Readings: Matthew 25.31-46
Almost all of us in this room have had the experience at one time or another of going incognito. That is, we have pretended that we are someone else. Do you remember those old days when you dressed up in fancy dress parties as a princess, a pirate, or cowboys and indians? We may have simply pulled an old sheet over your heads and gone to the neighbour’s house to scare them. The neighbour then played the game and responded, “Who are you?” Do you remember those days? Those were some of the first times that we went incognito.
It is with this theme of going incognito and wearing a mask; it is with this theme that you would treat me differently if you knew my true identity; that we approach the gospel lesson for today.
The parable today is about the sheep and the goats. Now, this is one of the most famous parables of Jesus, but is not one of the all time favourites. That is, we love the parable of the Good Samaritan and we enjoy the parable of the Prodigal Son, but this parable about the sheep and the goats is more challenging, painful and stinging. This parable makes us feel more uncomfortable.
The setting of this parable was this: the disciples had asked Jesus, “What is it going to be like at the end of the world?” Jesus replied, “I will tell you a story. It will be like this. There will be a king up in heaven and all the people of the earth will gather around him, and this king will divide the people into the sheep and the goats.” Now, if you were a disciple in those days, you understood this metaphor immediately.
Jesus continued, “The sheep will be on my right, and the king will say to them, ‘Come into my party. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
They said, ‘When did we ever do these things for you?’ The king replied, ‘Whenever you did these things for the littlest people, you did it for me?’ Then the king addressed the goats on the left. ‘Depart from me. I was starving and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was lacking clothing and you did not cloth me. I was in prison and you did not visit me.’
They said, ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently. If we only had known your true identity, it would have made all the difference. If we had only known it was your face behind the face of the refugees; if we had only known it was your body in the hospital; if we had only known it was your body suffering from Ebola in Africa; if we had only known it was you, it would have made all the difference.’ The Lord said, Depart from me to the punishment of the age to come.”
It was Mark Twain who said it first. “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do NOT understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I DO understand that bother me the most.”
When Jesus finished that parable, they liked the story of The Prodigal Son and they loved the story of the Good Samaritan, but they weren’t so sure that they liked this story of the sheep and the goats.
One of the first lessons that grows out of this parable is the awareness that our God, the true God, the one God, who created the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; that our true God is a God who hides himself. God goes incognito. God wears a mask.
Our God hides himself most completely in the faces and places of suffering. The awareness that our God is a hidden God who hides himself in suffering is a stark contrast to other religions of the world. In all the other religions of the world, they talk about their god who reveals himself in the beauty of the sunset, the birth of babies, and in the bounty of nature.
But our God is the only God in the whole wide world who hides himself under the faces and places of suffering.
When our children were young, we used to play hide and seek and the children would go and hide. One would hide underneath the kitchen table. Another would hide behind the door in the bedroom – places like that. And then the time was up and I’d shout “Coming, ready or not” Then I would look behind the sofa, under the dining room table, behind the curtains, and all around, and they would often make noise, and I would find them and shout, “Boo”. The point is: the children would hide in obvious places.
Unfortunately our modern houses aren't very easy to hide in – but in one old house we had, down in the cellar – where it's dark, damp and full of spiders – that would be a serious place to hide. I could look and look and I couldn’t find them there.
By analogy, in all the religions of the world, their gods hide themselves in the obvious places. Underneath the kitchen table. Underneath the bed. Behind the back door. These gods hide themselves in the beauty of the sunsets, the birth of babies, and the beauty of temples.
But our God, the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our God does down into the cellar. Our God goes down into the cellar and hides himself in a place where people don’t know he is hiding. God hides himself in the midst of suffering.
The place that our God hides is in the bread and wine of the sacraments, but the primary place is in the cross. No other God allows himself to be crucified. When our God is crucified, our God is the most hidden. When our God is being crucified today, he is the most hidden. So, this Bible passage tells us that our God is a hidden God.
But the real point is not that our God is a hidden God. The real lesson of this parable today is an invitation for you and me to SEEK GOD.
To seek God not in the beauty of the sunsets or the birth of babies or the bounty of nature and conclude that there is a God. The real lesson of this parable is to seek God where God is truly to be found. This parable tells us that God is to be found hiding behind the faces and places of suffering people.
What does this mean for us? What does it mean to embrace a suffering world?
First, it means to have the love of Jesus Christ inside of you. You cannot be this kind of loving person unless the love of Christ is living in you. It is not you. It is not me. It is the love of God living inside of us. You can’t embrace hurting people unless the love of God lives in you.
When Jesus addressed the sheep about going to heaven, the sheep didn’t even realize that they had been generous. They were not even aware. That is the way it is with love, the true love of God. You forget yourself in loving and caring for another person.
This quality of love then spreads from your home. To the neighbour down the street and the man had a stroke. To a person who had a bad accident and is disabled, and for some reason, you become involved in their life.
This love spreads. You begin to realize that your brothers and sisters in Africa or Asia are sick and hungry. This quality of love cannot help but reach out to them.
I love the examples of doctors and nurses going to West Africa to care for Ebola victims. We also have the opportunity to care for homeless men in the night shelter in January. In them we may see Jesus Christ, and minister to him.
You see, the truth about the gospel is that our King – Jesus Christ is a hidden King. And more than that, we are invited to seek him where he is to be found – where we least expect to see him. Amen.