Christ the King A: Surprised by God…Again!

Matthew 25:31-46

Dear Partner in Preaching,

What surprises me about this familiar and daunting passage is, well, the surprise. The surprise of both groups alike. Think about it: “when did we…” and “when didn’t we…” are only a sliver apart. Neither group denies its behavior. One group did indeed feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned and more. But they didn’t think much of it. And the other group did not do these things…and did not think much of it either. So they’re not surprised by the report of their actions. Rather, they are surprised that the Son of Man was present, which I find incredibly interesting.

I also find it interesting that whenever else Matthew names people ethnos – translated here as “nations” – he refers to those who are not followers of Jesus. In doing so, he follows the Septuagint where the same world usually applies to foreign, Gentile nations not worshiping Israel’s God. (Paul, similarly, uses the term when distinguishing between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians.) Which may mean that Matthew is not so much proscribing the behavior of his flock but rather describing the situation of his community – hungry, thirsty, lonely, imprisoned – and promising that the judgment of the nations will turn on how those in power respond to the needs of the discipleship community (hence the import of not just “the least of these” but also “of my family”).

That promise most likely would have been a powerful, comforting, and encouraging word to those early Christians beleaguered by oppression, persecution, and disruption. Yet I think there’s something else going on here as well, and that is the promise that God regularly shows up in those places and persons we least expect God to be. Both groups, remember, gave next to no thought to their treatment of “the least of these” and are surprised to discover that their actions (or lack of action) matter simply because it never crossed their mind that God was present. They gave next to no thought to their behavior or disposition toward “the least of these” because those persons just did not matter. And so along these lines, another way to think about “the least of these” is “those of no account,” “those who do not matter,” “those to whom we give little thought,” perhaps even “those whom we disdain.”

One of the central tenets of Luther’s theology – often named “a theology of the cross” – is that God regularly, even relentlessly, shows up just where we least expect God to be. Not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in backwater Bethlehem. Not in armor but in the vulnerable flesh of a babe. Not in conquest but in crucifixion. Not in power but in weakness. Again and again, God in Jesus shows up where we least expect God to be to surprise us, disarm us, overturn our expectations and judgments, all in order to invite us to give up our attempts to redeem ourselves – or even just to go it alone –instead relenting to God’s redemptive, surprising, and uncontrollable love.

Which means that the surprising element of this week’s Gospel doesn’t only apply to first-century Christians who felt like the world was against them. It may just serve to remind any and all Christians that God regularly and reliably shows up in those to whom we give little thought, those whom we tend to disdain, those who seem beyond the pale of our attention or good judgment. And I think it may be worth reminding our folks of this once again, perhaps in two ways.

First, there is no doubt that this passage invites us to recognize the presence of God in the need of those around us. In doing so, it affirms one of the central affirmations of Scripture that God gives particular attention to those in need. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if we might add “service to those in need” and “advocacy for those oppressed” as a third sacrament. After all, this passage measures up to the classic Reformation marks of a sacrament. Commanded by Jesus? Yup. Connected to a physical sign? The very physical needs and presence of those overlooked by the world… so yes, again. Containing a promise of salvation. Pretty much. So one way of preaching this passage would be to see our work on behalf of “the least of these” as sacramental, as it mediates the real presence of Christ to us.

Second, however, might we extend this insight to include all those to whom we give little thought or tend to disdain? Even if it includes those who disagree with us theologically or politically? Those who we despise because of their actions? Those whom we’ve decided are not just acting in unloving ways but are therefore inherently unlovable and (perhaps?) irredeemable?

At this particular time, as amid the uncertainty and turbulence of the times all groups seem to veer to the safe harbor of certainty, might we, Dear Partner, invite our people – and ourselves! – to take a moment to wonder whether God is present among those we disregard or despise? Might God still be surprising us by showing up just where we least expect it? Might our call on this Christ the King / Reign of Christ Sunday be to imagine that God’s reign of judgment defined and reshaped by mercy includes those we are so sure are just plain wrong?

This is not, let me be clear, a call to surrender one’s convictions or cease working for one’s vision of God’s justice. It is, rather, a call to work for justice while remembering that God often shows up on the side of those the world has declared unjust. Work for justice, but don’t despise those with a different view of justice. Work for peace, and pray for those who disrupt it. Show mercy to the least of these, including showing mercy by considering the factors that have led persons with whom we disagree to their convictions.

I’ve often quoted the theological maxim that “whenever you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you find Jesus on the other side.” I find that comforting when I think about how inclusive and expansive God’s profound love is. I find it uncomfortable when I imagine that includes those whose views I find troubling or even threatening (conveniently forgetting that they may find my convictions equally foreign).

Who is left out of the reign of God, Dear Partner. Or, perhaps more to the point just now, who might we be leaving out of the reign of God’s love? There is judgment in this parable, without question. But it is ultimately God’s judgment, a judgment we do not control, a judgment rendered by God in and through the Son of Man who in the very next verses will be handed over in vulnerability and weakness to be crucified by those he came to save. That’s surprising… and redemptive. And we have cause to be thankful for both the surprise and the redemption God offers.

Blessings on your proclamation, Dear Partner. On this Thanksgiving weekend, please know that you and your faithful ministry are one of the things for which I am most grateful.

Yours in Christ,