When We Care

Read: Matthew 25:31-46

So we just heard about the Son of Man coming into his fullness, his full glory, and he sits everyone down to his left or to his right. He says that some are sheep and some are goats. Why Jesus chooses sheep and goats to tell this story, I do not know. Though people in the US don’t eat much of either kind of animal, people in his time ate both more than they would have eaten beef and they definitely didn’t eat pork. To make it more accurate for our time, maybe Jesus, if he were here right now, would sit the cows on one side and the pigs on the other. Though I’d prefer not to be called a pig or a cow. Sheep and goats… both would have been thought of as tasty treats, not one tasty treat and one disgusting mess, as it’s often been preached.

The Son of Man puts the sheep on the right and the goats on the left and says to everyone on his right, the sheep – Come take your inheritance, the kingdom is yours and he gives them a reason for their chosenness: “I was hungry… I was thirsty… I was naked… I was sick… I was in prison… and you took care of me.” Nothing more. “I was

The biggest surprise though: though they had done good things, these sheep had no idea what he was talking about. These sheep never remembered seeing him, much less having taken care of him. But the Son of Man said, in response to their surprise, “When you took care of those in need, you took care of me.”

Straightforward so far for most Christians: this is often where we stop the story when we preach it because the next part is really uncomfortable.  We usually leave the story here, but, if we keep going, we hear the Son of Man look to his left and say, “Depart from me, you goats… go and live in the eternal fire because unlike those sheep, you saw me hungry… thirsty… naked… sick… and in prison… and you ignored me.”/ “You saw me hungry… thirsty… naked… sick… and in prison… and you ignored me.” And, again, these goats have no memory of seeing the Son. They ask, “When did we see you hungry? When did we see you thirsty? When did we see you naked? When did we see you sick? When were you in prison?” Maybe they say to each other, “Frankly, I thought everybody in  prison deserved to be there.” Again, the Son of Man says, “When you ignored those in need, you ignored me.” When you saw the hungry and said, “Get a job.” When you saw the thirsty and said, “find it yourself.” When you saw the naked and said, “How dare you!” When you saw the sick and asked, “Who sinned this man or his parents?” When you saw the one in prison and totally lacked compassion…. Again, the Son of Man says, “When you ignored those in need, you ignored me.”

This is scary. I’m sorry. This is really scary. This is not Isaiah. This is not the Old Testament. This is not some Revelation post-apocalyptic vision. This is a parable from Jesus that should inspire fear. In this parable, Jesus, as the Son of Man, calls basically everyone on earth onto the carpet and tells them that they have failed and to go live in the fire of repentance, the eternal fire where sacrifice for sin is made. Just like it would have been in the Temple.

Let’s be honest no one is living this call perfectly. Who really takes care of the hungry… the thirsty… the naked… the sick… the prisoner… and does it without fail and does it without judgment? Is it possible that if this story were to come true this morning, that there would be no sheep, only goats? Is it possible that if Jesus looked into all of our hearts today, he’d be calling us goats and saying, “when you ignored them, you ignored me?”

So… It’s not the most Christian show in the world, but I have to say that the show The Sopranos is to me be the best example of what it means to live in hell.  When I’ve watched it, I have been reminded of Lucifer and his minions in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  There’s this incredible scene in that book in which we meet the character Lucifer and he famously says, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” That’s like Tony Soprano. Better to reign in New Jersey (There’s gotta be a New Jersey joke in there somewhere….)

But the more I have watched this show over the years, the more I think it’s actually written as an allegory for Hell. You have a man, a mob boss, called Tony Soprano who turns everything and everybody in his life to garbage. Which is ironic because he is in the “waste management business.” He turns everything into garbage. He turns hugs into hate. He turns smiles into scowls… laughter into animosity. He turns friends and family into enemies, affection into violence, and he turns children into killers. And in his grab for more power and more money… more more more… he turns himself into Lucifer, the king of Hell. Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.

His selfishness and self-centeredness are out of control. And don’t we know that selfishness has a way of putting us into own personal hell? Tony has made himself king of selfishness and king of hell. And his minions are the same. [Paulie and the burn victim] Totally ignored.

But here is the saddest part: They pull everyone else down with them. Because of selfishness, they pull everyone deeper into their circles of hell.

The whole series begins with a prophetic voice: one of Tony’s friends and captains quotes Michael Corleone, from the Godfather, “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”

It’s the theme of the show. Just when they think they’re out, they’re pulled back in. They can’t escape this of selfish ambition because the others will just drag them back. It could be the theme of religious life in America. God, in Christ, begs us to leave behind our selfishness, our vanity that we alone know the truth, but we, in our society and in the Church find that selfishness and self-centeredness is king and it’s dragging us to hell.

In that way, even twelve years after it went off the air, the Sopranos still acts as a parable for our lives in American Christianity.

Jesus loved parables. We’ve spent weeks listening to Jesus’ parables in preparation for Easter. And each time we have struggled to hear Jesus because he says things that we hate to hear. We heard how Jesus demands that we forgive much more than is reasonable. We heard that it doesn’t matter how hard we work or how righteous we are, Jesus gives to all equally. We learned that we can’t just show up to the kingdom with the wrong attitude, we have to be there to celebrate the Son. And, last week, in Matthew 25, we learned not to wait like in a waiting room; we have to shine our lights and keep them shining!

But this time is different because it’s Jesus who’s shining a light on us and on our sin. He shines a light and shows us the filth in our world. He shows that we are living in hell because we choose to ignore those in need. And with a straight face we ask Jesus today, “When did we see you?” We stare past the poor, we stare past the refuge, we stare past the masses of incarcerated, we stare past the mentally ill, we stare past all of ourneighbors in need and turn to our friends and say, “You’ll never believe the week I’ve had.”

Like the sheep and the goats, we ask, “Lord, lord, when did we see you?” And the answer is what Mother Teresa called the Five Finger Gospel: You. Did. It. to. Me. Care or ignore, you did it to me.

It starts to sound hopeless doesn’t it? But Jesus doesn’t come to condemn us. He gives us a gift in this parable. He shows us how to not live in hell. Because when we focus only on our own stuff, our own power, our own wealth, our own pain, our own everything, we are making ourselves the kings and queens of our own hell. And Jesus has come to save us now and into eternity. Jesus has come to save us now.

Sometimes we forget when eternal life begins. We get this sense that enteral life is far away, some other day. Like, does it begin when we die? No. It begins the moment we live life in Christ. We begin that eternal call, that eternal living, as soon as we repent of what has been – what we have been – and are turned toward the savior, eternal life is now and forever. Now and forever.

In our Lenten book study this week, we read Pastor Nadia say, “We are punished by our sins.” Not just someday or after we die, but today – we are punished by our sins. That’s one of the truest truths I know. I have always taken it on the chin whenever I have chosen self over love… self over friendship… self over family… self over Christ Jesus… self over the one in need. I have always taken it on the chin when I chose myself and ignored others. When I let my wants, my needs, my way or the highway… I’ve always found myself down for the count.

And I need salvation from it. Jesus shows us how to be saved from that selfishness and the hell that we create daily. He says that he will be in the one who needs us. Uniquely so. You did it to me. Will we help him or will we ignore him?

May we always look to our right hand and remember: You did it to me. Amen.

*Sermons are formatted for presentation, not prevention of typos. Please read in a spirit of forgiveness.

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