When I was on staff at First Presbyterian Church Boulder in Boulder, CO, there was a gentleman named Herman who I would see every Sunday. Herman was homeless and always stood outside of the main entrance of the church every Sunday morning. He’d have a sign, explaining that he was homeless and had a cup for money. Many would give him money, but not everyone. I would sometimes give him money, but on the Sundays I didn’t, I felt immensely guilty. How could I choose to not help a homeless person on my way into worship? I’d ask myself am I doing enough to help the homeless population (which is surprisingly large) in Boulder? After all, Jesus is very clear about caring for the poor and “the least of these.”
As with most things Jesus said, this passage puts us on the defensive. Our first reaction is to either argue with Jesus about whether we do enough to serve the poor, clothe the hungry, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, and/or to negotiate with Jesus as to what “serving the least of these” means. While we didn’t directly give food to the hungry or personally visit someone in prison, we did give money to ministries such as Feeding America and wrote letters to those in prison. Wasn’t that enough, Jesus? I think in our defensiveness we want to list all of the reasons why we belong with the sheep and not the goats.
One way this passage is misconstrued is that we read this passage as a guide for how to ensure we achieve salvation. It’s as if we’re saying: “Okay God, we took care of the poor, hungry and imprisoned” and treat those actions as checking off the necessary boxes to get into heaven. To read this passage this way is to miss the entire point of Jesus’ message. The focus of this passage is not salvation, it’s about discipleship. Discipleship, as with everything else, begins with God’s love for us as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. As you’ll recall from Troy’s sermon from last week from 1st John: “This is love not that we first loved, but that he first loved us.”
Discipleship is how we live our lives in response to the love of Jesus Christ. This includes how we see and serve the least of these.
Notice that those who served the least of these were surprised that they had been serving Jesus all along. Those who gladly cared for those in need did so because it was simply the right thing to do. They did not do this to get more points with God to ensure they wouldn’t spend eternity in damnation. They saw someone in need and did what they could to help. It wasn’t because they wanted to look good for others or even look good for God, but because they simply wanted to do what they could to help ease the suffering of another fellow human. Whether they realized it or not they were serving out of God’s compassion for all people.
God’s compassion is all over this passage. God is so full of compassion that God chooses to not be a distant God. God chooses to be present through Jesus Christ in the messiness and the brokenness of our lives. Christ is present in those who are broken and suffering, in the poor and in the oppressed. Christ is present in the stranger, those who feel out of place or seen as “other.” God is not just with, but is present in the very people most would tend to push aside or avoid. The good news is that God’s compassion is very much present in this passage.
Going back to Herman who stood outside the entrance of First Pres Boulder, his appearance was in stark contrast to the members of the church entering into worship. He had a disfigured face, walked with a cane and his clothes were dirty. Whereas the members of First Pres Boulder were showered and impeccably dressed as it is an affluent community. It was easier to see Jesus in the members of First Pres because they’re frankly more pleasing to the eye than an unsightly homeless person such as Herman.
But what Matthew wants us to know is that Jesus is just as present in a homeless person such as Herman as he is in the average Presbyterian who appears extremely put together. Jesus is just as present in and with “the least of these” as he is with those who have much. God is with those who we’d rather overlook or in those for whom it is too painful or awkward to set our eyes upon. Jesus is in the brokenness, pain and messiness of life even when we try to avoid such brokenness. But we need the help of Jesus Christ to see this for ourselves.
When we see the face of Jesus Christ in the least of these, we can’t help but respond to them in love, because this is how Jesus responds to us.
Also notice that this passage doesn’t go into how exactly we are to care for the least of these. I want to acknowledge that helping the poor and the imprisoned can be complicated. There are those who take advantage of the help they receive and there are those who are repeat offenders. However, this doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t with them either. Jesus is not just with those who make good choices – otherwise we’d all be in trouble. Knowing that Jesus is still with those who continue to struggle, and who continue to make terrible choices, gives us empathy for their situation. Their brokenness is just that deep. Jesus is clear that it isn’t our place to judge how someone became or was even born into the “least of these.” But it is our place to feed, clothe and visit them.
We also have to be careful about declaring that Christianity is just about serving the least of these. While that is a part of discipleship, it isn’t all of what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is about. The title of our current sermon series is “Welcome All.” Our passage for today is about being welcoming to those who are in the margins. Those we don’t see or purposely overlook. But those individuals are the very people who Christ calls “his family.” We welcome all because Jesus first welcomed us. So we respond to Christ’s love by loving others. Including and especially the least of these. So it is through Jesus that we are able to welcome those into God’s family. It is through Jesus Christ that when we feed the poor, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned, God is using us to remind them that not only are they welcomed into God’s family, they already are a part of God’s family. While the rest of society may have forgotten them, God has not.
Again this passage isn’t about our salvation. It is about discipleship: How we respond to God’s love in Jesus Christ through serving those who are in need. So are we? Do we see Jesus Christ in those who others would rather ignore and those who themselves may believe they are beyond God’s love and help? If we truly believe that God’s love extends to all, then we need to be open to allowing God to use our words and our actions to remind the least of these that Jesus Christ has always been, and always will be with them and for them.
Everything we do in worship is in response to God’s love for us – The songs, the prayers, the sermon. What does it say at the end of the bulletin? “Worship Concludes – Service Begins.” Worship is a springboard for us to be reminded of who we are and who God has called us to be.
So as we leave the sanctuary this morning, be on the prayerful lookout for how you can respond to the love of Jesus Christ – for how you can be the hands and feet of Christ who sees Christ in the hungry, the poor, the naked, the imprisoned and the stranger.