Unto the Least
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, December 19, 2021
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
FOUR CANDLES LIT, and they signify the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Along with those come lessons from the apocalypse of Jesus in the Gospels and the Revelation of St. John, detailing for us the death of our world and the opening of heaven to those God deems worthy of His company for eternity. The last two weeks, I have spoken of three parables Christ gave concerning the judgment, as recorded by St. Matthew. The wise and foolish virgins speaks of preparing with expectation. The stewards of a rich master who are given talents, and they either invest his treasure or bury it, illustrates believing God’s character, and applying our lives for His glory, or else hiding it away, unused and resented. The third parable speaks of a king who knows His sheep from goats by their character and acts of charity. Let’s read it.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
First, let’s not be distracted by the animals. I know, we were just off on the right side petting the lambs and admiring their wool. Jesus starts this parable by speaking of Himself, the Son of man, who will come in glory as the true King of all creation, attended by mighty angels. Then only, as an analogy with shepherds, does He mention herds which a shepherd might separate, sheep from goats for instance, one flock on His right hand, the other on His left. Of course, we want to be His sheep in the parable, but a former goatherd friend of mine, and of yours by the way, called for a kinder hearing for the goats. What’s wrong with goats?
Nothing. In other countries, sheep and goats may be raised and kept with equal value and utility. If raised with care, goat meat may even be preferred, as it’s healthier, and goat’s milk is highly prized. Different breeds of goats may produce rich fur, and every woman knows she would love a Kashmir sweater from the goats bred in that part of the world. Jesus is really not calling goats evil, as His fellow Israelites would know. The reference is only to the shepherd, who knows His flock well enough to be able to separate them with his voice alone, one special command alerting the sheep, and another bringing the goats into their own fold.
From there, the parable is clearly describing the final judgment of people. And people are harder to identify by sight as being good or evil than are two species of animal. The King, who is also judge, is the Son of man: a term Jesus used about Himself. Its origin in the Psalms and Prophets points to a specially chosen and prepared human being with divine attributes. Daniel describes a vision of one like the Son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven. Jesus clearly identifies Himself with this vision. Now He comes as the judge of all mankind and He easily knows His own who He brings to His right hand with favor. He speaks to them.
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The most important, and poignant issue He presents here is that when we do an act of kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, service, charity in love, for those worse off for any reason than we are, He receives it as having been done to Him. I was thirsty and you came with a cool drink in your hand for me. I was in prison, but you visited me there.
Some of you may recall at this the work of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She felt compelled to go to the worst part of that great city, looking for Jesus among the Hindu people. In that land, strict classes separate people with favor and disfavor, and the worse off are the untouchables. She sought them out, especially the sick and dying, for they got no care or kindness at all. She lifted dying people literally from garbage heaps, left there to die, and she nursed them through their dying process in cleanliness and dignity. When asked why, Theresa always said that she was loving Jesus. She meant this parable. “As you did it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.”
Service toward the very poor can be challenging. Our Chief of Police, once, as a rookie was given some time serving food at the Jesus Center here in Chico. Anyone may come there to eat, and anyone it is who come. He was handing out slices of donated pizza and a homeless man sharply rejected the offer, saying he wanted a pepperoni pizza instead. It did no good to tell him how nice this plain pizza tasted: the man insisted he was going only for pepperoni. The law enforcement side of the future chief had to be quelled by Katy Thoma, then the director, who kindly told the man that pepperoni was just finishing in the oven if he would wait a minute. The least of these may be, for us, the hardest of people to serve. But Jesus is clearly encouraging us to serve, nevertheless.
In His Epistle, St. James admonishes Christians not to favor the rich and powerful. Don’t let fine clothes or shabby clothes distract you from your objective to serve all people with honor. “Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promised those who love Him?” James 2:5 He says it’s the rich who sue you in court, not the poor. Don’t play favorites. Do it unto the least person you meet quickly, for Jesus is hiding in those shabby clothes.
The grace and character of charity is an open heart for others, a willing spirit to help and serve anyone God sends our way. That may call for discernment, surely, because Jesus didn’t do everything that anyone asked of Him, but gave them just what He knew they needed. It’s love that drives that encounter. Love can say No to the drunk who will misuse the money he asks for. Love is not turning away from him, but seeking just a little further to find out how he may really get some help.
St. Paul spoke of true charity in our favorite passage on love. It’s the kind of love we’re speaking of, self-giving, sacrificial, sometimes difficult, often unreturned. We can call ourselves stellar Christians, because we speak in tongues or prophesy, understand mysteries, have vast theological knowledge, even spend a fortune on food programs for the poor and let our body be sacrificed: even so—if it’s not done in true charity, we are on that left side of the King, goats per se, among those who didn’t recognize Jesus in the least of these. So, with a true charitable nature we may be judged worthy to enter God’s eternal kingdom. If we seek Jesus in the face and clothes of people who need something of us, we’re giving to Him, and He receives it so.
Then the King turns to His left, and those terrible words are heard, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, etc.” They argue, “When did we see you hungry, naked, or sick?” He says, “You failed to give your loving service to the least of these. So, you didn’t do it for me.” And they go away to eternal punishment. That’s a hard word. Could we miss it just because we failed to see Jesus in the person of a poor man?
I hope not. Every encounter with a stranger can be risky. I don’t believe God is asking us to be put into danger, but to check our ready rejections and question our motives for self-protection. Am I really afraid, or am I just insulted at the lifestyle I see here, the bad choices and lack of hygiene? Am I really feeling pressed for time and unable to spend precious minutes finding out what would really help, or is that just my excuse? Is this just a panhandler, or is it a soul who this moment was sent from God to ask our help with something beyond their ability, but within ours?
This doesn’t have to be about the economically poor, either. Your friend may be in the hospital and you have a choice to visit, call or just be too busy. We’re all busy. It’s Christmas. The roads are choked with cars. We’re planning events. Why does this person have to call me right now? A lifestyle of poverty doesn’t invalidate anyone seeking to go to heaven, but a lifestyle of impatience, superiority, and entitlement clearly top the list with the goats, or left-hand subjects of the shepherd King.
May we soften all our hearts to give our time and love to all who may need it and God sends to us in our lives. The poor—meaning anyone with a need—will be always with us, said Jesus. He is right. And they are there to receive, in His Name, our love and time and concern.