The imagery of a king is foreign to us who live in a republic, with a constitution requiring our leaders be elected every few years. But the imagery of Jesus sitting on the throne of Heaven was a vivid reality to the people of the days of the Roman Empire and through to the end of the eighteenth century.
We get the point anyway. We understand a judge sitting at his or her bench of justice meting out sentences for good or bad behavior. In the days when monarchs ruled without reference to a parliament or to the will of the people, they would sit in judgment, and they would be the court of justice. Recall the story of Solomon and the two women with one child. Issues of maternity, paternity, land disputes, and credit problems were always brought to the king for solution.
The image of Jesus doing this works in that context. But this image goes further. We are not standing before the throne of heavenly justice advocating our case. We have already advocated our case in the behavior of our lives, and Jesus is now setting the sentence.
So, what is it we have to do to advocate justice that will lead us to the gates of larger life and enter into the joy of God? That’s an odd question. Don’t we believe in grace by faith alone? There are no works to save us? Yes, but… There’s always that “yes, but”, isn’t there. We are saved by grace. God’s grace, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, is God’s saving act. We need to accept that saving act as our own, and believe that God has acted to save us.
Really, as the Apostle Paul told the jailer at Philippi, all one must do to be saved is to believe that Jesus, the Messiah, is Lord. Yes, but (there it is again, “yes, but”) Jesus tells us that if we are to fully enjoy the benefits of God’s grace we cannot simply have an intellectual insight, we cannot simply answer the altar call and then go about our lives as before. If the answer to the call of God does not lead to a new way of life, there is no change–you have been saved, but it has not saved you from the judgment of Jesus.
This is very difficult to explain, much less understand. We have the issue of the Apostle Paul proclaiming justification by faith alone. In the letter of James, we have the statement that faith without works is dead–and we can turn it around and say, works without faith are meaningless. So, it is a struggle to find the right expression.
Jesus is clear, however. He tells his disciples and those who followed him about Galilee and into Judea, that we have a mandate, because of our calling to faith, to do more than simply sit around and talk about how good God is. If the goodness of God is not seen in us, there is no reason for others to come into the fellowship of Christ Jesus.
About fifteen years ago now, a parish in which I worked, began a soup kitchen. It was a meager effort at first. In fact, on the first we opened, no one came to have lunch. We simply fed ourselves. In just a matter of months we were feeding a “multitude.” This was a remarkable activity. First, the parish is in a city that is the cross roads, or junction, of major east-west and north-south interstate highways. These two highways are the conduit for the nation’s poor, for illegal aliens, for con-men and women, for all sorts of humanity, some are beyond description. All were fed without regard to their status or condition. In this effort we attempted to place shoes on the shoeless, glasses on the visually impaired, hospitalize the sick, and care for the wounded spirit, and especially care for children. The parish, before this effort began, could expect fewer than one-hundred people to show up for Sunday worship–in two services. After this effort began, the congregation began to blossom. The reason so many people came to be a part of the parish is that it was living its Christian life in a meaningful way. The soup kitchen attracted a strong ecumenical effort, and even an inter-faith effort when the Jewish Synagogue joined in. The program grew and a medical center was added to the daily effort to reach the poorest of poor. All of this grew to such an extent it had to be moved to larger quarters. The program was an effort to live the commandment of Jesus in Matthew Twenty-five.
But there is more here than the obvious. We can understand caring for the poor and neglected. Jesus says, however, if you do it to the least of these my brothers and sister, members of his family, you have done it to him. Jesus means, if I understand the scripture clearly, that we are to look after each other. We are to care for the members of the family of Christ Jesus. That is, we are to be responsible for each other. This section of scripture has been used as a method of mandating a wide variety of charities, and it is clearly a statement of charity. The charities who have used it as their guide, such as our soup kitchen in a previous parish, but Jesus says if we do all these things for the members of his family we will find blessing.
It is difficult to understand that all of us have needs. We need, sometimes, to consoled for a loss. We need sometimes to be spiritually fed when our souls seem starved. We need sometimes to clothed in the gospel when we stand exposed to a cruel and heartless world. Our task as Christians is to be alert to those needs. Our task as Christians is not to be afraid to tell our sisters and brothers in Christ what our needs are.
We live in the “show-me” state. Sometimes this seems proud and strong, but there are times when it can stubborn and ignorant. Because we live in this frontier condition of, I won’t believe it unless you show me, we blind ourselves to what is truly happening in our own community, in our county and state, and in our nation. We fail to see that there are people, because of their own inability to cope, or unforeseen circumstances, or even stupid choices, are in serious trouble. We may say, “it’s there problem, let them get themselves out of it.”
Personal responsibility is the mantra of this decade. You did it! You correct it! Is the dictum. All of this is valid, of course, but sometimes, if we are not open to the heart of Jesus, we fail to see that the people in trouble are there because they simply do not know any other way to solve their problems. Clothing, feeding, visiting is Jesus’ way of reminding us we all have a responsibility to make life better for ourselves and for all those around us.
When I was in Viet Nam, now over forty years ago, I noticed a striking reality. The people of means all had homes with big walls around them, and on top of the walls were broken chard of glass and nail spikes. Out on the street was the mass of humanity struggling simply to live. It was a cruel street. Behind the walls sat the satisfied and complacent rich. My conclusion was, if the people behind the walls had done what was needed to help the people on the street live a better life, the rich and the poor would both be better off. I was not thinking of such things as bringing the mob on the street into the houses, but the people with resources working together to make the city cleaner, safer, and more productive. The rich would benefit by not having to have walls and the poor would benefit by having a place in which they could rise out of their poverty by their own effort–they would not have struggle just to live, but could live full and productive lives.
The family of Jesus is the issue, however, not social justice. Yet, I think social justice is a meaningful phrase if Jesus is the focus of the effort. In the family of Jesus, that is you and me, we care about one another and if we do, no one will disappear into oblivion.I have known about people, in other parishes, who gave their lives from youth to old age to the church. In their declining years, when they were confined to home or a nursing home, the church forgot about them. One of the first tasks I undertook as a deacon was to find these people and bring them back into the family of Jesus.
This was a successful effort, and helped these elderly immensely. The task gave me insight into the lives of my own parents, and we able to keep them active in the family of Jesus also.
The message of the gospel for me is not only to watch over the needs of those who are unable to care for themselves, but to be alert to the needs of all people, and most especially in our immediate family of the Church. This is a message we can all hear. For me it means more than doting over people, it is just being aware of others. Being aware of their sensitivities, being aware of their histories, being aware of them as children of God.
Ultimately, we are all in this life together. If we work only from a point of view of rugged individualism, we lose our hearts. We lose the very thing that makes us human — and not just another animal species.
Jesus, in the image of the judging king, reminds us that we do have a responsibility to him and to God, but also to all who call on the name of Jesus. Before I get called a socialist, or something like that, let me be clear It is a responsibility to care, not a responsibility to take away another person’s ability to care for him or herself. It is a responsibility to see Jesus in others, to experience the divine spark we all have. It is a responsibility to see that our neighbor, whom we are to love as we are to love ourselves, is not only the person who lives next door, or who lives down the street, across the nation, or on the other side of the world, we are to see the divine spark in the neighbor we call wife or husband, son or daughter, father or mother, sister or brother. We cannot care for others–feed them clothe, visit them–unless the charity is genuine and begins right in our immediate environment.
Finally, let me say this: Jesus is Lord. He is the king of our hearts. When we live under his lordship, or the majesty of the kingdom he has brought to us, we cannot do other than what he has commanded us to do. We want to be a part of his ministry, we become his body in reality, reaching out to those who are sick of heart and body and healing them in the name of Jesus. When we feed, clothe, and visit, we are extending Jesus’ healing hand. In that act of doing, we are blessed in our faith, and our faith grows, and grace becomes a reality in our lives.