“Lord, when was it that we saw you…?”
Be honest. When first hearing Jesus’ story in this morning’s Gospel, did you wonder, “Am I a sheep or a goat? Will I inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world or will I be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels?” Did you start adding up your acts of charity? Donated to hurricane relief – Harvey, Irma and Maria – check, check, check. Brought canned goods for PACS – check. Visited an elderly neighbor – check. Tossed some money into the Salvation Army pot – check. Returned my Commitment card and increased my pledge – check. Or maybe you got nervous so you quickly turned over the yellow communication card and volunteered to bake cookies for the Christmas bags WELCA’s preparing for our homebound or signed up to help with the next St. Peter’s lunch. There’s nothing like being called before the Son of Man for a final accounting that compels us to do an assessment of our lives.
Perhaps that’s what this parable is about – our heavenly report card that determines where we will spend eternity. Only I think there is more to it than this. Besides what I’ve learned in ministry is that the people who are most anxious about these grades tend to be those who have little reason to worry. It’s always been the saints who’ve asked me, “Pastor, do you think I’ve done enough?” So maybe this parable isn’t so much about us, as it is about God. And only when we discover what it’s saying about God can we begin to understand how it addresses us.
Let me begin by telling you a story. The plot is a familiar one, used by both Shakespeare and Mark Twain,
A prince grows tired of the demands of the court. Everyone is just too nice and amidst the rich brocades, fancy foods, proper decorum, he’s bored. Protected by the palace, he wonders what life is like beyond its walls. How would it feel to be just a normal person? A subject instead of the ruler? So, he leaves palace life and goes undercover as a pauper – a poor man. He exchanges his fancy clothes for rags, the honor bestowed a prince for the curses hurled at beggars, the fine bed of good down and tick comforters for a gutter and thin cloak; the palace for the slums.
There he discovers the reality of life in the land that he rules. The very ones who sought to impress him while he wore the trappings of the prince, now spit on him in disgust as they drive by in their fine carriages. It’s surprising, but still hurts. Meanwhile, the common people of the slums accept him as one of their own. Some he needs to be afraid of, for in their pain they do not care whether their next victim is rich or poor. But there were others…. A woman seeing his hands are blue and numb from the bitter cold, gives him her gloves to wear. The family with only a small pot of soup that already was to be divided eight ways, invites him to their home to share it. The wino offers a sip from him bottle to shake away the chill. The old widow who sees him trembling with fever, and gives him a warm place by her hearth.
The prince turned pauper shares life with the common people – their joys and sorrows, their happiness and distress, the bitter and the better of their lives. Living among them, incognito, he’s cared for by his people, and loves them in a new, deeper way.
Then the day comes when it’s time for the prince to return to the palace. He washes off the dirt of the streets, puts aside his rags and dons the robes of royalty. The hypocrisy of those who’d sought his favor as prince and yet mocked him as pauper is revealed. They stand in their own judgment and condemnation, while throughout the slums the news spreads like wildfire and the residents become alive in a new way.
The one who laughed at the joke is really the prince…the one who found a warm place at the hearth, now lives in a palace, the one whose hands were so cold, belongs to royalty…the one they broke bread and shared wine with is the prince. They are all changed, for their houses, kitchens, lives have been blessed by his presence, and in the blessing the kingdom comes alive in the slum.
It’s the stuff fairy tales are made of isn’t it? Fairy tales and Gospel for the King replies, “whatever you did or one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” God comes into our world, undercover, born in a stable, son of a working man, friend of fishermen and prostitutes…entering the world as a pauper, eating and drinking with us sharing our joys and sorrows. He winds up as a common criminal crucified on the cross. He is one of the least of these and yet his presence blesses the world for he brings God into our lives incognito, showing up where we least expect God to be, surprising us by grace.
Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate his return to the palace. What’s revealed about us when his beggar’s disguise is replaced by the clothes of a prince? Are we hypocrites who seek his favor, but ignore his need in the poor and hungry? Or are we the poor ones who share our gifts and offer a place of hospitality? Does this startling revelation change how we see ourselves and the world?
These are hard questions. But Jesus, who loves us enough to die for us, to die with us, who enters our world fully, is asking us to see him where he always and already is. It’s the stuff fairy tales and Gospels are made of…the prince becomes a pauper, Christ is hidden in the poor and hungry and yet blesses us with his presence, eating and drinking at the table. Christ is with the great unwashed and with baptismal water he washes away our sin and claims us as his own sons and daughters, marking us with his cross forever. When the disguise is removed the King declares, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.”
This changes everything. Amen.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you…?”