Today’s gospel starts with a discussion of separation. In the vision of judgment Jesus describes, one people will be separated from another, and he compares them to the sheep and the goats. Using symbolism that appears repeatedly throughout scripture, the sheep are those who are blessed and obedient to God’s will—in this case, God’s will of radical generosity and care for others: feeding the hungry and providing drink for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison. Jesus’s vision makes it clear that he himself had been welcomed when the poor, the sick, and the outcast had been cared for.
Psychologically and sociologically speaking, the boundaries of our world usually progress from our own self, to our family, to our neighborhood, to our community, to our state, and to our nation. Some of us include other circles within this mental Venn diagram: our parish, our diocese, our denomination, and the Church overall, in the case of Episcopalians. It is a common occurrence in our culture to see a sharp separation between ourselves and others. This is nothing new.
Throughout scripture, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are dozens of laws and reminders to treat the strangers and the aliens among us with hospitality and compassion. Closer to home, there is Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In short, the answer was, “Not whom you expect.”
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves by being reminded that that neighborhood encompasses those we traditionally think of as rivals and enemies. We are called to care for those who seek our help. Again and again, we are called to break down the barriers that separate us in response to the vision of the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew likes to phrase it-- a unified humanity in a unified creation bound together in love to God and each other.
We are commanded in our gospel reading today to welcome the stranger, with dire consequences if we fail. Yet we seem to have more than enough problem welcoming our neighbor, much less the stranger among us. It seems modern society is more fractured than ever, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world—even among our countrymen there is so much contempt and denigration directed at those we have deemed different from us. If we can’t love our neighbors, how can we respond to the stranger and the alien among us?
We are not seeing many good results regarding the increasing crisis along the US southern border, where, in just the last nine months, 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed in detention while seeking asylum from violence in their homelands. We have read reflections on this crisis in just the last few weeks from our Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention, and the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, to name but a few.
But the challenge of care for those who are outcast is certainly not limited to the United States. In Israel, we have the ongoing bloodshed between Hamas and the Israeli government in Gaza. Earlier this spring, anti-immigrant candidates in Europe received a shocking amount of support in European Union elections, buoyed by a backlash against a surge of refugees from Europe and Africa. In Africa, refugees flee Nigeria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, to name but a few areas of turmoil.
The ancient Hebrews were commanded to provide for the orphaned and the alien among them, which was an act of remarkable generosity if one considers what a small people they were, often subject to displacement themselves. We Americans are blessed to have been largely immune as an entire people to displacement. Does that mean we can have no understanding for or humanitarian response to those who have been torn from their families and homes, and who have experienced warfare and bloodshed?
We are called to transform our vision of the “least of these” from nuisances who place demands upon our finite resources of money and compassion. Again and again, we are called to remember that Jesus was not, and is not, the one everyone expected. He was not born into the ruling classes, from a powerful family, from a cosmopolitan city in the center of the empire. He was not the warrior king who would restore the political fortunes of Israel.
For those of us who cling to Jesus’s teachings today, we are reminded that Jesus not just was but IS. This is why scripture still speaks to us. “As it was, is now, and ever shall be.” We read about the Jesus who was, and many of us try to appeal to the Jesus who will be, but we often forget about the Jesus who IS , right now. Can we understand that Jesus is among us now? The face of Jesus still is the face of our neighbor, the face of the poor, the sick, and the refugee.
In Jesus’s parable, the goats, those who did NOT respond with openheartedness to those who were vulnerable, protest that they did not turn away Jesus, because they did not recognize who Jesus was at the moments when compassion was called for. Jesus stands in solidarity with “the least of these”—those who cling to the margins of society, those who were easily spurned or shunned, those who are seeking to survive. These are our neighbors. These are the faces of Jesus.
Repeatedly, we have to be reminded that the Jesus we claim to follow is not the Jesus we expect. Jesus was not really that well-groomed, handsome man who smiles at us from so many paintings, sculptures, and, lately movies. Jesus is, however, the one who calls us to open our hands and our hearts, to love as we have been loved, to give as well as receive. Jesus calls us to serve him, to see his face in those we could turn away.