The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Jesus, ooey-gooey, and The Onion (Sermon of Nov 23)

with 5 comments

Jesus paints the end of time over and over in the runup to Matthew’s version of passion week.  But, whew! The implications of these stories are startlingly controversial.

He tells of a great sorting of people (Matthew 25:31-46).  Goyim —gentiles—people, perhaps, like me.  The method of his sort, though, I never heard in Sunday School.

He's an Author and Homeless i...

He explains his choice to the group invited into his “kingdom:”

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

“Say what?” they respond.  “We never saw you like that.”

His answer?

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me-you did it to me.

Huh.  Wonder what that means.  To him?

Don Jail

Now the second group, whom he says are “good for nothing but the fires of hell.” And why?

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Say what?” they respond.  “We never saw you like that.”

His answer?

Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me-you failed to do it to me.

The “goats” go off to their doom, the sheep to their reward.  The end.

But wait, this is going to get very strange.

So the Goyim —the nations—are being sorted, and what’s the deciding factor?  Simple:  How I loved people who suffered.  Like the second half of what he’d said chapters earlier when asked about the most important commandment:

… ‘love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’

To both groups, he adds a surprise:  You did it (or failed to do it) “to me.”

Question (and you should know, it’s a trick question):  Which group saw Jesus Christ as they served?

The sheep, right?  Nope.  The goats?  Nope again.  Did you notice that neither group understood what they were doing?

And the two groups’ startled responses are subtly different.

The sheep:  When did we see you and serve?

The goats:  When did we see you and not serve?

Sounds like the sheep may be thinking:  “We did it, but not to you. But it wasn’t heroic. We did it because people needed it. That’s just what we do.”

The Merciful Samaritan

Image via Wikipedia

Reminds me of the Cornelius story.  They would think him not credible because he’s a gentile, but he’s known for his gifts to the poor, in Acts 10. Or Dorcas (they’d think her not credible because she’s a woman), likewise, Acts 9:36.  Or Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan – brought up because someone wanted to know just how serious Jesus really was about this loving your neighbor stuff, and Jesus used someone of a faith they despised as the good guy in a story about helping a mugged traveler.  Then, he used respected people of their own faith as the bad guys in the story – the ones who wouldn’t help.  So the bad guy turns out to be the good guy, and the good guys turn out to be the bad guys.

Back to the parable:  The goats seem to be thinking: “We didn’t ever see you, so there was no need to do it.  We were looking for you, and when we didn’t see you we figured we’d better get busy being holy and we weren’t about to stop for people who should have known better than to get into such fixes.”

Neither group saw Jesus in the faces of the poor.  Neither had special spiritual vision (as far as they knew, anyway).  But one group served; the other did not.

So, here’s the point:  Jesus judges the nations on their care for the poor.

Fair enough?  And here’s the point I’d like to make from this story:

We don’t believe it.

Whaddya mean?

Notice anything missing in these stories of God’s judgment?  Here’s the end, the great division of the nations into joy or doom, and—are you ready for this?—nowhere is faith in Christ mentioned!  Sola fide, Jesus!  Did you forget?

In fact, nothing about being born again, nor Sunday worship, nor prayer, nor baptism, nor communion. All good, all important – but when Jesus stands only days from the cross and he tells about judgment for one last time, that which divides the sheep from the goats, the flames from the kingdom, is one thing: Did I give my life to responding to the needs of people who suffered?

Would you know, looking at the church, that that was what really mattered?

I was privileged to work for Honeywell Information Systems a couple of decades ago,

Honeywell International, Inc.

Image via Wikipedia

and Wang Laboratories.  We’d go to top-notch meetings in Boston or Phoenix or Chicago, and we’d learn our products, be inspired, hear great stories.  And as we flew home, there was no doubt in our minds what it was that we were to be doing when we got back to the office.

I suspect that if they had run it like we do Christian gatherings, we would have sung songs about how wonderful it was to be a Honeywell employee (when once we were unemployed), and then gone home with not a clue as to what they expected us to do.

Can we look at our worship and come away with a sense that our group’s big thing is caring for humans who suffer?  We’ve seen it in Jesus – nearly every single chapter, sooner or later, he’d get back to caring for human needs.  And now he’s used it to define ultimate success or failure.

Consider our songs of worship as a measure of what matters to us.  Here are some titles and first lines.  See if they reflect this passion for dishonored sufferers Jesus has been preaching about:

  1. “How beautiful!”
  2. “You are my hiding place.”
  3. “You are here, among us.”
  4. “Jesus, you are the one, gives me hope when the day is done.”
  5. I’m trading my sorrows.”
  6. “We want a new passion for Jesus – one that will burn in our hearts, like never before.”
  7. Open the eyes of my heart, Lord – I want to see you” [especially amusing, given today’s gospel story about how the good guys were the ones who served without seeing]
  8. “I’m here, to meet with you. Come and meet with me.”
  9. “Lord, I lift your name on high – Lord I love to sing your praises” [why?] “I’m so glad you’re in my life – I’m so glad you came to save us.”  [I’m so glad I work for Honeywell]
  10. “You-ou are, forever my friend.”
  11. “This is the air I breathe – your holy presence, living in me . . . and I’m lost without You.”
  12. “Every move I make I make in you, you make me move Jesus.”
  13. “As the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after thee.”

Nope.  They’re about ooey-gooey with Jesus, as if no one on earth existed.  And lest we get snobbish about modern Christian music, remember that that the songs in the hymnal are no more world-focused.  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. [As if the next line were I’m on my way to heav’n I know, so I’ll let others be.]

The inestimable delight of sensing God’s nearness that our music reflects is a wonderful thing.  But we skipped dinner and went straight for the dessert.  What’s going to happen with that kind of diet?

Some songs are a bit helpful in this main point: Everlasting God has “you’re the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need” (it at least recognizes that God has this passion).  And The Servant Song:  “Brother, let me be your servant,” at least expands its world-view to include two of us. The Reconciliation Song: “where pride and prejudice shall cease” is useful, but the theme of the song is really about loving in the church—hardly the crowd Jesus pursued. There is a Louder Shout to Come recognizes God’s passion for every nation, but it represents us as mere happy bystanders to it.

But wait – didn’t Jesus picture himself standing at the end of time dividing the gentiles sheep from goats based upon how they cared for wounded people?  Would you think that would at least appear somewhere in our hymnology?  What is up here?

Could it be that the church has become so ensconced in pushing its own theology that it no longer fearlessly represents the call of Jesus himself?  Could our theological and cultural preferences have robbed us of our ability to reflect Jesus’s main preoccupation?

It appears to be invisible to much of the church.  Ironically, the world sees the contradiction rather plainly.  Here’s a satire from The Onion (hardly a theological journal!)

I’m Not One Of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians

By Janet Cosgrove

Everybody has this image of “crazy Christians” based on what they hear in the media, but it’s just not true. […]

Like me. I may be a Christian, but it’s not like I’m one of those wacko “love your neighbor as yourself ” types. […]

We’re not all into “turning the other cheek.” We don’t spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with extremist notions like “righteousness” and “justice.”

My faith in the Lord is about the pure, simple values:


Image by smadness via Flickr

raising children right, saying grace at the table, … and curing homosexuals. That’s all. Just the core beliefs. You won’t see me going on some frothy-mouthed tirade about being a comfort to the downtrodden. […]

I believe in the basic teachings of the Bible and the church. Divorce is forbidden. […] If a man lieth down with another man, they shall be taken out and killed. […] You know, basic common sense stuff. […]

Some of us are just trying to be good, honest folks who believe the unbaptized will roam the Earth for ages without the comfort of God’s love when Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior returns on Judgment Day to whisk the righteous off to heaven. […]

When it comes down to it, all we want is to see every single member of the human race convert to our religion or else be condemned by a jealous and wrathful God to suffer an eternity of agony and torture in the Lake of Fire!

I hope I’ve helped set the record straight, and I wish you all a very nice day! God bless you!

She sees it.

So, there you go.  Jesus Christ, in a final parable, tells his followers that heaven-and-hell judgment of the nations rests upon on how well they cared for the poor and dishonored people in their care.

Do we believe it?  Or do one’s theological and cultural preferences trump the words of Jesus?

More puzzling yet: Where do we go from here?

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5 Responses

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  1. Good thought, Joe. Seems like we already know plenty worth working on, sometimes!


    December 11, 2008 at 7:49 pm

  2. Thanks for this, Monty. Funny how we need reminded more often than taught.

    Joe Hayes

    December 9, 2008 at 1:32 pm

  3. […] Jesus, ooey-gooey, and The Onion (Sermon of Nov 23) […]

  4. Kinda like True Conservative’s work in that way, maybe: something beautiful has been usurped and morphed into something it never was intended to be, and we hope to make the obvious case for what it really is. Thanks, friend! I’m pitching your blog every time somebody mentions economics to me! Keep it up!


    December 3, 2008 at 7:40 pm

  5. Great post, Monte. It reminds me of a realization I had back in my teenage years. Reading the great moral minds–Jesus, Plato/Socrates, Moses, etc. et. al.–over and over we see that the dee-sciples *just don’t get it.*

    In the Crito (or is it the Phaedo? it’s been a while), Socrates is getting ready to drink the hemlock, and during that long night goes through a dialogue with his disciples explaining how the soul *must* be immortal, and that they shouldn’t worry about his earthly self. It’s very touching, how *he* consoles *them.*

    He finishes his proof, and they say, “Yeah, okay Socrates, but, uh, whadda you want us to do with you after you’re dead?”

    I envision him looking at them in bemused resignation. “Whatever you want,” he says, “as long as you can catch me.”

    The dee-sciples never seem to catch on.

    But you do. Thanks for this post.

    Steve Roth

    December 3, 2008 at 11:28 am

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