The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 22, 2020
Karl Barth was once a rock star in the world of theology. One day, while riding a bus in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, a tourist climbed aboard and sat next to him. The two started to chat. Upon learning the man was visiting Basel for the first time, Barth asked him if there was anything he particularly hoped to do in the city. “I’d love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth,” he said. “Do you know him?” “Well, as a matter of fact, I do,” Karl Barth replied with a twinkle in his eye. “For I give him a shave every morning!” Not paying his seat mate much attention, the man missed the joke and who he was with. At the next stop he jumped off to run to tell his wife he’d met Karl Barth’s personal barber!
Sometimes we don’t know with whom we’re interacting. Why, sometimes we interact with Jesus and don’t know it. If we pay attention to everyday people and open our heart in love to bless them – particularly if they need our help – we open our heart to the Lord of love and encounter Him even if we’re unaware of the fact.
We often fail to bear in mind the opportunities we have to meet up with Jesus. Yet, even if we are unaware of the possibility, our gracious and generous response to others can always occasion our meeting up with Him.
A good way to engage with our blessed Lord is to engage with people to bless them. For in His physical absence from earth, His spiritual presence remains with its needy ones; and by relating with them in love, we can relate with Him in truth. When we serve our neighbors, we are graced with His visitation. Conversely, to be apathetic toward, and distant from, them is to be apathetic toward, and distant from, Him.
In today’s scripture, Jesus paints a picture of the Last Judgment. He will sit on “the throne of his glory”. “All the nations” – that is, every people group and every individual in it – “will be gathered before him; and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” He will judge in which group each belongs by the same standard in every case: by how they treat those He calls “the least of these who are members of my family”.
Who are they? Jesus refers to them as “these” – that is, the folks He’s just been talking about, folks in need of what most anyone could provide if they were of a mind to: something to eat, something to drink, something to wear to stay warm, or just a visit when they, due to sickness or imprisonment, can’t get out.
Jesus refers to these as “members of my family”. That doesn’t here mean Christians, but all human beings. For back when Jesus spoke these words, Christianity had not yet had the chance to go to ends of the earth and make disciples in every nation – and thus most people in the world had no Christians with whom to interact. The universality of whom Jesus wants us to take care of matches the universality of whom Jesus cares about. Everyone we meet is a member of His family in the sense that they are folks whose well-being matters to Him as if they were a brother or sister of His, folks whose welfare He identifies with so deeply He takes how we treat them personally – that is, as if we were so acting toward Him.
Jesus also specifies these folks as “the least” of His family members. This doesn’t mean that He will judge us exclusively by how we treat only the least, but by how we treat even the least. In other words, what’s crucial to Him is our giving what help we can, however modest it may be, to any and all we can!
Whether we belong with the sheep who are “blessed” and enter into “eternal life”, or with the goats who are “cursed” and “go away into eternal punishment”, depends on whether we make the effort to do whatever we can for whomever we can.
As much as anyone, Mother Teresa of Calcutta took all this to heart. She believed she served Jesus as He came to her, in her words, “disguised” in the garb of everyday folks. She saw herself engaging with Jesus when she took care of whomever He sent her way to help. While longing for heaven where she could be fully with Jesus, she relished being with Him on earth as she loved as He loved, helped as He helped and gave as He gave.
We too, in His physical absence, can know His spiritual presence as we meet neighbors’ immediate needs and fix the systems that keep making them needy.
In his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller asks us to imagine a “sequel” to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who models meeting neighbors’ needs. What if, weeks later, the Samaritan traveled the same road and again came across a mugged man needing medical care – and then the next week it happened a third time? And, after that, a fourth and fifth time? What if every time he walked from Jerusalem to Jericho he came across the same situation? What should he do then? Wouldn’t common sense suggest that he love many individuals by addressing the larger social issues that bring about the repeated reoccurrence of evil in the first place?
To experience the presence of Jesus in His absence is always to help the needy right in front of us; but, when we see many waylaid in the same way, it is also to deal with the underlying conditions that create the same crisis again and again! So we love Jesus by serving the people before us and by changing societal systems at large. This work of love and justice rewards us by bringing us close to Jesus here and now and forever in the hereafter!