Serving Jesus in the Least of These

Serving Jesus in the Least of These

Homily for the Last Sunday of Pentecost

November 26, 2023

Serving Jesus in the Least of These

Homily for Sunday, November 26, 2023
The Last Sunday After Pentecost
Matt 25:31-46

Today is the last Sunday of the Church year and also the last Sunday we hear from St. Matthew.  (Next Sunday begins a new lectionary year when we will hear rather from St. Mark.) In leaving behind Matthew I feel a bit like the Red Sox must have felt when the famed Yankees closer Mariano Rivera played his last game at Fenway. Though Rivera had tormented the Sox for 19 years as the most dominant closer in baseball, yet at his last game at Fenway the home crowd – momentarily rising above the rivalry and recognizing the magnitude of Rivera’s accomplishments  - gave Mariano Rivera a standing ovation.  He had been a worthy opponent.  Not unlike the Sox saying farewell to Mariano Rivera, I am going to miss St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Not because Matthew has been a worthy “opponent,” but because he has been a physician with “medicine” that is not always been easy to take.  Matthew’s Gospel is challenging, a pointed call to “rise up” like Matthew from his tax table and leave behind all in order to purchase the pearl of great price (Matt13:45), which is Jesus and the Gospel.  Matthew’s“medicine” is not always been easy to take, but to live as Matthew calls us to live would be deeply and profoundly healing.

Perhaps nowhere else in Matthew’s Gospel is it as clear as in today’s Gospel how Matthew calls us to live:

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.

This passage is so well-known and to some of us so compelling that we here at Trinity call our outreach committee “Matthew 25.”  I am proud of us here at Trinity for the many ways in which we support outreach; we genuinely strive to put Matthew’s words into practice. But in today’s parable, Matthew shows us a perhaps better and certainly more challenging way.

In past weeks we’ve seen how Matthew not only loves judgment but surprise judgment.  The bridegroom returns at an unexpected hour and surprises the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13). The guest at the king’s wedding banquet is surprised to be found with out a wedding robe (22:1-14).   In this morning’s parable, it is not only the so-called “goats” who are surprised that they did not see Jesus – “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” – [in this morning’s parable, it is not only the “goats” who are surprised that they did not see Jesus], but the “sheep” are surprised as well:

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?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

Neither the sheep nor the goats recognize Jesus; both are surprised.  For Matthew, Jesus’ disciples are to become so habituated to feeding the hungry,giving drink to the thirsty, and taking care of the naked, the sick and those in prison, that our care is second nature, that our care is no longer the result of effort or trying.  For Matthew,we as Jesus’ disciples are simply to care for others, so habitually, such they we may not even remember doing it.   Our works, whether good or bad, says Matthew,are like fruit, the result of either a good or bad tree, or of good or bad soil. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit,” he writes (7:17), and “the tree is known by its fruit,” (12:33), and, “as for what was sown on good soil,” it will indeed bear fruit (13:23).  For Matthew, the Gospel is not so much about belief but behavior; not about evangelism, but catechesis,or formation; and for Matthew, though the Gospel may look as though it is about mission – especially given today’s passage from Matthew 25 – for Matthew the Gospel is not even about mission but about life habits.  

The 20th-century French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spoke of what he called “habitus.”   In Bourdieu’s words, habitus refers to

“a subjective but not individual system of internalized structures, schemes of perception, conception and action common to all members of the same group.” (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977).

These collective attitudes and behaviors are not innate but formed, says Bourdieu.  Our accent, our word choice, our dress, our manners, our beliefs are all part of our habitus.  Matthew likely would recognize Bourdieu’s concept of habitus because Matthew –who rooted Jesus’ teachings in the Beatitudes of: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking – [Matthew likely would recognize Bourdieu’s concept of habitus because Matthew] calls us as disciples to be like our teacher (10:24), to espouse Jesus’ teachings and manner of life to the degree that, when we see someone “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,” we without effort or trying, and maybe not even remembering that we’ve done it, [we] care for them.  

Simply “doing” these works of mercy is a good start; Matthew calls us to more.  “Can you rise up from whatever may be your ‘tax table,’” Matthew asks, “and follow?”  If someone strikes you on the right cheek; “Can you turn the other also?” (5:39).   If someone has offended you; “Can you forgive, ‘not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times?’”(18:22).   “Are you the salt of the earth?” (5:13); “are you the light of the world?” (5:14).  “Do you not only ‘do’ these works of mercy,”Matthew wants to know, “but do you follow Jesus so closely, are you so rooted in him, your soil so grounded in him, that you don’t so much ‘do’ these works as they simply happen because they are part of your habitus, part of your having been formed as his disciple?”

If you would like to be so formed, to make Jesus and his way of life your habitus, keep coming here week by week. Keep hearing God’s holy word and taking into your body Christ’s body.  Keep giving to God and God’s work.  Keep praying and asking for God’s grace and help.  Keep doing works o mercy until, like Paul says, it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him (Gal 2:20), [until] it is no longer we who do these works but Christ living in us.  And at the last judgment,because following Jesus has become part of our habitus and because he lives in us, perhaps then we will be surprised to hear Jesus say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.”  




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