"… you did it to me"
At the moment, there are a considerable number of courtroom dramas on TV. Someone has been accused of a crime and that person must now face a judge and jury. As the drama draws to a close, the jury is asked if they have reached a verdict. What excitement, joy and relief when the verdict is "not guilty" and the judge says, "You are free to go". But none of this joy is seen when the person is declared ‘guilty’ and is led from the courtroom under guard to a detention centre. One day there will be a judgement far greater than ‘Perry Mason’, ‘The Practice’, ‘Marshal Law’ or ‘Law and Order’ or any other TV show. This will be a real judgement not just some actors playing the part. This judgement will involve you and me.
The Gospel of Matthew reminds us very powerfully that Jesus will come again. Because we don’t know exactly when Christ will return, everyone should be constantly ready for him to come at any time. Jesus urges us not to be like the bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive but because he was delayed, five of them had to go and get more oil for their lamps. In the meantime, he came, and they were not ready.
At the end of Jesus’ stories about the waiting bridesmaids and the parable about the three servants who were entrusted with the master’s money while he was away there is a hint that there will be a judgement. The girls that were ready were welcomed into the wedding feast and those who came too late were locked out. The servants who made good use of their master’s money were rewarded and the one who didn’t was thrown "outside into the darkness where he will cry and grit his teeth".
Today we are left in no doubt that there will be a judgement when Jesus returns. When Jesus comes in all his glory with the angels, he will sit on his throne and all the nations will be judged. He will separate the right from the left – the sheep from the goats. To those on the right he says, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world". To those on the left he says, "Away from me, you that are under God's curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!"
On what basis is this judgement carried out? Why are some invited to eternal joy while others are condemned?
Whether they went to the right or to the left depended on whether they recognised Jesus. It’s true that we see Jesus every time we open the Bible. He reveals himself to us as our loving Saviour and friend.
We recognise his saving power in the waters of baptism. We see Jesus in simple bread and wine at Holy Communion – his body and blood – as he forgives our sin and strengthens us to face the doubts and dangers of the coming week. We see Jesus as we worship together in our churches; when we take our joy and problems to him in prayer, when we trust him for help when the chips are down.
But the judgement story of Jesus goes beyond this and asks whether we have seen him in the face of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. The judgement is made on the basis of the compassion, the love, or the lack of it, that we have shown to those whom Jesus calls "the least of my brothers and sisters". The King replied, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me."
It would seem that the message of this parable is telling us that Christ is mysteriously present to us in those who need our help. We are called to be there for them just as God has been there for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to show compassion and spring into action for the least important just as Christ has had compassion on us in our times of trial and has sprung into action for us - forgiving, helping and healing us when we needed it the most.
We worship a God who is entangled in the suffering of humanity, in our sufferings and in the suffering of people everywhere. In fact, we worship a God who chooses not to untangle all the knots and problems of our world from the safety of heaven, but invites us all to be partners with him, to join our love to his love, and reach out to the suffering people in our world. This means reaching out to our sick friends, making a meal for a grieving family, welcoming the stranger to our churches, visiting people we know who are depressed, doubting God's love and need words of reassurance and hope. Provide good things for our families, clothing for our friends. We are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of these people and minister to them in the same way Christ has ministered to us in our times of need.
But Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:35-40 goes even further than this. He is talking about the least important. People whom others regard as insignificant. People who are easily forgotten. People who are out of sight so out of mind.
This parable is about how our faith in Jesus and our worship ought to penetrate and be interwoven with the ordinary everyday things of our lives. Religion isn’t something just for certain times of the week, but it infiltrates every moment of every day. The love of Christ makes us all too eager to do something for the least important people of this world.
Here is a story of which there are a number of versions. Conrad, the old cobbler, dreamed one night that the Master would come to be his guest. He was up as the sun was rising and set about decorating his little shop with bright flowers and greenery. He set the table with milk and honey and bread and waited.
While he was waiting, a beggar walked down the street came barefoot in the driving rain. Conrad called him in and gave him a pair of shoes. An old woman came bent from the weight of a heavy burden. He lifted the load off her back and shared his food with her. And finally, just before the day was about to fade away into darkness, a little child came. Her eyes were wet with tears. Conrad gave her a glass of milk and led her back to her mother. But the divine guest never came. Conrad was disappointed. Then soft in the silence a voice he heard "Lift up your heart, for I have kept my word. Three times I came to your friendly door; Three times my shadow was on your floor. I was the beggar with the bruised feet; I was the woman you gave to eat; I was the child on the homeless street!"
This is what Jesus meant when he said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me."
We don’t have to look too far to find the people whom Jesus called the least. The least are the one billion people who live on less than $2 a day; the over one billion people who don’t have access to affordable and safe water; the over 800 million people who are illiterate. The least that Jesus is talking about are the hundreds of thousands of children who die every year due to preventable diseases; the 10 million refugees in the world and another 30 million people who have lost their homes because of conflict and disasters. The least Jesus speaks about are the thousands of people in all parts of the world who are so poor and so much in need of basic health services while they fighting is going on between government and rebel forces. The least are the 11 million who are facing starvation in Malawi.
What I have mentioned is just a drop in the ocean of human suffering around our planet, not forgetting the least right here in our country and community.
These are the people we can easily ignore because of their religion or race or life styles. They are people we can easily forget because they are far from our own shores, and we can’t begin to imagine their suffering because we have nothing like it in our doorstep. These are the people that cause us to look the other way. But at the same time, these are the people whom Jesus claims to be among. Or better, it is in the face of these people that we see Jesus. "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me."
A question that I have often been asked is how far should we go in our caring. Who should we care for - and who, if any, should we not care for? How can we be sure that the truly needy get what they need while those who would suck us dry do not? Or should we even worry about that?
I can't answer these questions for you. It's something that each of us needs to struggle with on a case by case, day by day basis. But I can tell you that Christ is all around us in the faces of those who need our help.
As an individual, we can hardly make a dent in all the human misery in our world, but together we can.
Christmas is of course the celebration of God's greatest gift to us – Jesus Christ. This gift from God gives us a renewed relationship with God through forgiveness and the hope of life forever in heaven. For the love of Christ, let’s make a point of reaching to "the least" of the world and our community, and make a special offering to the Christ in the face of the poor stranger.
One Moment, One Morning – Shirley Rayner
The Quiet at the end of the World – Lauren James
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Surprised by Joy – C. S. Lewis
Grace Outpouring – Roy Godwin
Confronting Christianity – Rebecca Mc Laughlin
For the Least of These - Anne Bradley & Art Lindsley