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Where Christ (the King) Stands -- Matthew 25:31-46 (Christ the King Sunday)




There’s a dangerous reading of this parable connected with a “mean theology”[1] that has gripped popular culture for far too long. It’s grounded in this popular theology that goes like this: Good people go to heaven; Bad people go to hell. And somewhere out there, there is a God – a wrathful God – watching us and everything we do – sifting us – either for eternal punishment or eternal bliss. That popular notion of heaven and hell – that image of God – it’s all over TV and the movies. Over the centuries, it’s been used to control people with fear. And here’s the thing:


That’s not what we believe. It’s not what Presbyterians or Reformed Christians believe. It’s not Scripture. It’s not Jesus. We believe in grace, embodied in God’s boundless love for us in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2: “It is by grace we have been saved, through faith—and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works [or what we do], so that no one can boast.” That’s the Good News of the Gospel: God in Jesus Christ is at work in the world – and in us – saving us and the whole world from everything that does us harm. As my friend and colleague Rob McClellan writes, the Gospel – and this parable – are “not faithfully told when they are told in fear.”[2]

So let’s set aside that tired, dangerous reading for now – and give this parable a fresh look. Let’s do what we do when we approach Scripture – let’s look for where God is at work.


In this gospel text, let’s look for Jesus –

and let’s ask, “Where in this story does Christ stand?”


Now, this is a difficult text. It’s a difficult text out of a difficult gospel. Scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew was written out of a community that had recently been thrown out of their broader community – or maybe things got so bad that they left.[3] They were raised in the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures – and what they read in the Law and in the Prophets – they also experienced in Jesus. The broader community didn’t see it that way, and at some point there was a painful break. So in the Gospel of Matthew, it often seems like the text is arguing against someone or someones. But, as Eugene Boring points out, it’s important to remember, this gospel was likely “addressed to those who experienced themselves as outsiders.”[4]

And we find outsiders at the heart of this text – this Parable of the Judgment of Nations:


“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.”


At the heart of this text, we find those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who have been thrown out, those who are shivering in the cold, those who are sick, those who are imprisoned. If we enter this text, and go and stand there – at its heart – what we find is... Jesus.


It is as Howard Thurman says, “Jesus stands with those whose backs are up against the wall.”[5] It is as the church in South Africa proclaimed and as we now affirm in the Belhar Confession: “God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged, [and] God calls the church to follow God there... The church must therefore stand [where Jesus stands] with people in any form of suffering and need.”[6]


If we ask of this text, where does Christ stand? We find Christ standing with those who are suffering, in the midst of their suffering.


We know the suffering of our world. Globally, we know the suffering of the Earth itself – the groaning of all creation in climate emergency – experienced in hurricanes and wildfires – as we realize that we may have harmed the Earth beyond repair, and as we pray for healing. In the broad sweep of history and in our present day, we stand 400 years in to the suffering caused by tenacious systemic American racism, as those systems continue to harm and kill Black lives.


And in this year, we know the suffering of pandemic – as we enter this third surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths. One health official has described this third surge as “a rising wave that has not yet crashed.”[7] Where the first two surges were more geographically concentrated, this third surge is national – and may stretch our healthcare system to its breaking point. Importantly, it may exhaust what one expert has called “the most important resource in our health care system – health care workers and the training and experience they bring to their life-saving care.”[8]


As this third surge rises, we’re hearing again from ICU nurses who have never left the frontlines of care and healing. From the first months of the pandemic, they’ve been speaking out – posting videos – sharing the realities of their ICUs in the days of COVID – in the hopes that this nation will not look away, will not deny, will face realities with responsible action.


This summer, Kelsey Jacks – an ICU nurse in Birmingham –described her days in an audio diary.[9] Day by day, she tends to patients on ventilators – some stable, some in acute respiratory failure. Care of COVID patients often involves hard physical work, including a technique called “proning,” where the ICU team flips the patient onto their stomach and then on to their back to help breathing.


Lydia Mobley, a travelling ICU nurse, and others have described their emotional and spiritual care of patients who are isolated.[10] The nurses (and doctors) work with families who can’t be in the ICU, helping them to communicate with their loved ones. They sit with patients who are dying. They have done this every shift since March. And all this, in these days, with every bed occupied and the ICU filled to overflowing.


Della Tagayuna adds that they also get to accompany some patients as they struggle to survive, and get to see them heal, and when that happens, she says, they “get to know the person behind the medications and the labs,” and sometimes, they get to celebrate when a patient is at last able to walk out of the room.[11]


All this takes a tremendous toll. Heathcare workers are exhausted, many in near constant traumatic stress. Mobley explains how she keeps going like this: “We are trying to survive – keep our patients alive, and keep ourselves alive.” Mobeley says that the only way that she thinks that they’re able to do it is shoulder to shoulder, working together – in what Kelsey Jacks describes as her “work family.”


Jacks describes moments of accompanying a patient at the end of life – sitting with the family – moments that are excruciatingly painful, and Kelsey Jacks says “those are the moments when I feel most proud to be a nurse, when I am most proud of my coworkers and my work family.”


And those may be the moments for which we all are most grateful. That moment when someone steps up beyond what might be expected and stands with us in our deepest suffering and sorrow.


“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.”

When we stand in the heart of this Scripture, and in the midst of the suffering of our world, what we find there is Christ, the King – come down off their throne – not only standing beside those who are suffering – but identifying with our suffering – and entering into it. Christ says: “Just as you did this for the least of these, you did it for me.”

And on this Christ the King Sunday, as we stand in the heart of this Scripture, I want to suggest this:

The Kingdom of God is like an ICU nurse. She rises in the early dawn, bleary-eyed with weary bones – and she gets ready for her day. She looks in on her kids, still sleeping, and talks in hushed tones with her wife, who will work from home and guide their kids as they do their online school. When she pulls into the hospital parking deck, she doesn’t get out of her car right away. She takes a deep breath, steadies herself, and then she goes on in. She talks to the nurse whom she is relieving – receiving the latest update from the colleague who has preceded her through the night in this community of care. And she suits up in her full protective gear (her PPE) – which she will do again and again throughout the day – and she begins to tend to her patients.


In the ICU her intensive care used to be focused on one patient, but these days more likely two. She administers meds, talking to her sleeping patient as she goes about her care; she makes sure they are as comfortable as possible. She encourages them, she speaks tenderly to them. She calls in her colleagues to help turn a patient on to their stomach – using the strength of her body to care for theirs. She gets a call from the family, and sets up an iPad so the patient can hear from their family. She persists in tender mercy, throughout her long shift. And at the end of the shift, she whispers a word of hope to her patients before she confers with her colleague trusting that he will carry forward their care. And then she heads home, to love her family.


The kingdom of God is like an ICU nurse.


Now you might say, yes, Scott, that may be at the heart of the text, in the middle verses, but all around that, there is also judgment in this parable – you can’t ignore that. Indeed. There is judgment in this text, but look closely what is being judged here in this parable. Judgment in Scripture is always about revealing truth. Judgment is having our eyes opened -- a revealing of the truth of our world, and our part in it, and of what is ultimate – and what is not.


At the beginning of this parable, Christ takes their seat on the throne and summons the nations. In this Parable of the Judgment of the Nations, what is being judged – what is being revealed – are the nations, and the powers, and the systems –


· the powers and the systems that keep the hungry hungry and that keep water from those who thirst;

· the powers and the systems that separate us and make us strangers to each other – that throw some out into the cold with no shelter – that tell so many of us that we are somehow less than;

· the powers and the systems that crush our bodies and that bind us up.


And so, this is the image of God we see here in this Scripture: Christ the King stands with those whose backs are up against the wall, in the midst of their suffering, entering into their suffering, and says to them: You see these powers? I’m dismantling all this; and building with you the Reign of Christ, where the hungry are fed and every stranger welcomed in, where every illness and need are met with tender mercy – where the world is made whole.


How we see the image of God matters. It matters for our life. As Maurice Boyd says, “we become like the gods we worship.”[12] If we image God as a wrathful God separating the sheep from the goats, and sending the goats off to a place called hell, our lives will have little room for compassion and tender mercy. If we don’t see God down in the muck and mire of our lives, with their sleeves rolled up, and their mask on, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and working for the well-being of the sick, we’re not likely to do any of that either.


Friends, there is Good News in this Scripture, and I don’t want us to miss out. Jesus stands in power and tender mercy with those whose backs are up against the wall – entering into the deep sorrow and suffering of the world, and experiencing it with us. And. The Sovereign Christ stands there and announces an end to the powers that push people down and hold people back, and proclaims the reign of Christ – a new day of justice healing and freedom. A new day dawning even now.


The invitation of this parable – the invitation of the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – is to go and stand where Jesus stands, and get to work – to live -- with all we’ve got – into the hope of God’s Sovereign Love for us in Jesus Christ.


© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] The phrase “mean theology” has been attributed to George MacDonald. See Maurice Boyd, The Fine Art of Being Imperfect(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), p.36. [2] Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, p.266 [3] For general background for the Gospel of Matthew, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (Crystal Press, San Rafael, CA: 1976). [4] See M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995). [5] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1949 (2012 reprint)). [6]https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf [7] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/11/third-surge-breaking-healthcare-workers/617091/ [8] Id. [9] https://wbhm.org/feature/2020/its-a-reality-for-us-icu-nurse-shares-the-impact-of-covid-19/ [10] https://www.npr.org/2020/11/12/934266487/icu-nurse-on-dealing-with-latest-coronavirus-outbreak-in-michigan [11] https://www.scripps.org/news_items/6990-cardiac-icu-nurse-puts-her-heart-into-covid-19-care [12] See Maurice Boyd, The Fine Art of Being Imperfect (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), p.36.

Photo by Neil Rosenstech, used with gratitude and permission via Unsplash


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