The Reign of Christ: Homily for the Last Sunday in the Liturgical Year
Dr Graeme Garrett delivered this homily on Sunday 26 November 2017 on the Feast of the Reign of Christ.
This is the last Sunday of the Church year, in which we have travelled with Matthew’s Gospel as our primary guide. Next Sunday a new year begins. And our focus shifts to the Gospel of Mark.
Matthew, you recall, begins his Gospel with the birth of Jesus. An angel announces to an anxious Joseph, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” (1:22) The story of Jesus, which Matthew has told over the last 12 months, is the story of God-with-us. This is what God looks like, on the ground, so to speak. Not up in heaven. Not in a sacred text. Not in our imagination. But here in time and space.
Travelling with Matthew’s Jesus has been quite a ride. We have seen adulation and ridicule. Astonishment and bewilderment. Warm welcome and violent exclusion. Extraordinary words and strange silences. Moving healings and mind-bending miracles. Conflict, conspiracy, betrayal, condemnation, execution and burial. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the resurgence of life on the other side of death.
Now Matthew has a final word to us; the story we just read. He doesn’t try to summarize all he’s told us. How could he? It’s too dense with meaning. And anyway he’s just done that. There in his Gospel.
So now a last word. We might see it as a sort of amnesiac’s crib-sheet. “Look if you forget everything else, hang on to this. This is the heart of the matter. You want to know what God in this world looks like? … Well, here you are.”
And he tells Jesus’ parable of the last judgment. The king, Jesus, God-with-us, now in his glory with the angels, engages in a sifting process to separate the sheep (the righteous) from the goats (the unrighteous). We know well enough how the story runs.
Just a few of points to note. First is the relentless repetition. The story drags on and on because the criteria for the sifting are spelled out not once, not twice, not three times, but four times.
The king says to those on his right, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you …" (here’s number one) "for 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.” And the righteous, as if taken utterly by surprise, repeat it all back. (Here’s number two). “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?” … etc., etc. And they get their answer: “when you did it to one of the least of these my family, you did it to me.”
Then the whole rigmarole is repeated. The king says to those on his left: "depart from me" (here’s number three) “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was … stranger, naked, sick, in prison …” Then blow me down, this group goes through the whole list again. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, in prison …”
Now the idea here isn’t that hard to grasp. But Matthew drives it home four times. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Do we get the point? When it comes to Emmanuel, God here, this really matters!
Then a second point. On the surface, the story makes no mention of religious matters at all. It’s about everyday secular happenings, food, water, clothing, prisons.
Nothing about prayer, going to church, holding right beliefs, reading the Bible. Not because these aren’t important. They are. Matthew deals with all of them in his Gospel. But now he wants to make the point that Emmanuel also, and especially (four times especially), means that Christ, the Lord, is present and active in the details and demands of ordinary living. “In as much as you did it to one of these the least of my family, you did it to me”.
And a third thing. This story isn’t addressed to individuals, but to nations. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him …”. We tend to individualise it. And evaluate our own lives accordingly. Have I given the cup of water where needed? Provided shelter when asked? And that’s perfectly proper. But in terms of the text before us, the address is not to us as individual Australians, but to us as Australia. The nation.
That changes the impact somewhat. Think of that list as read out not to you, but to the nation as a whole. “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Then that’s not a sandwich handed to a person down on their luck. That’s policy. It has to do with food production, food distribution and food costs in our society.
“I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.” On a national level, that’s how water is gathered, stored, distributed, costed, and kept drinkable.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” For us nationally, that’s asylum-seekers; it’s the LGBTQ community; it’s Indigenous peoples. “I was naked and you gave me clothing.” That’s not op-shop jumpers, important though they are. That’s shelter and security. It’s housing and homelessness. It’s rents and soaring house prices.
“I was sick and you took care of me.” Yes, that’s looking after family and friends that are unwell. But as a nation, that’s Medicare and hospital waiting lists. It’s gap payments for visiting the GP. It’s the NDIS.
“I was in prison and you visited me.” On the national level, that’s our justice system; it’s incarceration rates for Indigenous people, deaths in custody; it’s the courts and the costs of accessing them.
Looked at from the nation’s point of view Jesus’ list of actions or non-actions is exactly our nightly TV news. If we were to add energy prices and environmental challenges, we’d just about have a picture of the daily operation of our entire economy and politics.
And that, says Matthew in his last word to us, is what the kingdom of Emmanuel, is about. Did we hear it? Food, water, welcome, shelter, health, justice. God in Christ is involved in and affected by our collective actions at these basic levels.
And that means this last word of Matthew is good news and bad news, just as the parable says; there are sheep and goats to be dealt with.
The good news is that a lot of really important God-stuff happens in our country every day. Thousands of people work in the production and distribution of food, from farmers, to truck drivers, to shop keepers. All give of their life’s energy to provide food for the hungry and, whether they know it or not, also for Christ.
The great efforts of people to work towards a safe, pure, and reliable collection and distribution of water, from Darwin to Fitzroy, are engaged in what Christ calls for here. The same goes for those who work in housing, hospitals, and aged care facilities; or in the courts, law offices, and prisons of our land.
And some outstanding things happening. The NDIS – the national disability insurance scheme – is a major effort to care of the “least of these members of my family”. Yes, it is expensive and we have to be creative in ways to fund it. Yes, it has problems and doesn’t always work as it should. But it is a genuine effort to address on a national level what Jesus is on about here.
And there’s the recent national poll on marriage equality. Yes, it has been controversial and some brutal things have been said and done. But huge numbers of people have worked hard to respond to those words, “I was a stranger and you took me in.” That’s worth celebrating in Christ’s name!
But there is also bad news. Food that has not been given. Think of the awful famine in Yemen. As a wealthy nation what are we doing about those “these most needy of Christ’s family”? Or the Royal Commission into child abuse? Surely children are amongst the most vulnerable of the family.
Yet we face a terrible truth about many of our institutions that deal with children. And the churches are amongst the most prominent in failure to give due love, protection and care.
Those words, “in that you did it not to one of these … you did it not to me”, ring loud in our schools, and halls, and sanctuaries.
Last month Australia was elected overwhelmingly to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Almost at the same time as that decision, came the forcible closure the Refugee Camp on Manus Island; and we have nightly pictures on TV of hundreds of anxious men displaced from their marginal shelters, with food, water and medical supplies cut off, and threats of removal by military force, protesting their suffering with what little voice they can muster. How can Australia claim to be a global leader on human rights if it fails so blatantly to address human rights issues domestically, in particular Indigenous rights and refugee policy? “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
As we come to the end of our church year and reflect upon it in the light of these last words of Matthew to us we are faced in our nation with some good stuff, even some very good stuff, and some bad stuff, indeed some terrible stuff. Let us not lose heart. Christ is in the midst of it, messy and deeply ambiguous though it is. And his call remains the same as it was in the beginning. “In as much as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”