the Catholic school of my youth, we learned about Jesus’ love for us the old-fashioned way: with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Every year, on Good Friday, the day we remembered Jesus’ torturous crucifixion, the lesson we were taught was that Jesus had to go through this terrible ordeal and die because of our sins. But not just this vague, impersonal, “out there” sin of people we didn’t know: the sins of you and me. I learned that we are all to blame for Jesus’ death; that it wasn’t the Roman Centurion or the Pharisees nailing Jesus to that cross, but me.
In order to drive that point home, every Good Friday, at our school Mass, there would be a Styrofoam cross at the front of the room where we were gathered. Each of us students was given a pin, and one by one, we all stepped forward to push our pin, representing a nail, into the Styrofoam cross, a symbol that it is our own individual sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. One by one, we’d come up with our pins, piercing the Styrofoam with them as if we were piercing the flesh of Jesus himself, and I hated it. I hated being made to do something so violent and horrible. I loved Jesus, and I would never do something that terrible to him. I felt trapped by my own sinfulness, as if it surrounded me with bars that I was born into and could never escape, no matter how hard I tried. I was doomed to crucify Christ by my very nature as a living creature. I could never understand this as a child. I knew I wasn’t perfect… I got into fights with my annoying brother, I disobeyed my parents, occasionally didn’t get my homework done… but I’d never purposefully hurt anyone, especially Jesus!
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.’
My 9-year-old self was very much like those at the King’s left hand: these folks who can’t remember ever seeing their Lord in need, and are confused when he tells them they failed to care for him at his lowest moments. I totally understand their confusion! They are saying, “Lord, we would NEVER do that to YOU! If we saw YOU naked, or hungry, or sick, we would definitely have taken care of you!” They might not attend to the needs of the people around them, but they cannot imagine ever ignoring the needs of their LORD! They might sin against their neighbor, but they would never dream of sinning against God. They hadn’t yet realized that God is found not elsewhere, but here, in our neighborhood, and in our neighbors.
That was the Good Friday lesson I couldn’t grasp as a child.
At the time, I couldn’t see the connection between what I did to others and what I did to Jesus, and it seemed so extreme to compare my small, insignificant sins like teasing my brother with something so monumental as nailing Jesus to the cross. I didn’t understand then that it’s not about the degree or severity of the sin. It’s about the fact that nothing we do to others is disconnected or separate from God, because all human beings are created in God’s image, and God is in every person.
This parable is an apocalyptic parable about judgment, a division between sheep and goats, those who find favor with God and those who don’t.
“What stands out as unique is the shared ignorance of the sheep and the goats: they seem surprised at their fate and were not aware whether they had either neglected or responded to “the least of these.” Most apocalyptic visions reveal [some sort of truth] (apokalypto = reveal); this one confounds both sheep and goat.”*
Even though they both ask the same confused question (“Lord, when did we see you sick, hungry, imprisoned, etc.?”), the meaning of their question is very different. The sheep – those at the right hand of the Son of Man – possess a “holy ignorance” about their good deeds to those on the margins.
The goats – Those at the left hand of the Son of Man – seek an excuse and almost put the blame on the Son of Man himself as if to say, “You didn’t reveal yourself; how could we see you?” [WP] As if to say, It’s not our fault that we didn’t see you in the faces of the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, and the naked. You didn’t make it obvious. This is on you, Jesus.
This parable hangs in front of us when we visit a loved one in the hospital, as well as when we walk by a homeless person on the street. Chances are, you’ve done both of those things recently. We’re not sheep all the time, nor are we goats all the time. You know, both the sheep and the goats are surprised by what is announced to them, by the blessing or the curse they receive, but for different reasons.
The sheep are surprised because they are so compelled by the needs of their neighbors that they aren’t waiting around to see who’s watching, whether they’re serving big names who matter, whether their names are recognized in print or on a plaque somewhere.
The goats are surprised because they were waiting for their service to count… waiting to do their good deeds until they would be noticed by the “powers that be.”
I don’t think the moral of this parable is about figuring out which one of these two options we are, and being one or the other.
I think this parable is meant to accompany us day to day, and the question that hangs in front of us is, Where do you find God? And what do you do about it?
This is the last Sunday of liturgical year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, starts a new year in the church calendar. The end of the church year always brings us these apocalyptic texts. Apocalyptic in the most literal sense, because they foreshadow God being revealed to humankind at the incarnation of Jesus. But in this parable, apocalypse is paired with justice. God is revealed to us not in high and lofty form, but in our neighbor in need: in the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick. The consequences and responsibilities we incur because of this revelation is truly apocalyptic. It uncovers who we are, and how we care for God’s creation.
So, Friends, let these questions accompany you as you leave this place.
Where do you find God?
And what do you do about it?
*(source: Working Preacher)