November 20, 2011
“The Face of the King”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
You know it has happened countless times, more than we would like to admit, more than we could really imagine. It could happen somewhere, sometime, with some family this week. You can picture it, just like I can. A family preparing to do some volunteering this week. Though the idea came from Trish, the 5th grader with the biggest heart in the house, it was a collective decision to volunteer at the food pantry that the community hosts the week before Thanksgiving over at the Methodist Church. Mom signed up for the Monday after school time slot but she couldn’t get away from work. So it would be Dad and the three kids heading over to sort groceries and help distribute the baskets. On the way home from church on Sunday, somebody brought up the plans and Joshua, the 7th grader pointed out that he really didn’t want to go, and it sounded stupid, and why did they have to do this anyway. What followed was actually a very helpful family conversation about faith and action and compassion and what we learn in Sunday School and what we learn from what Jesus says and does.
The next day the Methodist Church was packed with volunteers and pantry clients and folks of all ages. Joshua and Trish and 6 year old Chloe were all chipping in next to their Dad amid the chaos you would expect in a church basement food pantry operation the week of Thanksgiving. At some point, Chloe, finally gets her dad’s attention, as another family with three kids all about the same age had worked their way through the line and stood right on the other side of the table. Chloe’s dad leaned down to ask her to repeat her question because he couldn’t hear. And with his ear toward his daughter and just as his eyes met those of the dad standing before him, Chloe repeated herself in a rather forceful outside voice fit for far too many people to hear, “are they the least of these that Miss Karen told us about in Sunday School?”
“As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Unto the least of these; a biblical phrase with a never ending shelf life in the heart and conscience of God’s people. Nonetheless, a phrase that can leave an uncomfortable taste in your mouth. You know what the king was trying to say about the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, and darn it if the phrase hasn’t struck the chord of the church’s call to mercy and compassion forever, but “the least of these?” It stirs a pot of patronizing power and arrogance and us/ them dynamics and an old Pharisee and tax collector kind of pat yourself on the back prayer life; “thank you God, that I am not like other people” rather than “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Like the two other parables we have looked at the last two weeks here in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats raises more questions than it offers answers. A careful reading brings uneasiness. There’s a whole lot of gristle to chew on before you get to that phrase that stands up and forever brands the church’s call to justice; unto the least of these. The king’s judgment surprises both the people on the right, the sheep and the people on the left, the goats. End time shock all around. Salvation’s promise, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, salvation’s promise comes to the nations for acts of mercy rather than confessed faith. An offer of food to a nameless hungry person results in salvation here; not the profession of “Jesus is Lord”. Close readers in some Christian corners would be more upset by all the salvation here, more upset by the salvation than by the judgment. And with the king’s commendation for doing unto the least of these who are members of my family, or in Greek least of these my brothers, could it be that Matthew’s Jesus is really offering an exhortation to attend to those first century disciples facing persecution? That the call to action is something less than the timeless invitation to care for any in need and something more like a plea to give comfort to those who suffer because they took the name of Christian?
Matthew and his parables; as one preacher puts it, Matthew is such a pain. Such a pain because life is never is as clear and simple as Matthew makes it out to be. It’s never as easy to sort things out the way Matthew does. He seems so sure about what is right and what is wrong about who is blessed and who is cursed. Matthew is such a pain and the truth is neither his parables, nor life, nor faith is ever really quite that easy. Thank you very much! Unto the least of these; it’s not all that easy Matthew. It’s not all the easy Jesus. And, frankly, while we’re at it, “the least of these” isn’t all that great of a phrase.
Over these last few years, I have participated several times in interviews as the Crisis Ministry was looking to fill the position of Executive Director. During those conversations, the Rector over at Trinity Church and I take turns asking the question about motivation when it comes to the work of Crisis Ministry and the role of the executive director. It’s a theological/spiritual/missional question and a rather delicate one, as we have sought to determine if the candidate’s vocational motivation matches that of the organization. The question took various forms, and often a follow up was required to really get to the point; trying to hear a sense of going about this work because God calls us to it, God expects it of us, it’s what God wants us to do; listening for a “doing unto the least of these” sort of affirmation. The most compelling answer over the years came from the candidate who said “It breaks my heart to see people who suffer the way they do. I don’t think it’s the kind of world God wants to see either” We were trying to ask about why Crisis Ministry should do but the candidate took a step back and started with how to see; an affirmation of how God must see the world around us.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats comes will this uneasiness, and these unanswered questions, and this pervasive surprise, and some theological conundrums to pursue, and an annoying works righteousness-anti-saved-by grace-you make it all look so easy affirmation of giving, welcoming, clothing, caring, visiting, doing. It comes complete with this half a bible verse that stands on the Mt. Rushmore of the church’s clarion call to mission, along with “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos) and “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah), “as you did it to one of the least of these you, did it to me.” In the midst of all of that, the parable provides a subtle yet clear and distinct, not much to argue about, lasting insight that serves as both affirmation and invitation about how to see the world. Yes, there were those who did and there were those who did not, but the teaching moment here in the parable is about how to see. Both those on the right and those on the left asked the same question of the king; “Lord, when was it that we saw you?” Seeing the world as God sees it.
One of Salvador Dali’s paintings is entitled “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” That’s the actual title. It is a huge portrait of the back of a nude woman looking out at the sea with various objects both abstract and recognizable all around; including a cross, and small portrait of Lincoln. Bright colors. Sharp distinctions. A rather strange painting at first glance. As the title makes clear, when you stand back and look, the entire portrait transforms into a rendering of Abraham Lincoln. With his brilliant skill, Dali painted an optical illusion, for those who have eyes to see. When I stood about twenty meters away with my tour group and the guide there at the Dali Museum, I still couldn’t see the larger Lincoln. The guide told those of us who were wearing glasses to take them off and then look. So we did, and with the fuzziness, this “ah ha” sort rippled through the gallery as all of us suddenly saw what the artist intended; this huge portrait of Abraham Lincoln just like the one on the $5 bill. A larger than life canvas transformed not before our eyes, but in our eyes. Take off your glasses, she said, as if to say, look with the eyes that God gave you!
The hungry. The thirsty. A stranger. Someone with no clothes. The one who is sick. The prisoner. The family waiting in line at the pantry. The guy who pumps your gas. The 5th grader at the tutoring program. The refugee whose face is there on the news. The person next to you in the unemployment office. The woman sitting in the hall at the nursing home every time you go to see your Dad. One of the hundreds sleeping in the park, or blocking a bridge, or sitting in on campus. One of those just trying to get to work, or sitting in traffic, or going to clean the mess left by the students sitting on campus. Learning to see the face of the king in everyone. Seeing the world as God sees it. Looking with the eyes the God gave you.
For those who have ears to hear. It seems like Jesus said it over and over again. Here, at the end of Matthew 25, it’s his plea for us to have eyes to see. To see the face of Jesus in the suffering, and the stranger, and the lost, and the other. Before seeing God in creation’s glory, it’s seeing the face of Jesus in the other. Not just seeing God in the faces of those you love, but seeing God in the faces of those no one loves. Learning how to see; it’s a prior prayer, really; before asking guidance for what to do; before seeking God’s wisdom about what to think; before trying to be faithful in what you say, it’s a prayer that God would help you to see, see the world and see each one, as God sees.
You have to take off the glasses of your own biases, and upbringing, and culture. Remove the glasses of your own racism, and classism, and lack of understanding of other faiths, the assumptions, and stereotypes so deeply ingrained by our own sinfulness. Remove the glasses and see; before you quickly do and move on, before rolling your eyes and checking off another holiday chore, before patting yourself on the back and feeling good about giving, before passing on the church’s own language that refers to the least of these. Use the eyes that God gave you. Ask God to help you see.
And in all the mystery and power and mercy of God’s grace, may you forever see the face of Jesus in those who look back at you.
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