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Reigning Compassion

Matthew 25:31-46
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes called Christ the King. It’s the end of the church year. Next week we start Advent. It’s a Sunday I have normally had a lot of trouble with because of all of the triumphalistic, and exclusive language and imagery associated with it in past generations. Increasingly I’m coming to see it as a time to proclaim the upside-down vision of what the world would be like if God were in charge; It’s a day to proclaim the hope of God’s eternal realm of justice, peace and compassion.

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God with parables. Parables, particularly those of Jesus, defy a single “every size fits all” definition. Some are brief, some are quite lengthy. A very few take the form of allegory, but most do not. The parables of Jesus typically involve common elements from everyday life in first-century Palestine. The world of farmers and merchants, the interchange of family and business relationships, things the original hearers would be familiar with provide the “stuff” of these stories. The genius in the parables comes in their transparency. Jesus frames these stories in such a way that their narratives allow us to “see through” them to catch glimpses of deeper matters. In the parables of Jesus, those deeper matters focus on God’s coming realm, the “Kingdom of God” or as Matthew sometimes calls it the “kingdom of heaven.”

Today we look at the last of a series of kingdom parables in Matthew’s gospel. First there were the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Then the parable of the talents. Now we hear about the kingdom being about the separation of the sheep and the goats by a shepherd; the sheep given eternal life, the goats condemned to eternal punishment. Strange stuff!

It’s hard for modern people to understand this text. First, if you come at this parable from a good deeds place, you’d be constantly filled with guilt and anxiety. How would you ever know if you had done enough? Or if you had done the right good deeds? What about all the needs you did not fill?

Second, the text can lead individuals or congregations to approach those in need as objects of their good works. A charity model of looking at “us” helping “them.” Top-down. The parable points far beyond either of these interpretations.

And third. What do we know about shepherds? Most of us, very little.

Ancient Israel had a tradition of considering the shepherd as leader and overseer of the nation as we find in ancient writings like the 23rd Psalm sung by the choir today, and the Ezekiel reading. We also know the high regard in which David, the shepherd-king was held.

But by the time of Jesus, a tradition of strict religious practice called the purity laws had grown up to keep religious practicing Jews from being contaminated by those who were unclean. Jesus spent his ministry challenging these purity laws. By Jesus’ time, shepherding was on the list of forbidden trades for religious Jews. Included in the list besides shepherds were ass-drivers, camel-drivers, sailors, herdsmen, and doctors. All considered unclean, outcast, sinners. They did not perform the ritual washing before meals, or keep the dietary laws. They handled blood. They went across people’s property in search of their sheep, all things that made them unclean.

Shepherding involved hours of walking sometimes crossing rugged and dangerous terrain. It involved seeking out good abundant pasture, though grass was scarce and seasonal. Flocks had to be forever on the move to find it. The shepherd was never off duty. His task was unremitting and dangerous: his sheep were prey to wolves, bears, and lions, to thieves and robbers, and in the wet season to flash floods and land slides. Vigilant, fearless, patient, caring – that was the shepherd of Bible times. Shepherding involved knowing the sheep individually, knowing which ones might stray, which ones tended to illness. It involved shearing and birthing and cleaning and any one of the other countless tasks involved in tending sheep. It was a 24 hour job, and often meant risking life. In Palestine, shepherds slept outside with their animals, on the ground at the entrance to the sheepfold. As you might imagine, the hard dirty work they did, meant they were rough living and pretty strong smelling. No self-respecting Jewish father would allow his son to be a shepherd. A town would hire a Bedouin or other outsider to do this work, much as we hire “outsiders” to do dirty work in our culture today.

It was a scandal for Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God being like a shepherd sorting sheep and goats. So what is Jesus doing? He sure knows it is going to upset the Pharisees, the purity law crowd, But maybe that’s his point! What are we dealing with here?

This parable seems in direct tension with much the rest of Jesus’ teaching about grace and reaching out to outsiders. Has Jesus suddenly taken off the velvet gloves of grace to reveal the clenched fist of judgment? On first glance it looks as if he is creating barriers between insiders and outsiders; sheep and goats; Sheep go into eternal life. Goats go to eternal punishment! Pretty cut and dried///either /or! But is it? Remember they all start inside the flock. The shepherd is shepherd of both the sheep and goats.

In order to DO the reaching out, to the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, the one reaching out has to reach across the great divide of insider and outsider that the purity laws created. They had to go to the one labeled unclean, the sinner, the poor, the outcast. The culture may have labeled this behaviour sinful, but Jesus calls it blessed and labels it ministry offered to him. This is the final blow of Jesus against the purity movement he had been fighting throughout his ministry. “He came to proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem” (Capon)

And the joke of it all; The good guys, the ones who are given eternal life, did not even KNOW they were doing anything holy . The kingdom of God is left in the hands of a bunch of sheep who don’t know what they’re doing! They were not giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the destitute, welcoming the stranger, or visiting the prisoner out of duty, or because their faith told them they SHOULD, or because of pity, or charity. They just DID it. HMMM

And when you go a little further with that, the only way a person COULD reach across the great cultural divide of insiders and outsiders in a totally unselfconscious way, would be if they recognized the other as sharing common humanity; as one of themselves, a sister or brother. “This could be me, and may even be me at another time of my life.” This encounter, this recognition of connectedness, calls for compassion, a passionate feeling WITH. The acts of ministry flow naturally from that way of seeing the marginalized. You might find similarities in the way various religions deal with gay and lesbian people in our day, or people with Aids, or refugees.

Those who did NOT reach out, could only act that way, if they saw the thirsty, the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the outcast, the prisoner as THEM; the OTHER; the one OUTSIDE, beyond the wall of acceptability; the one who “deserved to be there; who was there by their own fault; and bloody-well deserved what they got! In fact better yet, if we can heap a bit of blame, and shame upon them so they can know how much they are to blame for their situation!” Jesus labels as goats these ones who divide the world into insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, those worthy of care, and those unworthy. He says they have missed Christ’s presence.

And then to add yet another layer to this complex situation, we discover that Christ is not only the judge, but Christ identifies with and is present in the very ones the goats have labeled unclean, and therefore neglected. —Christ incognito, the Christ of the breadlines, the Christ whose face we see in the faces of the poor, and the least, and the stranger. A whole spirituality of encountering Christ in the other, particularly in the poor, has come out of this parable. If you were part of the purity party of the Pharasaic movement, you’d be furious with this parable!
If you were one of the lost, the least, the foreigner, the rejected, the despised, you’d be shocked to hear that Christ resided in you!!

A challenging parable! Part of the challenge is in the surprise of both those who had offered ministry, AND of those who had not. Neither had a clue that what they did had anything to do with Jesus. Those who reached out did not do so because they were trying to score religious brownie points. In fact there is no mention that they had any faith at all. They did it because they saw human need, and recognized their common humanity and had compassion. The church does not run hospices for the dying, work with refugees, support missions, food banks, care apartments, work for justice for gays and lesbians, provide sanctuary to refugees, educate ourselves and the public on environmental issues, run restorative justice programmes because we think that the recipients of our service are worthy of our pity, or our charity. Rather, we recognize that this is the place where Jesus chooses to be present. God is present in the passion of the world.

We do not serve in order to gain spiritual notches on our belts, but because we meet Christ and are made whole in encountering the marginalized. We can be examples of Christ’s reigning compassion.

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