I wrote about being Temple Made last week. Let’s go back to it. I don’t really want to talk about university marketing too much, but I do want to note this idea that we all need to build ourselves, we need to make ourselves, give meaning to ourselves.
We are told to make ourselves. Not just in terms of our hard work and what we can produce and manufacture, but we also make our meaning, our own reality, largely based on our own experiences. We are responsible for ourselves. Isn’t that the basic ethic? In fact, most of the reason that anyone goes to college is to make the most of themselves, to make themselves marketable, so they can market ourselves on a résumé and hope some employer will buy them .
We are all making ourselves in a self-centered world. We are charged with making our meaning and reality. We have the demands of inventing ourselves, while also the demands of how we fit in someone else’s world, too. It’s complicated isn’t it? We have to make ourselves so we fit into the world as the authorities have organized it. We are to submit creators of reality.
And that’s how we sort out all of our decisions, it seems to me. We organize our lives around our jobs, our schools, and our children (so that they have the best shot at making themselves too). In an era of self-centeredness, one where notions of philanthropy and service to others is merely a matter of making yourself better, how can we follow Jesus?
God himself more than just creating us, ordered us too. He gave us our purpose already. We are charged to serve him and serve others. That’s how Jesus summarized the whole law. Does that reality fit into our lives? Does serving God and others work? What do we do? How do we manage to live in a world that is so contrary to Jesus, so opposite in some ways? And what’s the cost of it all?
Some basic points from this parable.
- Matthew pairs “son of Man,” the old term for cosmic judge from Daniel 7, with royal language. Kings often symbolize God in rabbinic parables. So Matthew, explicitly, is making Jesus God.
- This king, who is now being characterized as a shepherd, is separating the nations in front of him. The shepherd is a humble figure, to be sure, but to Matthew’s Jewish audience, it is quite admirable too. Many crucial characters in the Old Testament, notably Moses, David, and Amos, are shepherds and so this very pastoral image is also meaningful.
- Simply put: the shepherd puts the sheep who served the least of these on the right and those who didn’t on the left. The faithful and the unfaithful didn’t even know that they were such.
Now, it might be a bit too easy to take this parable and simply interpret it directly. In other words, our salvation isn’t won simply when we engage in selfless philanthropic acts. I think being selfless is essential to following Jesus and the character of the so-called sheep is crucial to the story, but who are the least of these?
I think they are his followers. The nations that are saved are the ones who care for and protect Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is being sent off to die and he is casting judgment on the people that will eventually persecute his people, his followers. For Matthew’s audience: they need to feel protected by the Son of Man. That’s the point of the parable. But for the American, there’s more to the story. The kind of care the sheep provided was normal for Ancient Jews, but it is anything but normal for Americans. The Ancient Jews had a culture that helped make them as caregivers, but we have a culture that indoctrinates quiet differently. We need to watch out how the civil religion indoctrinates us.
I think that requires us to lose our obsession with being self-made. We have to be remade in Christ. From the bottom up, we need to submit to a new way of doing things, a real transformation of character. One that acts not for self-interest, but for others, for Jesus. These servants have a whole different way of thinking, how they care, who they care for, what they are doing.
It is hard environment then to follow Jesus in isn’t it? We are constantly being told so serve ourselves and with that kind of being indoctrinated in our minds, what alternative is there? How realistic is it to follow Jesus? Well, honestly, alone: I think it’s nearly impossible.
How do it do it then? In a word: together. In the body of Christ. And for us, this expression of the body of Christ. I want to note that you as Circle of Hope are lauded in the region for being these selfless servants. And that matters. You do care for the least of these and there are more opportunities for you to do so right here. You are the disciples of Jesus, whom others will be judged for caring for. I hope you find some comfort in that, but I also hope it compels you to include and to love them.