This is a difficult story in a culture where the idea of heaven and hell has almost collapsed. There is still a belief among many people in an after-life, at least in some form or other. But the notion that it is based on reward or punishment in this life is difficult for many to swallow and particularly difficult when it centres on having to believe particular Christian dogma. It is also sobering to realise that more people in Australia believe in UFOs than believe in a place called hell. Interestingly there is a relatively higher percentage of people who believe in heaven, but I suspect that is a more pleasant destination and a more palatable belief to hold.
However, this story does have a kind of logic to it when it is applied as an ethic or a call to moral behaviour. It could be an extension of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". But the narrative is really a different way of looking at the world from how we view it in the 21st century. There is no three-tiered universe with heaven above, the underworld below and us in the middle. But that doesnt mean this parable has no relevance for us today; quite on the contrary. There are at least two levels of this narrative that can intersect with our lives today. First is the presence of the Christ hidden in unexpected places. And secondly, the way we treat the other is central to the Christian Way, or as I began to say a few weeks ago, the Christian Practice.
Taking a different View of this Story
Some may know that in liturgical churches this is Christ the King Sunday. In recent years that kingship has been seen as a servant king without the majesty of crown, throne and robe. This story really belongs to a theology that is counter-cultural and like many of the parables turns the common world on its head.
This story stands in contrast to the medieval art that depicts Christ the King as the ruler of the world the known universe, in fact. While such art remains a thing of value and beauty, it is a travesty of the teaching of Jesus who ruled not with a sceptre or an iron fist, but solely by the law of love.
Of course the story read this morning could easily be understood as the king judging humanity from a throne the seat of judgment until we read at a deeper level and recognise that this king, this one who is called the Christ, is found not in the royal courts, but among the needy, homeless, hungry, imprisoned and so forth. He is in fact one of us. Ahh!! but not easily recognised. In fact, his presence is hidden. And all of us are the Christ . Let me say that again . We are all the Christ. Now that may not be the way we have heard the presence of the anointed one presented very often, but it is very clear when the Apostle Paul writes:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in Gods son, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20) And again, There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The often neglected mystical tradition of Christian faith has always centred on the notion that the Spirit of Christ, the Christian way of life, finds its origin and its ongoing maintenance in the presence of the Holy One who is hidden in all of life and even in the very nature of life itself.
Now I am using the term Christ in the biggest possible way that I can. The Christ is more than the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is not Jesus surname, as some seem to use it. Some may not agree with me on this point, but I see the Christ as the spirit of Wisdom in all of life. Therefore the Christ the Cosmic Christ can be found in all places and at all times and even in religions other than Christianity. The famous Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book titled Living Christ, Living Buddha. And I have just finished reading a book titled Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, written by Paul F. Knitter, a Professor of Christian Theology at Union Seminary in New York. Now this isnt an advertisement for Buddhism. I am very happy to stay in my Christian faith. It is more to illustrate that this Christ Way is much bigger that we ever thought and perhaps not as clear as we were first told.
The story from Matthew can be interpreted on a macro level. That is, there is a demand to care for the needy in our society. And that truth should not be lost. But it is also reminding us that the demonstration of compassion toward someone in need is compassion toward the founder of our faith and of our way of life. "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."
And it is also lived on a micro level. That is, we can show compassion to those in need who are close to us.
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, 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.
Now I want to press this passage into the idea that Christian faith is not just a belief system, but a Practice, a way of life, and can be interpreted at differing levels:
Someone suggested that if you practised a couple of these each day you would never have a bad day in your life. I read this story this week which I enjoyed:
A group of students came to their Rabbi. "Rabbi, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must give thanks as much for the bad days as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?"
The Rabbi replied, "Go to Rabbi Zusya. He will have an answer for you."
The students undertook the journey. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.
When they entered, they saw Rabbi Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. "Welcome, strangers!" he said. "Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!"
"No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rabbi told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to give thanks as much for the bad days as for the good?"
Rabbi Zusya laughed. "Me? I have no idea what youre talking about." He shook his head in puzzlement. "You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day I am overawed by the gift of being alive."
Well thats maybe a little overstated. But we dont need the threat of reward and punishment to practise these loving activities, because they are life-giving activities and practices in themselves. My grandmother, the wisest woman I have ever met, with a grade 4 education, would say, "Virtue brings its own reward".
And you know where we can start? I suggest right here among our friends, acquaintances and families. And even the newcomers who walk through the doors of this church, or the café or the gallery or the John McCrae Centre or the kindergarten or .. You fill in the blank. I dont always treat you or others as if they were the hidden Christ. But I know I would have a richer and a more abundant life if I did. It can be easier to have noble intentions of helping the needy whom we never meet, rather than the needy who are the Christ in our midst.