A King Who Cares - Matthew 25:31-46
This is a picture of me when I was 5 with our family pet goat, Bell. I still remember the day we got her. My dad took my brother and me to a farm and we picked out a little goat. My mom worked evenings then and had no idea what we were doing. She came home that night and heard a “Baaa” from a goat tied to a tree in the front yard. Surprise Mom, we bought a goat! We soon learned to love Bell. We had a large pen built for her in the backyard. She would eat banana peels and just about anything we fed her. My brother and I would play with her and she was part of the family.
We had Bell for several years. But as she grew older and bigger and stronger it became obvious we couldn’t keep her. We ended up giving her away to a local farm where she could be with other goats and live more of a goat’s life. She’d be happy there. One day, several months after we gave her away, we visited her at the farm. The farmer didn’t expect her to remember us, but when we called her name Bell walked right up to us and let us pet her. She obviously knew who we were and enjoyed out little reunion!
I share this story because there’s something about having a pet goat that makes me sad that goats are the bad guys in Jesus’ parable. Obviously it’s a metaphor and sheep are no more virtuous than goats are. But I can’t help but feel sorry for the goats. Now as a Lutheran preacher I’m trained to look at a Bible passage and ask myself “Where’s the law and where’s the gospel?” The law is the part of a text that confronts us with our own sinfulness. And the gospel is the good news of God’s grace—that in spite of our sinfulness God still loves us and redeems us.
That’s a little hard to find here. But I think the good news that this parable is trying to reveal doesn’t have as much to do with us as it does with who God is. You see, this parable teaches us that we have a king unlike any other. We have a king who demands we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned. And if you’re hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, or imprisoned—then this parable is Good News for you! For those of us who are none of those things, this parable may come across as judgmental or even bad news if we haven’t done our part to care for others. But as far as Jesus’ earliest disciples were concerned, this is good news because God, King of the Universe, cares for the least of these!
But on the law perspective, this parable challenges us to face the idea that we will be held responsible if we do not show our neighbors love and compassion. If we do not care for the least of these. In our pastor’s bible study last week one pastor shared a modern paraphrase of Jesus’ words. It went like this:
When I was hungry you went on a diet, when I was thirsty you watered your lawn,
when I was naked you bought the latest fashion,
when I was a stranger you called the police,
when I was sick you asked if it was contagious,
and when I was in prison you said that's where people like me belong.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the church year, as next week Advent begins. Today is the culmination of the church year and a day to reflect on everything we’ve been through this past year. And there is indeed a lot we have been through. And every year on this Sunday we hear either from a crucifixion text, about the suffering king, or from this parable, about the king who cares for the least of these.
Today is a day that shows us what kind of king Christ the King is. He is not a king like the Roman emperor and any earthly ruler. He’s not a king who lords it over his subjects, makes them fight wars for him, or uses or exploits them. No, Christ is the exact opposite of most worldly kings. He cares for the least of these, the most vulnerable, those in poverty or on the margins. And he calls his subjects—Christians like us—to do the same.
In the passage from Ezekiel we heard this morning, the prophet speaks about God’s disappointment and anger toward the kings of Israel and Judah. God saw how they enriched themselves at the expense of the people. Old Testament prophets were always calling out the kings for corruption, for not being good shepherds of God’s people. And here Ezekiel says that God Himself will be the shepherd of His people, and God will raise up a new David to be the righteous ruler of the people. And as Christians, we recognize this coming Messiah as Jesus, the Good Shepherd not just of Israel but of all people.
Unlike the old kings of Israel and Egypt and Babylon and Rome (and I’m sure we can all think of many modern comparisons) unlike all those rulers who care more about themselves than their people and refuse to care for the least of these—Jesus instead is a King whose reign is marked by love and mercy and compassion. In this parable Jesus tells us what the marks of his kingdom are. The kingdom is made manifest in the world when the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the sick cared for, the prisoners visited. Christ’s reign is marked by caring for the least of these.
And so we take part in manifesting Christ’s kingdom every time we show love and compassion toward those most vulnerable. To those in poverty, those living on the margins of society. Christ’s reign is made known by our actions. When we algin our will with God’s will, we manifest the kingdom. We let our light shine. We feed, welcome, and visit with Jesus when we care for those in need.
Now I think there will be times when we are sheep who show love and compassion. And I think there will be times when we’re more like goats who look the other way. There may even be times when we are the least of these who are in need of food, clothing, welcome, or visitation. I don’t think the point of this parable is to pigeon-hole us into one category or another. The point of this parable is to show us what kind of king we’re serving here. And what this king demands of his subjects. Like the parables we’ve heard the last two weeks from Matthew 25, this parable wants to rouse us from complacency, light a fire under us, and inspire us to get out there and do justice, love kindness, show care and compassion for those in need. It seeks to inspire to lives of justice and mercy. Because this world has a lot of hungry people, a lot of strangers and refugees, a lot of people who are sick or in prison that need healing. And we are called to care for them. If all Christians around the world took these instructions to heart, really lived out Jesus’ call, we’d see a lot less greed and selfishness and a lot less poverty and hunger.
And one day, Jesus promises us, this is the way the world will be. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. When all wills surrender to the One Divine Will, the kingdom of God will become fully manifest. God’s vision of shalom will be realized. And until then, whenever we feed the hungry, we manifest the kingdom for a moment. Whenever we clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, advocate for those in prison, we manifest the kingdom for a moment. And God shines through into the world. This is our calling as disciples of Jesus, this is the way we serve our master, Christ the King.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.