Christ the King/”Judgment Call”

Mt 25. 31-46

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The Gospel lesson for today is sometimes assigned to be read in church just before Thanksgiving, as it is today. Right before the festive holiday, it can seem jarring.

For in the text, Jesus presents a vivid image of the final judgment. People are accepted to eternal life or condemned to eternal punishment according to only one single criterion: did they help those in need?

It doesn’t matter how often they went to church or said their prayers. The only thing they are judged for is their service: “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.”

I recently read a long discussion of this text by a prominent Swiss biblical scholar, Ulrich Luz. He noted that the text is a favorite of many modern Christians because it emphasizes the need for social service that is so prized today.

Luz argues however that the text was originally interpreted to mean service to Christians in need. In particular, there were Christian missionaries who suffered greatly for their beliefs and needed material and pastoral support or were persecuted for their evangelical work.

Today, we usually interpret the text to apply to all persons, Christian or not. And that makes it all the more difficult to follow. In New York, there are so many people with genuine problems that it’s impossible to help everyone.

The situation is complicated these days by the presence on the streets of beggars who have chosen to be hungry and homeless. They bear the discomfort of living on the streets because it makes them free from work and responsibility. Should we feel guilty if we don’t help them? Should we feel good if we toss them a dollar, while truly needy people who are too disabled to leave their houses are ignored?

Despite the complications of carrying out Christ’s command in a complex society, though, the passage still speaks to us. After 2,000 years, we still face the problems of hunger, homelessness, poverty, and crime that Christ’s story vividly portrays.

And the most important insight of the story may be what it tells us about the proper motivation for our service. Why should we as Christians care about the hungry and the homeless?

Jesus’ answer is: Because when we serve those in need, we serve Christ himself! In a mystical way, Jesus is present in those who suffer from the most basic human needs.

This is why we are all judged by how much we attempt to follow Christ’s command.

As a practical matter, of course, some people feel more called to this sort of ministry than others do. For example, our Assistant Minister spent years running an emergency shelter for the homeless.

But even if we aren’t inclined to do this work directly, we will want to contribute money or other support for people who lack the basic necessities of life.

And as Christians, we will grateful for Christ’s revelation of why we are doing these acts of charity in the first place. The righteous ask, “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?”

Jesus answers 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.” Whenever we give aid to the desperate, we are helping Christ himself.

This is the unique aspect of Christian charity. It’s what sets our outreach efforts apart from those of secular organizations.

And so Christian charity requires spiritual vision. We need to look beyond the immediate needs of those we serve; beyond Band-Aid therapies like homeless shelters that focus on immediate needs, we should also work for long-term solutions to relieve human suffering.

It’s not easy to see the face of Christ in the aggressive or drunken. For that matter, it’s not easy to find Christ among acquaintances who aren’t poor but who are difficult—the people we can’t stand. Someone whose words and actions drive you crazy. How can you find Christ in that person? So, four days before we give thanks, we are challenged to give ourselves.

Amen.

 


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