Giving Thanks: Sighted
Today we continue on in Matthew’s gospel, immediately following the Parable of the Talents we talked about last Sunday, and we arrive at what we call the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is another one that is probably familiar to you, and it is Jesus’ last parable, last major segment of teaching in the gospel of Matthew. After this, things rapidly move toward the passion and crucifixion. So in this last parable, Jesus tells about a future time of judgment when the Son of Man will gather all people before him and separate them like you might sort sheep and goats in a flock. “Son of Man” is a term used by Jesus to refer to himself which means kind of like “the human of humans.” So Jesus, Son of Man, king, will sort the people into two groups. To the sheep on his right, he’ll say that they are blessed and can inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world. And they receive this treatment because when “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.” Only, those marked as sheep don’t ever remember seeing the king at all – surely they would remember something so momentous! But no, the king tells them: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then the whole scenario repeats with those on his left who are like the goats, only this time the king says they are accursed for not helping the king when they saw him in need. And again, they don’t recollect ever seeing him, and again, the king says that whenever they saw but did not help one of the “least of these,” they also did not help the king.
This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one that we know fairly well. We even mostly like it, I think, this idea that in everyone we meet, we are encountering Jesus. It sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it? The only problem, then, as is often the case with Jesus’ teachings, becomes accounting for the wide gap between our liking of this parable, our general, “Yes, that’s right” affirmation of it, and a quick assessment of the world around us that shows the pervasiveness of those who are sick and poor and hungry and thirsty and without shelter or clothing, or who are in prison or alone, and the ongoing struggle of these persons. If we love this parable, and affirm this idea of “the least of these” being ways we can encounter Jesus, come face to face with Jesus, how come so many are still hungry and thirsty and sick and alone?
As I read through this familiar parable again, I started to focus in on this phrase, the repeated question in the text: “When did we see you?” Both those identified as sheep and goats ask this question: “When did we see you?” they ask. “When was it that we saw you hungry and did or didn’t give you food, or thirsty and did or didn’t give you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and did or didn’t welcome you, or naked and did or didn’t give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and did or didn’t visit you?” And to both groups, the king says that they truly encountered the king when they saw and assisted – or didn’t – those he describes as “the least of these, who are members of my family.” But whether the sheep or goats help those they see or not, those who are the least of these, but also the king himself, both sheep and goats see the ones they encounter. Imperative to deciding to act one way or another is seeing the person to begin with.
This, I think, is the key for us twenty-first century readers. I think we’re exceptionally clever. We like to hear about this “seeing Christ in people” stuff. But man, it is hard to see Jesus in some people, and then, when we realize Jesus really means it about the “least of these,” it’s hard to carry through on all this feeding and visiting and clothing and comforting of people he describes. But, what if we could just not see anyone at all? If we don’t really see people, then we don’t have to decide whether or not we know we’re looking into the face of Jesus, who would be able to spur us to action. Have you ever had the experience of running into someone in a store or at a restaurant who, for whatever reason, you really would rather not talk to? And then it becomes a kind of frantic, anxious game. Is it too late? Did they see you already? If they saw you, did they see you see them, or would it still be convincing for you to pretend you didn’t see them? Suddenly you are staring at your feet, or intently reading the ingredient labels, or forgot something back in the aisle you just came down, or get a “phone call” that you really must take and focus on. Sure, sometimes we really don’t see someone. We’re distracted, concentrating on other things. But how often are we trying not to see?
When we think about sheep and goats and Jesus’ words to us, I wonder if most of the time we don’t feel like we’ve encountered Christ because we’re putting up a great show of not seeing the people we encounter. Maybe we don’t mean to at first. But I think one way or another, we try not to see people because it will slow us down. Interrupt our rhythm. We don’t have time. We’re busy and behind, and we don’t want to get into all the baggage and all the effort and all the awkwardness and all the uncomfortableness that comes with really seeing people. And so we don’t see. And in our blindness, we miss chances, foolishly, to encounter Christ, face to face.
Earlier this year, as part of a campaign called Make Them Visible, the Rescue Mission of New York City did a bit of an experiment for a short documentary. They had the family members of half a dozen people dress up and position themselves as homeless people on the street. And then cameras recorded these half dozen people walking by, passing right by their costumed family members. You can see in the picture on the screen this woman walking down the street – and she passes right by her mother, her sister, and her uncle. That’s her family, right there. But she doesn’t see them. This woman was not alone. Everyone walked right by their own family members. Yes, they were costumed, but their faces weren’t altered. Still, they went unseen. When shown the videos of themselves walking by their family, the individuals were shocked. Upset. Embarrassed. Would you see your family members on the street?
Who do we see? I mean so much more in that question than asking whether or not we walk by people seeking money on the street corners with our heads down, although that’s a good question to ask. One of the many traits of Jesus we can seek to imitate, that we can take as a model, is how he sees everybody. A man climbs a tree – and Jesus sees him. A woman touches his cloak – and Jesus sees her. Children are pushed aside – but Jesus sees them. Jesus sees us. And what’s more – if we’re not where it’s easy to see us, Jesus will seek us, search us, find us, go where we are. To the lepers outside the borders of the town. To the Canaanite woman living in a gentile territory. Jesus will seek you out, find you.
What do we see? What would be different if in every setting in life, not just on the streets but including them, we started asking ourselves who in any given situation we weren’t seeing? We just went through an election – what would change if we wondered who we were looking right over when we considered a political issue? How would the dynamics of the church – our church and the church universal change if we asked: who aren’t we seeing? How would our families be different if we asked: who aren’t we seeing in our families? Who’s been invisible or overlooked? How would our schools, our workplaces, our communities be different if we wondered: who am I missing? Who am I not seeing? And then: what might happen if, like Jesus, we made sure we saw, even if it meant we had to seek people out, instead of waiting for them to cross our paths?
This week your homework has two parts. First, I want you keep track of how you spend your time all week. We think about time a lot – feeling like it’s moving too slowly or too quickly or that we don’t have enough of it. So keep track this week. How are you spending your time? At the end of each day, or as the day unfolds, write how you’re spending your time. Part two: Keep track of who you’re spending your time with. Try to pay attention to who you see – or who you don’t usually see. Who are you with during your week? Who aren’t you with? Do you spend your week with people who are mostly like you? Do you see all kinds of people? Keep track, all week, and if you’re willing, bring it in next week to share, along with your commitment to who you’re going to try to see more clearly in the months ahead.
One of the things that my mom loves the most is when all of her kids are together and when we’re happy with each other. If all four of us are enjoying spending time together, then my mother is in sort of a state of sublime ecstasy, because the people she loves the most are happy and well, and showing love for each other. That’s what I think God enjoys the most too. When all of us, God’s children, are together, and enjoying each other, and showering love on each other, happy to be in each other’s presence. So when we don’t see each other, when we even try not to see each other, for God, it is like we are walking right by our brothers and sisters without seeing them. We’re walking by family. That’s what I think this parable is really all about. Who are we walking by, and who are we stopping to see? Because if we see, we’ll find the face of Christ reflected there. And it is a sight to behold.