September 20, 2015
Compassion for the World
‘Tis the end of time and God’s agent, the one who is called Son of Man comes with the angels of heaven and sits in his throne of glory. All the nations are before him, and he puts the sheep on his right and goats on his left. Then he tells the ones on the right, “You blessed people, come and inherit the kingdom prepared for you; you gave me food when I was hungry and something to drink when I was thirsty. 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.” Then the ones on the right say, “Lord, when did we give you food, drink, clothing, or take care of you?” He says, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”. Then he said to those on the left, “You accursed people, you will burn in eternal fire because you didn’t feed me when I was hungry or take care of me when I was sick”. They say, “Lord, when did we not feed you or take care of you?” Then the Son of Man says, “Whatever you did not do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me”.
This is the final judgment scene from The Parable of the Final Judgment in Matthew 25. The fact that this story is called a “parable” means, we shouldn’t take this story literally. But what we DO have to hear from this story is that we will be judged according to how we treated “the least of these my brothers and sisters”; the vulnerable and needy of our community (whether it is our local community or the global community).
In last Sunday’s story, as Jesus was predicting his suffering and death for the first time in front of his disciples, he says, “If you want to follow me you have to pick up your cross and deny yourself first”, meaning “Make God and God’s work your priority even if it means making personal sacrifices”. In today’s story, as he predicts his suffering and death for the second time, he teaches that following him means becoming humble and serving others (“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”). Those who are lowly in this world will be exulted in the eternal world. Then he took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”.
In all Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels (called Synoptic Gospels because they share a lot of similarities), there is at least one story in which Jesus uses children to teach about the kingdom of God, today’s text being one of them. People have been wondering what it means to be “like a child” or “welcoming a child”, but considering the social status of children during Jesus’ and Mark’s times, we can safely assume that a child was an analogy for marginalized members of the society. My first Sunday, I talked about Gentiles being treated like second class citizens; well, children felt more like third class citizens! They were considered properties of their parents (as women were considered properties of their fathers, and then of their husbands). They were expendable. Accepting a child or serving someone as unimportant as a child was a very radical notion to the people in Jesus’ time. It was as shocking and subversive as Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, which was a job for slaves and servants.
Jesus teaches us that God’s kingdom is subversive and radical. Those who are considered lowly and unimportant in our world are the prestigious ones in God’s domain. But all of us here have some kind of privileges, which we cannot help (It’s not our fault), so I will put it another way; those who make themselves humble and serve others, especially the marginalized members of our world, are the prestigious ones in God’s domain.
The gospel message on this subject is clear. Jesus preached a radical message about God’s kingdom. Jesus considered arrogance and selfishness as the worst vice, and humility as the greatest virtue. In our world, people aspire to go upward; but in God’s world, God’s people aspire to go downward. One of the greatest Christian writers Henry Nouwen calls it “upward mobility vs. downward mobility” in his book The Selfless Way of Christ, which I very highly recommend. This book teaches the gospel truth that the followers of Jesus should aspire to lower themselves and be servants to others, which is countercultural because we are taught by the world that we should aspire to be ambitious and achieve success; higher social status and make more money, and so on. The gospel of Jesus Christ is subversive, not in a “let’s-get-rid-of-the-government” kind of way; it is called subversive because it aspires its believers to go against the secular values of prosperity and success, and to make humility and willingness to serve others its highest value.
Being countercultural and denying the temptation for the secular success requires a master level of spiritual training. Think of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars training to be a Jedi knight. It needs intense and long term training to be a Jedi knight, and it also needs intense and long term spiritual training to be a disciple who resists the temptations of the world to stay faithful to the gospel. In other words, to be disciples, we have to maintain a really really close and intimate relationship with God. Think of how we become friends with people. We meet, spend time together, listen to each other, and with time we become more and more fond of each other and get to know each other. When we become close with someone, sometimes we talk, sometimes we listen, and sometimes we don’t even need to talk; we can just enjoy each other’s company comfortably in silence. It is also said that spending a lot of time with our friends make us resemble each other. When children become close friends, they start eating the same food, listening to the same music, and they might even develop inside jokes and similar speech habits. I always think of this when I watch teen movies where best friends dress the same and talk the same. The same principle is applied when we are trying to build a relationship with God. After spending a lot of time with God, and after a long period, we begin to resemble the nature of God. We believe that God is supreme love; then after building a relationship with God, we learn God’s supreme love too. This long term process of building a relationship with God is the intense spiritual training I talked about.
To be the followers of Jesus we have to humble ourselves and become servants to others, because our teacher Jesus had compassion for people, especially those suffering. To reach this master level spirituality, and to be able to resist the temptations for wealth and power of the world, we have to keep our eyes on God. There is a cliché evangelical saying (even though I don’t usually like quoting evangelical clichés because often they don’t mean what they seem to mean), “If you no longer feel closer to God, guess who moved”. Always stay close to God, and gradually we will resemble God’s loving nature. As we think of and pray for Syria today, may God fill our hearts with the compassion of Jesus. And may God guide our hearts towards humility and love, especially when we are tempted by the upward mobility of our world. Amen.
Rev. Sunny Kim