Let’s just say this from the very start: this is a difficult text.
First of all, the language of the whole passage could not possibly be more masculine. Son of Man, Father, kingdom, lord, king, him, him him, etc., like they were trying to use every possible male word available. We have a commitment to inclusive language in this congregation, and we often change pronouns and de-gender our God language to reflect a less patriarchal vision image of God, but that doesn’t always work when reading scripture. In this case there aren’t good ways to substitute the words without losing the force and coherence of the text. So I’m going to ask us to bracket that a bit, and read this passage holding in our minds the fact that the Bible is a book written by men, in a culture even more patriarchal than our own, where all the references to power would have been references to men. We’re going to hear those masculine references in tension, receiving them for the meaning they held in that time, while resisting making maleness part of our definition of God or Christ.
The content of the passage is also challenging. We tend to use parts of this passage a lot: “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.” Those words form a foundation for much of the service that we do in the world, and how we see our call to live out our faith.
On the other hand, there’s that part about “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” which doesn’t sound much like the loving and forgiving God who is at the center of our theology.
The lectionary sticks this passage in here at a somewhat awkward time of the year. It turns out that the lectionary pays no attention to Thanksgiving at all, so this is the end of the year in churchland, and it’s supposed to be a big celebration. We’re singing all these great, victorious songs about the universal reign of Christ, and we get to use lyrics like “Potentate of Time!” which is my personal favorite – it’s coming, trust me. And then we have this reading about being thrown into eternal punishment, which isn’t really the kind of potentate I was hoping for.
Just to add another layer of complication to the celebration of this Sunday, it can feel peculiar and incongruous to proclaim the ultimate rule of Christ when so many people are suffering, when there’s so much injustice and so much seems to be going wrong in the world.
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew and this Reign of Christ celebration in the church year come at us all in a jumble, so it’s important for us to clear away the clutter and get at the main point.
The use of the title “king” in this passage is important, because “king” would have conjured up a particular image in the minds of Jesus’ audience – an image not all that different from the one it brings to mind for us. The maleness of this ruler has a point; the fact that it is a king and not a queen makes the intended image unmistakeable. Queens might be consorts or partners to power; there’s no question about what a king is supposed to be. A king is absolute. A king is wealthy, powerful, sits on a throne and dispenses judgment. A king would gather his subjects together and decide who would be punished and who would receive special favors, usually powerful lords who added to the king’s success and influence. The values of a king are the values of a throne room: strength, prosperity, hierarchy.
Now, this passage starts that way, with a king on a throne, separating out his subjects. But then there is a shift. “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.”
Confusion in the ranks! What kind of king would ever be hungry, or thirsty, or naked? The best thing about being a king is that you never want for anything! What kind of king doesn’t have a staff of doctors to tend to his needs? What kind of king is in prison? The king puts people in prison, he doesn’t go to prison.
Except this king.
This is a king who has gone hungry. Who has felt the parched longing of thirst. Who has gone without the basic safety and dignity of clothing. Who has been sick and untended. Who has been behind bars and alone. This is a most peculiar king, a king who is exactly the opposite of everything you’d expect a king to be.
Jesus sets up the contrast in order to demonstrate to his audience, his followers, that it will be a whole different ballgame to be a subject of this kind of ruler. We know how to be subjects of a normal king. We know how to respond to power and wealth. The hierarchy of economy and social privilege sets our roles for us when we’re operating under throne room values.
But this ruler doesn’t care if you can produce profits or pay proper attention to royalty or keep to your place in the hierarchy; they want to know to know how you respond to need and weakness. This monarch doesn’t care whether you show up in the throne room; they want to know if you were in the streets and at bedsides and in prisons.
As we consider what it means to live within the reign of Christ, to live with Christ as our ruler, it’s key that we keep in mind that this is not like any earthly ruler we have known. We expect the values of a throne and a royal court. But what we get instead are the values of a table – this table, the table where Jesus sat with the first disciples and shared a final meal.
This table is where we come over and over again to remember the values of the ruler we follow – not a king who glories in power and wealth, but a savior who meets us where we are, with food and drink to sustain us. Not a king who asks us to court success and influence, but a leader who invites us to sit with those who suffer, and to come together at table, welcoming most enthusiastically those who are in need.
Karl Barth once wrote, “It will be well with the community of Jesus if it has obviously done this, if it has been affected by the concrete miseries of the world, not passing by on the other side with haughty disdain, but being simply and directly human, with no excuses for the contrary. . . .Such is the question addressed to the community…What has all this had to do with the afflicted who as such are Jesus’ brethren? Has the community been first and foremost human in all that it has done?”
I find it fascinating what he says here, that our primary calling is to be fully and truly human. And that is the invitation of Christ’s table as well: to come together, to eat and drink these simple gifts, to enjoy one another, to treat all as equals, to be human together. And then to take that humanness out into the world and share it with all we meet, so that a piece of Christ’s reign is visible to everyone we encounter.
So today after we take communion, we will receive white stoles. Normally I’m the one who wears a stole, as a sign of the particular calling of a minister to preach, teach, and pastor. But we all have a calling to live as subjects of a very peculiar ruler. These white stoles serve as a reminder of what Christ asks of 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.” As we go into a world full of throne room values, we carry the values of a table, where we meet Christ, where we meet each other, and where we meet our full humanity.