NEW YEAR’S EVE, DECEMBER 31, 2006
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and in prison and go to visit you?” The wing will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (NIV)
THOUGHTS ABOUT JUDGING AND PLEADING
Whether we read it again or viewed a film version of it again this year, Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol is so much a part of our Western understanding of the meaning of our annual Christmas celebration. At the heart of the story is what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge. Three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve, challenging him to think of what he has done and what lies in store for him. With the final apparition, Scrooge realizes what his life has been like and pleads for another opportunity. He repents of his failures, having heard the judgement against him, and is given a second chance.
There is something powerful and moving about this story because each of us knows at the end of the year that there is much for which we ourselves need to repent, and much that could be different if we were to change our attitudes and actions. The text for this evening asks us to focus on this very thing. Jesus tells a parable which points out that in the end, we will be judged not on what we have acquired in life, attractive as that is to all of us, but on what we have shared with others. There will be a reckoning and those who hoarded will be separated from those who gave of themselves, just as a shepherd divides the goats from the sheep.
Every world religion has a similar story, a reminder to the world’s affluent that care should be taken for those who are less fortunate. The cadences develop gradually, as we are reminded of the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Even if we have never seen many of these people face to face, we know of their plight and the statistics are staggering. Names like Darfur and Rwanda, words like Tsunami and Katrina, places like Abu Graib and Guantanamo are known to all of us. Perhaps the tragedies are not worse in our time than they have been in previous generations, but we are confronted with them more visually because of the cinema, the television and the print media. Who are these people? Why do they come to haunt us on New Year’s Eve at the end of another year of God’s grace? What do they want from us?
The parable tells us that these people are Jesus, and what we do to them, we do to him. The parable says that what we do to the 32,000 children who die from starvation each day in our world, we do to Jesus. What a horrible reality!
I. Learning how to accept the problems we ourselves have caused.
It’s one thing to feel called to show mercy to those who are disenfranchised, to those who, like Jesus himself, finally found themselves at the extremities of human thoughtlessness and hatred. But let’s take the matter a step farther and ask how these people ended up in their respective plights.
Elie Wiesel gives his own interpretation of what happened in the lives of Cain and Abel in his book, Messengers of God. In a sense, the two represent the two groups, the goats and the sheep. Cain desperately wants to talk to someone, to try to understand his distance from God, to have a brother who really cares. But Abel is too busy with his own appreciation for acceptance, his reverie in piety. He has no time. It’s a common theme in the parables of Jesus. There are always those who don’t care about the other and have to bear some responsibility for driving the brother or sister to actions we find it all too easy to judge. Wiesel says that the Cains of the world become what they are because of us—because we had no time to listen, to understand, to reconcile, to negotiate, to appeal.
We ignore people because we too have our burdens. We reject pleas for help and understanding because we don’t recognize the rights and the dignity of others. We go to wars all too quickly because we think that bombs and bullets can silence alienation rather than the quiet striving for brotherhood and justice.
Such a challenge may seem bigger than we can grasp. Not only are we to give ourselves to those in need, but also we are to recognize than in many ways the needs which envelop others have been caused by us. Our politics may assure us that we battle for freedom in Iraq, but tell that to the countless thousands who have lost innocent victims in this struggle. Our sale of pharmaceuticals to impoverished people in third world countries may assure us that we are serving the poor, but the cost we charge may deny the buyer the ability to provide necessities for his/her family. The loneliness which a relative may feel in a terminal illness may have less to do with the fear of death than with our own fear at not knowing what to say should we take the time to visit in the ICU. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time for reflection, much in the spirit of Yom Kippur in Judaism and Ramadan in Islam. There are many personal challenges we can face as we, like Scrooge, ask about alternatives, new opportunities, and a second chance. Yet there is more in our Christian faith than this, as we come to understand who goes the distance to set things to rights. The story about Christ’s intercession assures that we are not left to ourselves.
II. Learning how to be empowered by the one who cares for us
Fred Niedner, in an article called “The Searching Judge,” gives us another side of this story. When Jesus as judge, separates the sheep from the goats, he writes, we discover that some of those among the goats are people we have known. They are brothers and sisters, friends and relatives, colleagues and clients whom we at times listened to, but did not really hear. Their plights were sometimes visible, but we had other fish to fry. They had real needs but so did we. Desperate they found themselves doing what they should not have done. Troubled, we wonder what we could have done differently. Who will go to them, Niedner says, we now ask the judge? “It’s too late,” says the judge, “your opportunity is past.”
Bewildered the sheep look across the chasm at the goats, wondering what can be done. “Then you will have to go,” they say to the judge of all. “You cannot leave them where they are.” Remembering that he himself had taught them to think like this, he cannot ignore them. He therefore enters the valley of the shadow, crosses and conquers the desert of temptation and climbs Golgatha’s hill to rescue the one here and the two there who belong to the ninety and nine. In Niedner’s words, he becomes the shepherd who won’t give up, the shepherd king with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head. It is a lowly and dirty job, but he will never give up in his quest to seek and to save the lost, to find those hidden in hovels and prisons. It is the other side of his role as judge of the world, the role of the searching shepherd whose claim on us is shaped by love.
This is the fascinating part of Christianity which takes us beyond the legitimate guilt we feel for having failed to be what humanly we have every right to become. Why is it we ask that so many would be willing to be generous if they could know they were involved in something of value for which they might even be recognized? “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or a stranger, or sick or in prison and did not help you?”
“Why if we had known it were you, we would have done something!!! If we had known this were a matter of importance, a tribute for a king; if we had known that we might receive a plaque on the wall or a name in the newspaper, we surely would have acted!” Isn’t that how it is with us too?
He comes to us in the lowliest of the low, and we don’t even realize that he’s there. One of the touching stories I’ve experienced in recent years has to do with a young man who saw Christ in ways others failed to. He was a student I taught in a seminary in Russia. He had been in prison for 7 years, but now wanted to share Christ’s love with others. He was dismissed from the seminary for some indiscretion, which I know nothing about, and the church officials cut off all ties with him. But knowing what he had experienced and knowing the love of Christ, he decided to serve as a lay chaplain to the prisoners of Siberia. Dying of AIDS with no available medication, cut off from contact with their relatives, devoid of any kinds of toiletries or newspaper contacts with the outside world, the prisoners are often at the end of their hope. Yet Slava, whose name means “Salvation,” visits them regularly to bring them helpful things that he collects and to share the good news that they are appreciated, understood and loved. When their sentences have been served, he tries to find them jobs in the outside world, a service no Russian agency offers. No other sheep in the official church does this lowly caring, but this lone goat can’t stop sharing the claim that God has on him.
This is the remarkable thing that happens to people like you and me when we recognize that although we have all too often failed to be what God has called us to be, the searching shepherd never ceases to reach out to us. We are loved although we are unlovable. We are empowered although we lack the will. We are sent out to others even though we are preoccupied with ourselves. We are offered a land of beginning again.
At the crest of the old year, we look back upon our missed opportunities and failures, at the many graces we have experienced in these last 365 days, and we celebrate the second chance we now have to find those who are waiting for us. “You have to go,” the searching shepherd tells us. “You have to claim them for me. You are my hands and voice and love in this world.” And just as he pleads with us, we plead for those others who have often lost their way because of us. “We have to go, Lord. Now. Send us. Empower us. Give us the joy and the courage to love others as if they were you.”
Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus