– Those past Sundays, we have heard several of Jesus’s parables related to his teaching in Jerusalem, a few days before he was arrested and put to death.
Today, we have heard the last of those parables: The parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’s ultimate teaching on earth. We know how last words are important – it is worth noticing that this parable is only found in Matthew’s – and for Matthew to insert this parable at the end of Jesus’s life is particularly significant.
For some reason those past weeks, as we were going through all of Jesus’s parables, I have been inspired to preach using blessings, and this very parable reminded me of a blessing I use sometimes. It goes like that:
“To make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. You just have to care”.
In essence, I think this is what the parable is about. In the end for Jesus, and in the end for us, at the Last Judgment, what is going to make a difference is the way we have made a difference in people’s lives, and we do that by caring for them.
We know that people at Jesus’s time were waiting for a political Messiah, somebody who would be strong enough to overthrow the Roman Empire – and in some ways, Jesus was, since the Roman Empire didn’t resist forever the rising of Christianity. Yet of course, it’s about more than that. Something less visible and yet much more powerful.
To their surprise, to our surprise, Jesus, the Messiah wasn’t rich (He didn’t “have a stone to rest his head” Ch 8), and if we believe the book of Isaiah, the Messiah wasn’t either brilliant or beautiful (Isaiah 53: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”), and Jesus was certainly not perfect according to the moral standards of religious people at his time: he didn’t respect the Sabbath strictly, he enjoyed eating and drinking, he made friends with strangers and sinners, he touched the lepers who were impure, he talked back to religious authorities. Yet, Jesus showed us what is was to be pleasing in God’s sight and to lead a meaningful life: throughout the whole Gospel, Jesus showed that he cared for others.
It is interesting that Jesus (identified as the king in this parable we’ve just heard) recognizes his true disciples as those who have “seen” people. It reminded me of a former parishioner of mine who once told me something I found very accurate. She said: Jesus came among us and he saw people. Jesus noticed people, came close to people and responded to their deepest needs: need for food, for healing, but also, of course, their spiritual needs, or maybe just their need for friendship, their need for feeling that they mattered, their need for being seen. Whoever we are, we all need to be seen and to know that we matter. Jesus was not rich, brilliant, beautiful or perfect according to this world’s standards, but he was compassionate.
Last year, as we studied Luke’s Gospel, and I preached a lot about how Luke presented Jesus as somebody who had compassion on people. Yet, I think it’s important to understand what kind of compassion it is.
– Sometimes we think that compassion is having pity on poor people. Well, I don’t know how it is for you, but I don’t really like people to have pity on me when I am going through a difficult time! Sometimes when people have pity on you, it makes you feel like you’re not able to cope, that you don’t have enough inner strength or resources to make it. It can make you feel very small, and so this kind of pity is a bit condescending. To me, Jesus was never condescending. He always uplifted people, made them see what they could accomplish. Have you ever noticed that he never said to people that his own holiness or special relationship with God had healed or saved them? No, he always told people “Your faith has made you well, healed you, saved you”. Jesus saw people and helped them see what was precious in them. So compassion is not pity.
– But then, sometimes we may think that compassion is feeling bad for those who suffer. Well, it’s not completely wrong. It’s important to have some empathy and to realize that people are in difficult situations and let ourselves be touched by it. Yet having compassion does not mean sitting at home, watching the news and being horrified by what’s going on in people’s lives. It’s not helpful to anyone and it is not event helpful for us. It can lead us to be powerless and useless or even worse, depressed and desperate.
– But in our parable today, Jesus shows us what compassion is really about, what it means to care: it means to do something about the suffering, it means to help those who are in need of help. And what’s interesting is that Jesus does not seem to ask us to do huge sacrifices, but just to be there for those who are around us and in need. Jesus does not ask us to save the world, he asks us to give something to drink or to eat to those who are hungry and thirsty, and to clothe those who have nothing. Jesus does not ask us to free the prisoners, or even, in this parable, to heal the sick, but he asks us to visit them. Compassion translates itself in small acts of kindness, not only to our own but to anyone around us. Not everybody, but this person standing next to us who is in need and whom we have the power to help.
How do we manage get there? Well, I think the parable responds to this question as well. If we want to move from pity / from feeling sorry for others or feeling bad for people to have this empathy, generosity and willingness to act Jesus had, we have to learn how to see others. To notice them, but also to see who they are in God’s eyes. Isn’t it significant that, as today we celebrate Christ the king, that Jesus tells us he is present in all those who need help? It means not only that Jesus is with them, loves them with a special love, but it also means that they share in his kingship, they are kings and queens. Does it often occur to us that the man on the street or the woman in jail are royalty? And yet, this is what Jesus is telling us. You see, we often say that Jesus came to save sinners, and indeed that’s what he did, but he saved them by seeing their majesty, by seeing them as children of God, he didn’t see them as total wretches (even if it is what we sing in one of our most famous hymns!). Jesus had hope in them and for them.
So to me, this is what Jesus is asking us today – not to do everything, but to do our best where we are and to whomever he sends us. We know that Jesus didn’t say: You have to love the whole world. But he said: You have to love your neighbor. And you neighbor isn’t necessarily your friend. The neighbor is the one who shows up in your life needing help, and you way of loving isn’t only by showing affectionate feelings, it is by helping them. To Jesus, this is what faith is all about.
Isn’t it interesting that in this parable, Jesus does not mention any religious rite? Jesus does not tell us that to be his sheep we have to go to church, to confess our sins, to take communion or to read the Bible – Jesus tells us that belief in him is believing he is present in each person and the way to honor him is to honor each one of these persons. It does not mean that “doing good” is the way we’re going to redeem ourselves – only Jesus can redeem us – but “doing good” is our way to be in relationship with God, whether we know it intellectually or not (The sheep and the goats didn’t realize what they were doing, the difference is that the sheep lived in love and the goats didn’t).
These past weeks, we have been doing a lot of thinking and talking about Jesus’s parables, but today, now all is said and done, Jesus is inviting us to action. Where is your heart leading you today? What could you do concretely for somebody? As for me, I know that this quarantine has made me more aware of what it is to be isolated and lonely. For several months, I just kept remembering those incarcerated, for whom it’s even more difficult. But you know, as I was studying this parable, I realized that Jesus didn’t want me to just feel sorry for them. This kind of compassion isn’t helping. Jesus doesn’t say: “I was a prisoner and you felt bad for me”. Jesus says: “I was a prisoner and you visited me” so I have decided to become a pen pal for someone in prison. It is not much, I have to write a letter once a month (much less than writing a sermon every week!) but maybe this is the one little thing that I can do to respond to our Gospel today. I have put more details in the bulletin if you are interested in joining this program which I think is something easy we can do now, as most of us are stuck at home. But let me know what this parable inspires you to do in the weeks to come, not to save the world but just to help somebody / this one person in need. Not because Jesus expects us to do “good deeds”, not because we’re going to save the world, he saved the world and he saved us, but because, as Jesus came to be among us showing what love means, we also decide to love as he did, and in this we show and experience that we belong to him.