Setting the Table for Christmas
Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
I tried this once. I was a new college student. I was a bit more idealistic than I am today. I decided I was personally going to take on the 'least of these' list. I figured I could purposefully do it all in a year if I put my mind to it and did it right. I knew, doing it by myself, I would have to be creative regarding how I did it. So I thought about the first one, “when I was hungry or thirsty you gave me something to eat or drink.” Up to this point I had worked and volunteered at food pantries before. I wanted my gift to be more personal and close. So, I transformed my music locker into a free vending machine. I purchased snacks and juice boxes and stacked my locker full. I removed the lock and on the front put, “Free, please take one.” Two weeks later my locker was empty. I even had a few fellow students thank me for giving the food and drink. Then I got hung up. I was terribly shy at the time and could not get past “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” My grand experiment failed before it ever truly got off the ground. The truth was, just by trying to accomplish the sheep and goats parable like it was a list, I had already failed.
I was guilty. Condemnation was mine. I caught myself in an action that was nice but ultimately did not mean anything. I was forcing something that wasn't made to be forced. (Although, we do it all the time.) It is when we act because we are supposed to, not because it is right. It is when we do a good deed but we are doing that deed not for the person but because it makes us feel good or it is social protocol. In some cases, acting in this way can do more harm than good because we are not trying to solve anything or really get to know anyone; we are just trying to get the problem out of the way.
There is a reason why God isn't following us around and telling us all the time what to do. It is like being told to apologize verses apologizing without being asked. Does an apology really mean anything when the person seeking it asks for it? I suppose it could in the right circumstances but usually? No. Apologies, like many things in life we want to be real. We don't want contrived or forced actions. That was what I was missing in my grand experiment. I wasn't being real; I was trying to force something that shouldn't be forced.
I told you I was guilty. Works that are real and good are innocent. I was guilty because my motivations were suspect. I was trying to analytically do something with my head which was supposed to be done with my heart. My actions towards others were not meant for the people I was trying to help. I was trying to do something for Jesus and in doing so the people I was 'helping' became a means to an end. I completely missed the meaning to the parable. I was guilty. Innocently doing good works lacks personal motivation. The people in the parable did not know they were doing something that would eventually help themselves. That is the key.
This is the Thursday before Thanksgiving. In a week and a half is the beginning of advent. If this year is anything like last year we have a packed holiday season ahead of us. Soon we will begin our process of preparing for the birth by lighting four candles: hope, love, joy and peace. For some, Christmas is already here. After all, anyone would be hard pressed to name the store that hasn't already begun to set up their Christmas decorations or begun to sell their Christmas wares. Maybe this scripture can invite us into the Christmas season, even if it is a week early.
The King tells those on his right, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Many of us will be with family this coming Thursday. Some of us may be anticipating this Thanksgiving while some might not be as excited. Family meals are interesting because you love the people you are sharing a meal with but you don't have to like them. You may not click with some family members the way you may with others. That's just life. You can please some of the people all of the time but you can't please all of the people even some of the time. Even with family this is true.
This scripture is about more than just our immediate and extended family. This scripture is about God's family. When dealing with God's family we should never assume who is or isn't a part of it. Also, this isn't about doing something for an elite member of God's family, however one would define what that would look like. It is clear this is for the 'least of these' which in and of itself difficult to define. In many ways, this is an undefinable set of qualifiers. The only one who would be able to judge whether we lived up to the standards set in this parable is God and ultimately that is the only one who should be judging.
A week and a half will begin our advent journey. This week let's pack for the trip. Let's celebrate Thanksgiving with not just our personal family but all of God's family. Let's practice innocent works this week as well. If we can authentically do that, we have something we can take with us into advent. Godly works can fit their way into all the themes of advent. Hope is meaningless if not backed up with action. Love invites not just the inner circle or the elite but everyone into its fold, because love is blind. Real joy is best seen through the fruit it produces. Peace is what happens when hope, love and joy are working in harmony together. See, if we can take this 'least of these' approach to God's family into advent we will have a truly wonderful Christmas. If we can take innocent works with us into the season we will have more than wrapped presents and shiny baubles on a tree. If we pack this scripture with us we will be prepared to understand what it means to be Christian.