In the Name of our God who is all kindness, Christ who reigns in justice, and the Holy Spirit who recreates our every moment. Amen. I was about to leave the small neighborhood market on Friday, a convenient store where I often shop for groceries when I heard a voice call out, “Father Nicholas!” Wearing no signs of my clerical garb, it’s always a little surprising to be recognized in a public place. It turns out that it was a former parishioner whom I had not seen in several years. Her husband had died in that time, her sons were in their twenties, working and living on their own (I first met them when they were ten and thirteen!) What a poignant reminder of aging! On my way home I mused about how nice it was to see an old friend but even nicer to be recognized. Truth be told, don’t we all like to be recognized by others, especially when it happens out of the blue and so unexpectedly? And I found myself thinking that this Gospel we heard is all about recognition: how Jesus recognizes us as sheep or goat and how we recognize him as he appears in the disguise of the least of the members of God’s family. It's a challenging cosmic vision we find in Matthew’s text. It’s kind of like mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes but I don’t like lumps. I want them to go down smoothly but, like lumpy ones, not everything does. At the heart of the Gospel, at the core of what Jesus has to say to us, there are sometimes lumps. “When did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or not? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? Or didn’t? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
Answer: “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.”
So, we are confronted with a Gospel that raises uncomfortable questions. Is this a judgment day story? Is this what we face in the end? When did we see you, Jesus, in any of these dire circumstances? And, then there is the big lump in this passage, how did we respond? Do we even remember? I don’t think this is a story about judgment and condemnation. I think it is a story about insight and encouragement and recognition. I think it has much more to do with the present—how we will live if we truly believe that Christ is among us—than about the future and what God will do with us. I believe that Jesus tells this story to challenge us to see life from God’s perspective rather than from the perspective of the world.
There is an Irish legend about a king, who had no children to succeed him on the throne. So, he had his messengers post signs in every town and village of his kingdom inviting qualified young men to apply for an interview with the king. Two qualifications, especially, were stressed: the person must have a deep love for God and a deep love for his neighbor.
A young man saw one of the signs and felt a kind of inner voice telling him to apply for an interview. But he was so poor that he didn't have decent clothes to wear, nor did he have any money to buy provisions for the long journey to the king's castle. So he decided to beg for the clothes and provisions he needed. After a month of travel, one day the young man caught sight of the king's castle, sitting high on a hill in the distance.
But he also caught sight of a poor old beggar sitting by the side of the road. The beggar held out his hands and pleaded for help. "I'm hungry and cold," he said in a weak voice. "Could you give me something warm to wear and something nourishing to eat?"
The sight of the beggar moved the young man. He stripped off his warm outer clothes and exchanged them for the tattered old coat of the beggar and gave the beggar most of the provisions he had been carrying in his backpack. Then, somewhat hesitantly, he walked on to the castle in tattered clothes and without enough food for his return trip.
When the young man arrived at the castle, guards led into see the king. He bowed low before the throne.
When he straightened up, the young man could hardly believe his eyes. He said to the king. "You were the beggar beside the road."
"That's right," said the king.
"Why did you do this to me?" asked the young man.
The king said, "I had to find out if you really did love God and neighbor." And then the king told him he had proved himself and was the new heir.
Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” In other words, you are the heirs. We may look around to see if he is really talking to us? When did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?
Yes, we may find some lumps in this Gospel. We may feel more like goats one day and more like sheep another. But we’re going to make it. It may be hard to believe, and it may only happen by that wonderful free gift called grace. But we will get there because Jesus believes in us. And, even if we miss his disguise, Jesus will always recognize us.