by Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot for The Christian Citizen
Appropriately, Matthew 25:31-46 is the Gospel lectionary reading for Christ the King Sunday (observed this year on November 22, 2020). On a day when we are just at the cusp of observing Advent, we hear a text that reminds us who we follow: the Christ who will know both sheep and goats, praising and indicting with a finality that leaves the reader with very “real world” choices about how they connect faith and personal responsibility together.
After a particularly difficult election season and the disruptions of 2020 that have shaken our trust in most anything, I am hopeful Matthew’s vision of the final judgment is taken to heart: as a rehearsal for what is to come in God’s promised End, and how a church lives in the here and now.
Read and proclaimed rightly, this one Scripture brings together why we claim Jesus gladly and why we should lose sleep at night. In this text, we encounter a story that tells of “final things,” a text parabolic and apocalyptic in tone. It is a foretaste of where the final judgment will come to bear on the world, right down to a personal evaluation, based on one’s faithfulness in serving those who are in need.
One of the great themes and threads of the biblical witness is most certainly the call to care for those in need, especially the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those whom others (in society or sadly, among some religious groups) have despised. If we take such texts seriously, the followers of Jesus have a great deal of work to do to fulfill the call of Matthew 25.
We know too well that we need the Gospel witness proclaimed in the world. On its own, humanity has tendencies to create imperfect economic and social systems where some are inevitably left by the wayside. Our ways, left unchecked, privilege those who gallop toward the great “prize” that society and their prevailing economies promise, leaving many on an unlevelled and unjust playing field.
Matthew’s story of “the sheep and the goats” draws a picture without sentiment or preference to your national status, tax bracket, or even your denominational affiliation. You cannot find your place in the line of sheep without taking seriously these criteria for connecting one’s faith with the needs of the world.
As people are judged, the criteria of caring for others are given equally to those in this line and those in the other one. We live out our lives with choices to be made: do we look out for those who hunger, those who need shelter, those who are otherwise invisible?
Such thinking undercuts so much of what passes for the priorities of many congregations, as we fritter away our time and attention on our brick and mortar, attendance statistics, and getting our fill of religion just on “Sunday mornings.” If we take the gospel seriously, then we begin asking hard questions of what it means to be an individual Christian as well as a gathering of Christians living out the faith.
We begin to let the needs of the most vulnerable in our surrounding community and within our own fellowship begin to inform, and indeed set priorities for who we are as a people of God, following Jesus, whose Messiahship was not limited to a cross and talk of atonement and salvation. Jesus lived fully in the midst of the world, reaching out to those in need, advocating for the dignity and visibility of those who are impoverished and alienated.
In turn, we ourselves are transformed, living more aware and unsettled by the basic human needs of those around us. As we let this teaching sink into our lives, permeating how we view the world and our place in it, we strip away the pretense of what the world tells us is the way to go.
Then we may start along a different path, one that draws us closer to the needs of others and beyond the self-centered orientation innate within humanity.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash