Matthew 25:31-46 (CEB)

Judgment of the nations

31 “Now when the Human One[a] comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45  Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46  And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

This is the word of God for us the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

Hello, God, we’ve got questions.  Part II – Why did God choose for Jesus to be born into a poor family?

Children are masters at asking questions, aren’t they?  If you’ve been around a 3 year-old lately, you’ve probably been bombarded with questions – who, what, where, when and why are the main words out of their mouths.  And isn’t that how they learn!?  In this month’s sermon series we are asking questions, too — questions that we might have about God and faith.  I invite you to text me any questions you can think of this week, so that we can talk about these questions that you have.  Part of our spiritual growth comes from asking questions and seeking the answers.

This day we are thinking specifically about the question asked by the young man on the video–  “Why in the world would God want Jesus to be born into a poor family?”  Why would God send Jesus to be raised as the son of a carpenter and a teenage girl in a backwoods town?  Why wouldn’t Jesus be born as a prince living in a mansion?  I think this is a great question because I don’t think the status of the family Jesus was born into is accidental or unimportant to the message that God is sending us in and through Jesus.  If we believe God is all powerful, God could certainly have arranged for Jesus to be born to a family of power and wealth.  But that is not the message God wanted to send to us.

In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus presents a challenging teaching to consider for the new year.  In his vision, the people of the earth are standing before the king to face the final judgment on their lives.  And surprisingly their reward is not based on their accomplishments or their wealth, or even how much scripture they had memorized– instead, the judgment they receive is based on how they cared for the poor and needy of the world.  The king declares that whoever cared for the “least of these” among us was, in fact, caring for the king himself.  This scripture from Matthew 25 happens at the end of Jesus’ ministry – it’s part of his final address before the events that led to his crucifixion.  And this text is a core teaching for us as Christians:

Those whom this world considers insignificant are very significant to God.

The child’s question and this scripture call us to really think about this idea that God doesn’t see the world in the same way that we do.  Jesus came to turn everything upside down, and teach us to have new eyes to see our brothers and sisters the way that God does.  We are challenged to see those who are hungry and thirsty, people who are sick and dying, people who can’t afford clothes and people who are in prison.

But let’s be honest, this message is really challenging for us—it’s challenging even for those of us who follow Jesus and have for a long time — because it is cuts against the grain of everything our nation teaches us about what it means to be successful.  We may think someone who is struggling is not worthy of our time and attention.  We think the government will take care of people in need.  Or we think they should be self-sufficient and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  We make judgments about people who find themselves in a position of need.  We think they should get a job – that they are lazy or addicts or are somehow responsible for their hardships.  And sometimes we do make bad decisions that cause us problems.  However, it is not for us to judge.  It is only for us to love our brothers and sisters as Christ did.  And yet, oftentimes, we refuse to even see our brothers and sisters who suffer – sometimes right in front of our eyes.

Mother Teresa was an amazing example of someone who could see people with God’s eyes, show mercy and compassion, and love people with the love of Christ.  One of my favorite books about Saint Teresa was written by Paul Wright, a cardiologist who came to know her – it’s called Mother Teresa’s Prescription: Finding Happiness and Peace in Service.  The author, Dr. Paul, was living the American dream.  He had wealth, a great family and a lot of prestige.  But he felt empty and depressed.  And he sought out Mother Teresa for direction and focus because he considered her to be the finest example of living the Christian life.  He had first met Mother Teresa at a shelter in San Diego, and he asked her the question he longed to ask her, “How will Jesus judge me at the moment of my death.”  And Mother Teresa opened her Bible to Matthew 25, and she said, “In the Bible, there is one place where Jesus describes how he will judge all nations and all people.”  And she read today’s scripture to Dr. Paul

Then Mother Teresa took Dr. Paul’s hand and said: “Jesus said whatever you did for the least of our brothers and sisters,” and touching each one of my fingers with each words, she said, “you did it to me.”

Mother Teresa’s words were so inspiring, that Dr. Paul began to serve others.  He traveled to India to visit the House of Dying where the Missionaries of Charity and government officials brought the sick, homeless, starving and dying people of Calcutta.  The book talks about so many breath-taking experiences, but I want to share one.  And I want to read it to you in Dr. Paul’s own words:

I stood with Mother Teresa, asking her questions about where the people had come from and who brought them to the House of Dying.  I wondered what medical care and professional assistance I could offer them.  She did not have time to answer any of my questions because a small ambulance arrived and the porters brought a human being into the House of Dying.  I say ‘human being’ because I could not tell if the person on the stretcher was a man or a woman, even though the patient was alert and responsive.  I could tell immediately that the patient was dying from gangrene that was destroying both legs and the right arm.  Maggots were eating away at the patient’s rotting limbs.  The smell was unbearable.

Mother directed the volunteers to place the patient on a bed.  Then she asked me to put on a cloth apron and gloves and help her remove the patient’s clothing so that we could bathe the limbs with warm water.  Suddenly, I was responsible for providing care one on one to someone who certainly had no more than two hours of life left.

As a doctor, I have seen people mangled and bloodied by car accidents, train wrecks, gunshots and stabbings.  Never have I seen anyone in such a desperate condition as the person Mother Teresa was asking me to help.  I could not simply check the patient’s vital signs, write a few orders on a chart, then turn the care over to a nurse or resident.  I did not have morphine to dull the dying person’s agony.  I did not have antibiotics or iv fluids to administer.  I did not have surgeons or infectious disease experts to consult.

The only thing I had was my hands.

In my world, it is common for doctors to use high tech medical equipment to help a patient, but it is unheard of for a doctor to stay with a patient for two hours simply to bathe his wounds and let him know that someone loves him.  The unfamiliarity of the situation gave me a sudden and enormous sense of being alone, incompetent, and deficient.  Then, as I helped remove the patient’s clothing, the dying person’s suffering and loneliness overwhelmed me. I recoiled from the stench of the infected wounds and walked out of the House of Dying.

I sat on the steps for twenty minutes.  And then Mother Teresa and one of her sisters came outside and sat beside me.  I could not stop apologizing to Mother Teresa.  I told her how incompetent, ashamed, and embarrassed I felt because I could not carry out the simple task of bathing a dying patient.

“Nor could I if I did not think that I was bathing and treating Jesus Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor,” she said.

Then she smiled.  Once again, her words gave me a new perspective on my life.  “Dr. Paul, I do things that you cannot do, and you do things that I cannot do, but together we can do beautiful things for God.”

We can do beautiful things for God.  But sometimes the things we are asked to do for God do not feel beautiful – they feel hard and uncomfortable.  I suppose Dr. Paul arrived in India with all kinds of boundaries, and he must have been stunned by the depth of need facing him.  Bathing a dying patient was not something Dr. Paul ever expected to do; instead, Dr. Paul would have preferred to use his medical training, medication, technology, and all the standard things a cardiologist in America relies on.  But instead, that day he was called to simply love a dying human.

This experience seemed to have changed his life.  Dr. Paul came to believe that our challenge is to grow closer to God by doing works of compassion and love that alleviate others’ suffering.  He came to believe that we can achieve peace and happiness by doing God’s work in the world.  The challenge that Jesus gives us in this teaching is to look at people not with the eyes of humanity, but with the eyes of God.  What do we see when we look at the poor?  What assumptions do we make about them?  When we look at the homeless man panhandling on the exit ramp, can we see the king?  When we collect food for backpacks, can we see in the children receiving the food the faces of our own sons and daughters?  When we open our check books to buy a Heifer project cow for a family with no means to support themselves can we see ourselves in their faces?

But most of all, the call to care for the least of these is not just a call to open our checkbooks.  The call is to see those in need and truly love our brothers and sisters.  Our job is to extend not just material and physical comfort to others but to share the love of God in Christ Jesus in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the sick and the prisoner.

This week God has placed an abundance of people in need in front of me.  Every time I have pulled off the interstate, there has been someone standing there with a sign.  When I was in Little Rock this week, I saw three people asking for help along the road within two blocks.  Everywhere I have turned, God has been reminding me of my brothers and sisters in need.  I tell myself that they are scammers or that someone else will help.  I think of my own safety, and keep on driving.  And I have to admit to you that when I see these folks in need on the exit ramps, I usually try not to make eye contact.  I try to ignore that they are even standing there.

And then I realized that God wants me to tell you all to just start to see the least of these.  It’s like God was saying: “Just open your eyes to see my children the way I do.  Don’t turn away.  Don’t act as if they are invisible.  At least recognize that they are my children, too.  Open your eyes.”

And so I thought about the blessing bag.  You’ve probably heard about this idea.  You pack up a few things in a Ziploc bag – like this.  You put in some things that might be helpful for a person who is homeless, you keep it in your car, and then you can give it out as you see people in need.  I’ve head about this for years and never done it.  And I wondered if it really helped people.  And so, I googled it — “do blessing bags really help?”  And an article came up about a mother who felt like she needed to teach her children in the car with her a good response to helping people in need.  And I finally realized that right now, for me, it doesn’t really matter if the contents of the blessing bag help the person in need.  What matters is that it forces me to see the person as worthy of my attention.  Stopping, rolling down my window, and handing out the bag shows that they are human beings worthy of my kindness.  It gives me an excuse to start a conversation, and ask the person his or her name rather than pretending he isn’t even there.  The blessing bag is just a tool that I can use to say to one of God’s children, “I see you.  You matter.  God cares.”

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the need that exists in the world.  But Mother Teresa said that we can all do great things for God in small ways every day.   Every day, there are ways we can let our brothers and sisters know that they are loved by God.

Every single one of God’s children is significant.  This is such an important message that God sent his Son to be born into a poor family.    God will open our eyes to see the overlooked and ignored, and God will show us ways to be instruments of God’s love.

May we have eyes to see.

May we be obedient servants.

May we share the compassion, mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.