All of Jesus’ ministry could be summed up in his proclamation that the kingdom of God—the reign of God—had come and yet was still on its way, so get ready.
At least that’s how our gospel writer Matthew puts it. Toward the beginning of the gospel, Matthew summarizes Jesus’ ministry, saying: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
And so many of Jesus’ teachings—as we’ve seen in parable after parable these past few months —are aimed at helping the people understand and see the reign of God among them so that they might pattern their lives after it and be ready to receive it when it comes in fullness. And whether Jesus is talking about mustard seeds or bridegrooms or vineyards or masters and servants, all of Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God seem to have one thing in common: the element of surprise.
Today’s gospel lesson is no different. In this familiar passage, Jesus draws from the apocalyptic images used by the Hebrew prophets, who describe the day when the shepherd king will bring justice, dividing those who have lived according to the ways of the kingdom from those who have not. But to everyone’s surprise the criteria by which the separation occurs is different than expected. The ones who were most deeply aligned with God’s ways weren’t known to be so because of their heroic faith or spotless purity but for their concrete acts of love and service for others, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized.
And if that wasn’t surprising enough, Jesus says that the king will say that the very acts of love and service done for others were actually done to him: "for 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...” In our passage, everyone is surprised: those who did right are surprised, those who neglected to do good are surprised, and I can only imagine those who heard these words of Jesus were surprised as well.
“For just as you did to one of the least of these...you did to me.” These words have inspired and motivated many toward charitable acts, myself included, moving us to places like soup kitchens and prisons, to our closets in search of clothes for neighbors in need, to nursing homes and hospitals with signs of care and compassion. “Just as you did it for one of the least of these...you did it to me.”
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor explores “the practice of encountering others.” She says that all around us—closer than we often realize—are people who are vastly different from us with whom we are actually connected through our shared humanity. Our connection with others is so broad it is often overlooked, she says, but the practice of loving our neighbors is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being, especially those different from us, and “at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.”
She goes on to suggest the practice of slowing down and taking the time to focus on the people all around us who we often overlook, like a grocery store cashier, for instance, she says. She suggests as a practice to really look at this person next time you’re in the store. When that person looks right at you and says something so mundane as “You saved eleven dollars and six cents by shopping here today,” all that is required of you is to look back. “Just meet this person’s eyes for a moment,” she says, “[because] sometimes that is all another person needs is to know that she has been seen—not the cashier but the person—but even if she does not seem to notice, the encounter has occurred. You noticed, and because you did, neither of you will ever be quite the same again.”
Just a couple of days ago, I was driving in my car, in a hurry, on my way to church of all places, when I got stuck at a light that I detest. It’s one of those lights that has an extremely long wait and when it finally changes it only gives you about 3 seconds to make it through, otherwise you’ll be waiting for another cycle. Just as it was about to change, I noticed a man step out into the crosswalk, seemingly oblivious to the light’s cycle, and obviously ignoring the red hand flashing to let him know “now is not the time to cross.” I audibly sighed in frustration, as I could tell he would probably be crossing right in front of my car as the light turned green.
It was at that moment that I realized I recognized that man. He is a walker. You know, one of those people you see walking all day, every day, and it’s not a walk for leisure or exercise, but it’s a troubled walk, and you can tell; it’s the kind of walk where you know he is either running from something—perhaps something deep within himself or behind him in his past—or he’s out walking towards something he just can’t quite seem to reach, and he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to get to it.
Just as the man began to cross in front of my car, the light—as I had anticipated—turned green. And I let out another hurried, frustrated sigh. Ugh. It was then that he turned, and looked me right in the eye. There was a connection in our gaze, an encounter. And he, in that moment, offered a warm, kind smile and a simple nod as if to say “It’s nice to see you. Good day.” And for some reason, in that moment, I received his gaze and then I looked up at the light, as if to say, “You’re in my way.” He noticed. And immediately became apologetic, gesturing with his hands that he was sorry and hurrying to the other side of the crosswalk.
As I drove through the light, up to the next light, it struck me: “Just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Even something so simple as withholding an eye-to-eye encounter that could have said “I see you. You belong here. You are worthy of love.”
I found myself asking: “If that was Jesus, what would I have done?” But that questions troubles me, not because of what my answer might be but because I fear it risks missing the point.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Paradoxically, the point is not to see [God in the other person]. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced...” People aren’t meant to be loved in general but in particular, as God loves them. As Taylor says, “I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.”
Maybe that’s our call, not so much to feverishly do lots of things pretending we’re doing it for Jesus, but to learn to look, connect, and not turn away.
It sounds simple, being called just to look at another, but at times it’s far easier to perform acts of charity that keep us distanced from our neighbors in need than it is to truly encounter them. But if we look, truly look, I’m convinced all of our gifts of love will follow, and in the process we’ll see another human being to whom we’re bound, and perhaps we’ll be surprised to find that God is there too.
The reign of God has come and is coming. You want to know how to live into it? Just look, you’ll see.