Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Nov 22, 2020 Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
We have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew for this year’s lectionary readings and Matthew contains a number of Jesus’ teachings on judgement. Most of them, such as today’s gospel lesson, refer to the Day of Judgement, when we will all be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable and marginalized in our midst. And it may all come down to the little things—giving someone begging on the street a granola bar from your car window or buying them a Subway sandwich when out walking. I used to think that these little things do not make one iota of a difference for others and may just make me feel better. But now I’m not so sure.
Nancy and I have been handing our granola bars at stoplights for a few years now and only once did someone begrudgingly take one. Everyone else has been grateful. They really are hungry and anything does help, as their sign says. But something also changed in me once I stopped avoiding eye contact and started looking for opportunities to hand our granola bars. I was no longer pretending they weren’t there. I began to look forward to our brief conversations and our exchange of meaningful blessings for the day. I have been blessed so many times with their genuine smiles and good wishes.
But are we really judged in the end times by how many good things we have done? The Good Place on Netflix is all about this. But to the contrary, other scripture passages assure us that is by God’s grace, not by our works, through which we are saved. The books of Ephesians and Romans both emphasize this. So how does this jive with Jesus’ teaching that our salvation depends upon our compassionate acts of kindness?
When you open your eyes and your hands to someone else—even with these little things—your heart starts to open. And when your heart opens, you are better able to receive blessings. Indeed, you are better able to receive God’s grace. Giving with an open heart allows us to receive. God doesn’t force anything on us, including grace. We can close ourselves off from God, from one another, from love. This is one definition of hell—an absence of love.
When we acknowledge those begging in the streets, those living under the bridge, those lost in the fog of addictions, those caught in the cycle of violence, we turn to them, not away from them. And in the turning, our recognition of their humanity makes us more human. When we soften our hearts to hear their story, our judgement turns to compassion. This is why, as one theologian wrote, “the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the littlest ones.”
This passage from Matthew tells us that all nations—everyone in the whole world—will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable. It should now be firmly at the forefront of everyone’s minds that seniors in personal care homes are some of the most vulnerable. We will be judged by how we treat the homeless and those institutionalized in prisons, mental health wards, addiction treatment centres, hospitals or personal care homes.
The bottom line of any faith is how we treat the most vulnerable. We can search for God in worship and prayer, but it is in the eyes of the poor where we see Christ. We can argue about orthodox beliefs and the need for proper statements of faith, but it is in our compassion where our faith is ultimately tested.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that we will be separated into the sheep and the goats by our actions. The problem is that most of us are both sheep and goats. We are generous and we are self-centred. We are open-hearted and we are judgemental.
Perhaps the question is not who is saved, but what are we saved for? God is pouring love into us, wooing us into caring for those in need. One Presbyterian minister understands this passage to be not a descriptor of the damned and the saved, but a plumb line for a spiritual wellness check.
So how are we doing—individually and collectively? Is it harder for you to see Christ in the eyes of the outcast when we are not together? It’s harder for me. I’m realizing more than ever how much I need the flesh and blood companionship of others in our ministry together. I am more likely to step out of line when I’m not with other people. It’s more difficult to be accountable to our collective ministry when we don’t see one another very often. We can drift away in interest and in focus.
That’s why we need a shepherd who can gently and compassionately lead us back on track. Our shepherd is described in Ezekiel as attentive, particularly to the ones who are lost. But judgement still remains. This shepherd will separate the fat from the lean sheep. The sheep who have received more than their share will be fed with justice. Sometimes those of us who are privileged need to eat the odd bitter meal of justice to help bring us back to the fold where the least shall be raised up and the greatest will bend low.
Just before King Hussein of Jordan died of cancer, he visited some Israeli families who had lost relatives in an Arab terrorist bombing. He sat unhurriedly with the families, giving them his undivided attention in their grief. They were deeply moved by the King’s acknowledgement of their grief and his personal presence. His compassion moved him to cross the forbidden boundaries between Arab and Israeli, royalty and commoner. He showed us how the greatest can bend low.
Princess Diana, even with all of her faults, was also able to break through the royal divide and sit compassionately with the commoner. When Diana visited patients in Angola who were disfigured with symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel, she did not hesitate to touch and stay beside them. A doctor accompanying her said that no one can fake that capacity for compassion.
Christ rejoices when ruling powers take their lead from the suffering and marginalized. Christ, our shepherd, led by example. He was declared King of the Jews, but took on the form of a slave. He showed us that love laid low is the ultimate test of our faith. Christ’s reign of compassion is a humble, giving source of power that determines laws and restrictions by what is needed by the most vulnerable in personal care homes and in no homes at all. Christ’s reign, with sacrificial love for the sake of others, counters the demands for individual freedom.
As John Erskine writes in a song he has composed for this Sunday, “Today we are a scattered people. The flock has lost its way. [But] the King of Love, our Shepherd, will guide us on the way.”
 Fleming Rutledge, “Royalty Stoops: Matthew 25:31-46” in The Christian Century
 Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Matthew 25:31-46, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Vol. 4, p. 333-337.