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Two very distinct pictures of Jesus emerge from this parable. One of glory; one of neediness. We love the former. The latter is troubling, and like the sheep and goats we wonder when, Lord, did we see you thus?
"When the Son of Man comes, and all the holy angels with Him, He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats, the sheep on His right hand but the goats on the left.
"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you blessed of 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 drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'
"The righteous will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger, or naked? When did we see You sick, or in prison and come to You?' The King will answer, 'Assuredly, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'
"Then He will say to those on the left, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels,for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.'
"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?' He will answer them, 'Assuredly, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' These will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Matthew 25:31-46 NKJV, condensed
God Without a Halo
An unhappy boy ran away from home one summer morning. He took with him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a can of soda, and two cookies. As he headed out of town he saw an old woman sitting on a park bench. She looked just as sad as he felt, so he sat down beside her to rest awhile before going on.
The boy told the old woman he was running away from home, and she listened to his story. When they shifted to a nearby shaded bench, she told him she was running away, too. They shared the peanut butter and jelly lunch and talked into the afternoon. By the time the sun came around to find them again, they both decided they no longer needed to run away. So each bid their new friend goodbye. As the boy headed in one direction and the woman followed an opposite street, they turned back several times and waved playfully.
When the boy arrived home he told his dad he had shared his lunch with God and that God has the kindest face, big ears, and is very old. The old woman told her daughter she, too, spent the day with God, and that God has the most wonderful smile, but is much younger than she thought he would be.
I remember many years ago attending worship at The Church of our Savior in Washington, D.C. on New Year's weekend. In Gordon Crosby's sermon that morning he asked, "Do you know anyone who is hungry today or in need of cool, clean water? Do you know someone who is shivering in the cold? Do you know anyone without a home for the night? Or someone who is sick, or in jail?" Then he challenged the congregation in the coming year to go out where they are and get to know some of these people!
This text is the last teaching before his death by crucifixion as a common criminal. So what did Jesus talk about? He told a story about the coming of the Son of Man, angels with him, a glorious throne, people of all nations gathered before him, deciding with just a word from his mouth and the swing of his arm who would inherit the kingdom and who would be excluded. Then, as now, believers liked this powerful image. We are eager to stand by his side, join the army of his angels and do his bidding.
But then a surprise! When the Son of Man comes to judge the earth we will discover he's been with us every day in the form of all those people we passed by without looking at them because they made us feel uncomfortable! He came to us in the poor and unfortunate members of our society, in the hungry and thirsty ones, and those without sufficient clothing to keep themselves warm. He was the stranger on our street, he was sick and unable to care for himself, he was imprisoned in our jails.
We notice a recurring theme in these last three parables. It seems we have a God who is on a distant journey, off in some far country, taking his time returning, hiding somewhere out there in the darkness. By faith we recognize the footprints of God's presence. Through deeds of compassion, sharing and generosity we find him, not up in the sky, but right under our noses.
Providing food and hospitality, care for the wounded, friendship for the lonely, justice for prisoners--there's nothing grandiose about these things. People don't line up for a chance to respect and protect the dignity of those humbled by adversity. Rare is the moment when we ever consider entering into relationship with them. Yet in this text Jesus taught us that by shedding the light of kindness and mercy into a dark corner, we minister unto him.
Immanuel means "God With Us." We use the word during the Christmas holidays, proclaiming the birth of Jesus. This parable gives Immanuel a new twist. It's not a short-lived seasonal word, but an active lifelong covenant. Immanuel, God With Us, disguised in the form of anyone who needs a generous dose of compassion.
Lord, when did we see you hungry. . . ? The sheep and goats asked the same question? The goats, had they known it was the king, would have assisted him. For the sheep, doing the Christlike thing was second nature and they didn't even remember doing it.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Eric Bazilian asked in a song, "What if God was one of us...just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home...back up to heaven all alone?" He questioned further whether God looks like a slob like the rest of us! Are you offended by such lyrics? Or are they pertinent to this parable?
Share from your own experience when you were hungry, or thirsty, in need of clothing, or a stranger, sick or in prison. Did anyone come to your aid? If so, who was it and why did they help you?
Also, share from your own experience one time when you sacrificed your own comfort and desires in order to --give food, drink or clothing to a needy person, --visit someone who was sick or in prison, or --welcome a stranger. How do you feel about Jesus establishing these actions as a standard for inheriting his Father's kingdom? Are these deeds easy or difficult for you? Explain your answer.Describe the person who, in your mind, best exemplifies Christlike compassion?
React to the following quote by Edwine Gateley: "I came to understand that, one way or another, we are all broken. We must simply be where we are called to be and do the best we can, and leave the rest to God. The fruit is God's business; ours the labor and the call to faithfulness. So I ended up having to let go of my dreams, my hopes, my plans, my longing to save and heal. All I could really do was love. And so I loved. Fiercely." Which words in this statement stand out most in your mind? How does an attitude of brokenness help you minister to someone else? What does it mean to give up your hopes/plans and simply love? When have you loved fiercely, because there was nothing else you could do?
It's a challenge to understand how Jesus can be our future reigning Lord and also stake his identify in today's world with a homeless family living in their car. How do you see these two extremes complementing each other? In what way is this parable a wakeup call? Is anybody listening!
Immanuel--God With Us. Describe the last time you recognized God walking in your midst, or you prayed the prayer, "Thank You, Jesus."? What words would you use to describe what God looks like?
We recognize Jesus in the lofty doctrines of the church and in the beauty of a stained glass window with a halo hovering over his head. But how would our lives be different if we really believed that Jesus, without a halo, lives in the most needy and least powerful people among us? How would the concept we have of God need to be revised? What attitudes and actions on our part would need to change?