Years ago I was doing some pre-marriage counseling with a couple: Amanda and Steve from First Church.If you know these two, you know they are very funny people, with what I’d call a delightfully irreverent sense of humor. I’m telling this story with their permission. We were planning the wedding, discussing what type of service they wanted—and didn’t want. They told me about the sermon at another wedding they attended. The pastor compared marriage to a cord made of three strands. Amanda gave Steve a look, and smacked his leg, whispering, “Who’s the third? Who’s the third?” Then after the pastor explained that the third strand was Jesus, Amanda got the giggles. She turned to Steve again and said: “Imagine how awkward their wedding night would be.”
This story illustrates the absurdity we sometimes encounter as we try to imagine that Jesus is really and concretely part of our lives. I truly believe that Jesus is a presence in our world, and yet, it’s tricky to articulate how that works, exactly. Today’s Gospel passage portrays folks asking Jesus the question directly, “When did we see you?”
The Grab Bag topic for today is this: “All these people out with signs asking for money. Genuine or fleecing us? How do we know?” I guess the most honest response is we don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. When folks come to the church looking for money, or food, or gas for their car, telling a story about their situation of need, I have the very same feeling. I never know. Are they telling me the truth? Or am I being manipulated somehow? Will they make wise or foolish use of whatever I give them? And whether I say “yes” or “no” to these requests, I am left with nagging questions and unsettled feelings. For days afterward, I wonder whether I did the right thing.
I read Jesus’ tale of the sheep and the goats as a kind of parable rather than a literal event that will occur. Parables are sacred stories designed to shake up our view of things, to help us see and live differently. What’s fascinating about this particular parable is that the people in the story, like us, are puzzled, clueless, unable to fully interpret their world. Jesus is with them in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. But they don’t know it. They can’t see it. Neither the ones that help, nor those that don’t, recognize Jesus. And neither of them understands the significance of their own action or inaction. The response of both groups is the same: When did we see you?
So . . . I don’t think Jesus wants us to get stuck on the question of who is “genuinely” in need. Most of the folks we see with signs don’t make promises about how they will spend our money. Actually, I’ve never seen a sign that says, “Give me money; I won’t use it to buy drugs.” People just ask, saying “Anything helps.” They tell us stories about who they are—out of work, homeless disabled veteran, caring for children. These stories may not always be true. And yet there’s a reason these folks are out there. For me, their appearance tells a story, too. When someone seems tired, dirty, or thirsty, hot, cold, or wet, when they have a vacant look in their eyes, when they pace restlessly or slump hopelessly, this communicates a lot. I suppose we probably have some actors and con artists out there. But mostly I think we have people who are just struggling to make it through the day.
The bottom line I draw from the parable is that Jesus wants us to show compassion. That’s his way. That’s how he is present to us, part of our world. He wants us to reach out to those who are suffering, even if the story they tell about their suffering isn’t the whole truth. If we give away a few bucks to someone who is “fleecing” us, that doesn’t bother him. Even so, let me be honest with you. I rarely give money to people with signs. Not out of some great principle, but because I don’t usually have cash handy. I’m short on time and don’t want to spare those extra moments. I’m short on emotional energy and don’t want to engage with a stranger. Truthfully, the ever-present stream of people at corners exhausts and overwhelms me. I would rather help people from a distance, by giving to the food shelf, or working for political change. This is a confession, not something I’m proud of.
I imagine that today’s parable makes all of us feel a bit judged. Judgment is uncomfortable. And yet maybe Jesus’ aim in setting this scene of accountability is actually to help us. Paradoxically, Jesus judges us for our judgment—for being so concerned about who deserves our help and who does not, and ultimately, for perpetuating a culture that finds it expedient to blame the poor for their own poverty rather than transform the systems that impoverish people. We all have limits to what we can do to help others; none of us should try single-handedly to change the world. Still, could it be that when we collectively make relating to our world with compassion our central priority; when we choose to offer care without concern for what any of us do or don’t deserve, we all benefit. Maybe if we particularly focused this practice of generosity and kindness on the least, the last and the lost, this shift in energy would unleash a different world.
The sheep and the goats respond to the King with the same words: When did we see you? And yet, as Stanley Saunders of Columbia Theological Seminary points out, the words have a very different tone to them depending on who is saying them. He writes:
The sheep apparently acted out of genuine compassion, without any awareness that the king might be present among the least ones and without any thought of potential reward. In the patronage economy of the ancient world, where gifts and debt were one of the primary means of ordering relationships, it was considered foolish to give to those at the bottom of the pyramid, who could not be expected to repay. The sheep have been busy, however, ignoring this social code. The goats, on the other hand, are still trapped within this code.
I wonder if despite the parable’s images of fiery wrath, Jesus means this story to be a liberating invitation. It seems to me that Jesus is, in his sneaky storyteller way, trying to release us from a trap, from the grip of things that are literally killing us and our world. Collaborating with the divine Spirit to show compassion, we will no longer be imprisoned by scarcity, fear, and need. We will unleash a powerful abundance of life and joy. We will begin to see Christ everywhere and in everyone. We will “inherit” the kingdom that was Jesus’ central commitment. The metaphor of king and kingdom is problematic, but it points toward a larger social reality. Following Jesus, our aim is to embody the community of mutual care and service for which Jesus lived and died. This is the way of being together that God has yearned to create with humanity from the foundation of the world.
Tomorrow, a group of us from First Church and University Lutheran Church of Hope are traveling to Guatemala, to San Lucas Tolimán, a place our church has developed a deep connection to over the years. During our Guatemala trips, we have a habit of reflecting together at the end of each day. We have often used a framework we call “Pow,” “Wow,” “How.” Each person is asked to share three things from their day. The “pow” is something that was difficult or challenging; the “wow” is something that was amazing or beautiful; and the “how” is “How did you see God, or Jesus?” Of course, the “how” is the one that folks struggle with the most. And I always tell them that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. What is important is that we genuinely and persistently ask the question, “When did we see you?”