Allyn and I recently moved into downtown St. Louis. Prior to that, we lived in the county, in a house owned by the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. On one side our neighbor was the St. Louis Baptist Association Office. Across the street was Fee Fee Baptist Church. Only one of our immediate neighbors was not a Baptist institution and that neighbor—Larry—was a music producer. Apparently a good one, as he told stories of traveling the country to produce various records. On the other side of Larry was a house that was listed as “for sale or rent” the entire time we lived in the house. And that was our block. Like most surburban neighborhoods, we were self-contained and isolated from whatever people and needs existed around us.
A move into the downtown of a city can change all of that. We now live in a neighborhood where wealth and poverty are elbow-to-elbow. Giant loft buildings with elaborately-decorated entrances stand next to a homeless shelter. The streets we drive and the sidewalks we walk are busy with people from all portions of the socio-economic spectrum. Everywhere we go, we are reminded that the hungry, thirsty, the naked and sick, the stranger and prisoner—or at least recently released prisoners—are in our midst.
Today we often judge those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” as lazy or immoral. Certainly we expect that most prisoners are guilty of the charges that landed them in prison. As for our culture’s thoughts on the poor, we just have to look to the discussion taking place as a result of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. While reports show that most of the protestors have jobs, those who are against the movement have labeled the protestors greedy bums and suggest—sometimes not so kindly—that they should get jobs. I have seen many online postings from Christians who suggest that those who are poor or unemployed must be lazy, prideful or both because surely anyone who really wanted to care for their family would take any job possible and not consider themselves “too good” for certain kinds of work.
I say all of this, because I don’t think our culture’s perceptions of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger and prisoner are particularly different from the perceptions of the 1st century world. Most of the beggars we find in the New Testament have some sort of handicap. We find stories of the blind and lame. In a time before desk jobs, such ailments meant you had very few options for work. So we find the blind, deaf and lame asking for alms.
In John chapter 9, we find Jesus and his disciples having a conversation about a man who was born blind. The disciples ask “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The common thought was that if something terrible had happened to you, it must be punishment for sin. We see the same idea in the book of Job – Job’s friends keep insisting that Job must have some sort of sin in his life – why else would so many things have gone wrong? And, of course, both Jesus and the book of Job reveal that God doesn’t work that way. Bad things can happen whether we sin or not.
But the disciples’ attitudes—like the attitudes of the Christians posting online—show that we aren’t too good at remembering that bad things happen to good people when those bad things aren’t happening to us. We like to believe that good, moral, Christian people will be blessed, will always have the things that we need.
And because we believe that, Jesus’s words in our passage today are shocking. He isn’t just telling us to care for the least of these. He is telling us that he IS the least of these. Jesus is present as the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and imprisoned. Jesus is the single mother who can’t make enough money to feed her kids. Jesus is the man who has spent the last 9 years behind bars. Jesus is the drunk stumbling around on the corner. Jesus is the sort of person we try to avoid – the person who enrages us – the person who may even disgust us. This from a king?
Today in the church calendar year it is Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. Our text today says that it is the King – the Son of Man – Jesus – who will divide the people. It is the King who is associating with the least of these. Doesn’t it seem like a plot from Aladdin? The King grew bored behind the palace walls, so he decides to dress like a commoner. Since all of his needs are usually provided, he has no money and is caught accidentally stealing lunch, not realizing the way things work.
Except this King is not separate from the world. This King participated in the creation of the world. This King was then born into the world with no place to stay but a barn. As an infant, this King had to flee with his parents to avoid being killed. This King knows how the world works because this King choose to be part of the world from the beginning.
So why wouldn’t he affiliate with someone…else? Someone better?
And perhaps that’s just it. This King’s kingdom isn’t like the rest of the world. It’s an upside-down sort of system where those who seem to have everything lose their importance. It is the sort of system where the greatest are the servants – where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is the sort of kingdom where children have full access to the King.
The kind of kingdom where the King can be homeless or in prison. And if we are the King’s servants, we will care for him.
Perhaps most troubling is that if we truly recognize Jesus in “the least of these,” giving money or a coat or a meal isn’t really good enough, is it? We’ll have to get to know him, too.
On Friday morning, Allyn and I were in Kansas City for a class at Central Seminary. As we were driving to campus, we were stopped at a red light about to drive under the highway. A man was standing there next to the road holding a sign that said he was hungry. I panicked. I knew I was preaching this passage, knew that Jesus was standing next to our car, knew that I should do something—but I was lost as to what that something should be. I tried to make eye contact in a way that would state that I saw him and recognized his value but didn’t have anything in the car to give him. And, of course, you can’t really communicate all of that with a look – or at least I can’t, so mostly I just looked down in shame.
His wife was at the same intersection on Saturday morning. Or at least I’m assuming it was his wife, because while we were sitting at the red light – again – he walked over to her and kissed her before continuing down the road. It was the first time I considered that he might have family. Someone a little more human walked away. Someone with a story beyond a sign.
If we claim to be servants of the King, we will get to know his story. We will stop seeing a sign and instead we will see a person who is valuable in the Kingdom of God. It is hard, but it is essential to our faith.
If we are to believe the Gospel of Matthew, we will not truly enter God’s Kingdom until we spot and care for the King. And perhaps that is troubling – after all, don’t we believe in a system of grace where believing in Jesus is enough? But if we pause to think about it, maybe it makes sense – how will we ever know we are in the kingdom if we can’t identify the King?
Where do you see Jesus? Do you recognize him on the street? He is hungry and waiting to welcome you into the upside-down kingdom.