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The Least of These

We become aware of God in different ways. We may become aware of him when we break bread and share the cup at Communion. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had their eyes opened then they did that with Jesus the night he was resurrected.

We might become aware of God in some common place that we never thought God could be like Jacob who said, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” He we was in an ordinary quite desolate place.

We might become aware of God in the quiet, like Elijah who heard God in a still, small voice. Or we might become aware of God around us when we are in adversity. He surrounds us when we are up against it, as we heard in the story of Elisha and his servant.

We might also become aware of God in other people. And sometimes very unlikely people.

Jesus often taught in parables. Parables are stories using everyday things to illustrate the kingdom of God. Which is to say when Jesus taught in parables he was teaching about who God is, how God works, and what is important to God.

This parable is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats because it begins with Jesus coming to separate people as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The Son of Man, who is Jesus, is coming in glory with all his angels with him to judge who is of him and who is not. Jesus is also the King in this parable.

The King welcomes those who gave him something to eat when he was hungry,

who gave him something to drink when he was thirsty,

who invited him in when he was a stranger,

who gave him clothing when he did not have any,

who looked after him when he was sick,

and who came to visit him when he was in prison.

Jesus welcomes these people and the welcome is wildly rich. He calls these people blessed by his Father. He says these people have an inheritance. They will get to be in the kingdom that has been prepared for them. What an affirmation! Come live with God in his love, peace, joy, and be absolutely separated from all suffering and evil. Come be with the King.

The thing is the people the King is talking to have no clue what he is talking about. Jesus calls them the “righteous.” The righteous answer, “What are you talking about? When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we invite you in, and clothe you, and take care of you when you were sick? And, for the life of us, when were you in prison and we visited you?” They are thoroughly clueless.

And the King answers, “Truly I tell you…” and whenever Jesus says that or “Verily I say unto you…” it means “don’t miss what I am saying.” Jesus says whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Hang on to that. We will return to it.

Then the King turns to those who saw those who were hungry, thirsty, without clothing, strangers, sick and in prison. And when they saw them they did nothing. They gave nothing. No money, no time, no love, no resources, no advocacy. They paid no attention.

Maybe they were too busy. Maybe they were too full of judgment. Maybe they were short on compassion. Maybe they were more wrapped up in themselves and their values than what God values and who God values. Maybe it didn’t align with their politics.

Their judgment is because of what they did not do. Notice how many times “did not” is used.

Jesus casts them away from himself. He calls them cursed. Their place is not with him but with the devil, the author of all evil, and his angels. I don’t like this. These are harsh words. But these are Jesus’ words.

Yes, Jesus speaks some beautiful words that we love to hear. We love to hear him speak about love and how he’s our good shepherd and do not judge and I am with you always. But Jesus also said some hard things. These words make me uncomfortable because I don’t like to think of anyone being apart from Jesus for good.

Some people shudder at the thought of Jesus sending anyone to hell. I don’t know that Jesus does send anyone to hell. He has given everything to open the way to life with him now and for eternity. Maybe people separate themselves from him by their own choices. Jesus will let you be your own boss if you want.

We often think it’s things we do that might offend God. Sex, drugs, violence, lying are what get you in trouble with God. But in this parable Jesus is talking about what we don’t do. And quite frankly you read the Bible and those who are adulterers and liars and cowards come off a lot better than those who ignore the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.

In this parable Jesus shows his heart for the least of these. Think of what it is to be one of the least of these. Hungry: your stomach growls, you grow weak and have no strength. You become shaky. Food is the difference between living and dying. Famine’s cause death.

Thirsty: you are parched, dehydrated, weak, become light-headed.

A stranger: You don’t know anyone. You are lonely, unsure, maybe scared. You feel left out. You might not speak the language and can’t understand what is going on.

Without clothing: You are cold. Maybe you look different. What we wear can say something about us. Not having appropriate clothing can also be embarrassing.

Sick: You are miserable, in pain, can’t get up and take care of yourself. You are dependent on others if there are others. Maybe you are going to die.

In prison: Maybe you are unloved, labeled, ashamed, isolated, lonely.

I wonder if Jesus were here today if he would include the mentally ill, the depressed, the abused, the homeless, the fearful.

If you’ve been any of these my guess is you don’t just do nothing when you have an opportunity. If you’ve been in prison, or hungry, or a stranger you have a heart for those who suffer the same.

Some of you know I have a side job at the Salt Lake Running Company, a running specialty store. In our largest store on 700 East there is a woman who parks in our lot and regularly walks over to where some homeless people often gather. She walks over with bags of sandwiches and other quick access food. She does this most days. I have talked with her and she does it because she grew up in Europe, and she remembers the hunger she felt when her country was occupied by the Germans during World War II.

The one thing all of these people that Jesus’ lists have in common is that they are in need. They are all vulnerable. The one thing those whom Jesus calls “blessed of the Father” and “righteous” have in common is they all did something to help them. They came with food, drink, clothing, welcome, care.

“Now wait a second, pastor. Aren’t we saved by grace? Works don’t make us right with God. I can’t earn God’s acceptance. Let’s get straight on this. Don’t start preaching works to me.”

Yes, in Ephesians we read that it is by grace we have been saved through faith and that this is not our own doing but a gift of God. But the next thing it says is that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared to be our way of life.[1] God wants our way of life to be one of good works. We aren’t saved by grace to spend it on ourselves in apathy but we are saved for a life that does good for God.

In the book of Galatians Paul writes that the only thing that counts is faith working through love.[2] Our faith in Christ is made effective through love and that is about what we do toward and for other people. Faith is lived. It shows in our actions. It is heard through our words. It is expressed in love.

Jesus cannot stand a Christianity that is insensitive to injustice, poverty, or any other way where people created in his image are beaten down. Maybe we don’t agree with them. Maybe we don’t understand them. Maybe we have issues with their lifestyle. Maybe we have a hard time with them but be careful because they are still in the image of God.

A Christ-centered spirituality will always show love to those who are the “least.” For Jesus, faith expresses itself through love or it is not faith.[3]

Jesus didn’t say we have to do big and impressive stuff. He doesn’t say you have to feed hundreds of people at a time. He didn’t say you have to provide a full wardrobe to that person. He didn’t say you are responsible for making them well.

In this parable Jesus honors the little stuff. It’s whatever you did. Did you bring food to the food drive? Did not welcome that person who happens to be from another country and has moved into your neighborhood? Did you do see that young person who made some bad decisions and is in jail now?

It’s not the speakers or healers or miracle workers or book writers who he highlights. No, it is those who do these basic, mundane, unflashy ministries of feeding, giving drink, welcoming, clothing, going to the hospitals and prisons.

Jesus says even if we feed, give drink to or care for just one.

Mother Teresa, who knew more about this than I do, once said to just be faithful in the little practices of love. She said, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.”[4]

But here’s what I want us to get this morning, Jesus said whatever you did for one of the least of these you did it to me. The least of these. No, they weren’t attractive, successful or applauded by the world. In fact, they were often overlooked and devalued.

And when you did it to them you did that to me. Not “it’s like or as if you did it to me” but in fact, “you did it to me.” Very directly.

Jesus once said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Pay attention with whom Jesus identifies himself in the Gospels. Children can often be right at the top of the list of the least of these. And Jesus equates himself with them. Is Vacation Bible School really an opportunity to welcome Jesus in this church? Every Sunday we can welcome Jesus when we welcome children.

King Jesus says, “I was in those hungry, thirsty, sick people.” In fact, Jesus calls them brothers and sisters of mine. They are family. They belong to the King. He wholeheartedly identifies with him. And that’s what is so amazing.

The righteous say, “We had no idea.” Jesus in these people. The least of these.

One of the ways we will find our Lord is in people. Be aware of God in people. Be aware of him in people all around you, everyday.

Oh yes, when it is someone of importance, fame or influence we would be right there with whatever they needed. If the Queen of England showed up at your door (and I have no idea why she would but just work with me here), or if it was some famous athlete or entertainer wouldn’t we be attentive?

Well, if it was Jesus what would we do? And in this parable Jesus is saying, “Well here is where you can find me.”

To walk by sight isn’t enough. We also have to walk by faith as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians. And walking by faith is looking for and seeing God. Faith allows us to see what and who matters in the heart of God. Those who are invisible or seen as problematic or a nuisance or different God sees clearly.[5]

In fact, he may be in them. Be aware of God in the least of these.

Mother Teresa also once said, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”

[1] Ephesians 2:8,10 [2] Galatians 5:6 [3] Dale Bruner, Gospel of Matthew, pt. 2 [4] Come Be My Light, p.34 [5] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, p.77

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