Friday, November 28, 2014

A Boundless Heart

A Boundless Heart
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24;  Matthew 25:31-46[1]
It seems to me that the more diverse our world gets, the harder it is for us to practice compassion toward the people we encounter. When everybody looks like us, talks like us, dresses likes us, thinks like us, we can easily see them as human beings who have feelings and problems just like us. But the more our society changes, the more we encounter people who look different from us, who talk differently, who dress differently, and who think differently. When we are used to being around people who are basically “just like me,” we may find it challenging to show compassion to people who seem different.
I believe our Gospel lesson addresses this problem. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is one that many of us know. “I was hungry” is a theme that has echoed throughout the centuries. One of the things I think we have to recognize is that this is a parable. It is story told for a purpose, not a lecture outlining what we’re supposed to believe. It’s not a simple prediction of what’s going to happen to “good” and “bad” people at the end of time.[2] And so our task is to try to understand what is the purpose of this story.
One clue that I find interesting is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised at the verdict.  The sheep are commended for being kind and merciful to Jesus, but they are completely unaware of ever having done anything special.  In response he told them when you were kind and merciful to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were being kind and merciful to me. Similarly, the goats are criticized for not having practiced kindness and mercy toward Jesus, but they seem shocked at such a verdict.  They seem to be among those who thought themselves pious and religious because they were devoted to worship at the synagogue or the Temple, or because they were scrupulous about following the Jewish laws about living lives that are “clean,” or because they were pillars of their religious communities.
If that is the case, we might think that surely some mistake must have been made. But it seems to me that Jesus was saying much the same thing that the prophets said centuries earlier. In fact, the passage we heard this morning from the prophet Ezekiel contains a scathing criticism of the leaders of the prophet’s day, who are identified as the “fat sheep” who have failed to care for the “lean sheep.”[3] In fact, they have positively trampled on those they were supposed to be serving. [4]  And like the prophets before him, Jesus reserves some of his harshest words for the religious pillars of his day.
The reason for that is that if there’s one thing Jesus was good at, it’s cutting through the façade of religious pretense.  No amount of put-on piety could change the fact that many of the most “religious” people of his day were essentially unkind toward others.  In another context, Jesus said that they gave a tenth of everything, even their cooking spices, but they neglected “the more important things of the law, like fairness, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23, NIRV).[5]  At the end of the day, they failed to relate to others with compassion or mercy.  And that is the whole substance of what it means to love God.
I think one of the main purposes for this parable was to remind us that the best measure for the genuineness of our compassion is how we treat “the least of these.”[6] And I think Jesus was trying to point out the hypocrisy of those who were up to their necks in religious devotion but who, when it came right down to it, were incredibly unkind to the people around them. I think what he was trying to do was to make it clear that that when your religion keeps you from practicing basic human kindness and compassion, it becomes a gigantic exercise in missing the point!
In the kingdom where Jesus reigns, what counts is mercy.  That’s what Jesus said when the religious leaders criticized him for hanging out with the wrong kind of people, the “different” people of his day.  He said, “Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others’” (Matt. 9:13, CEV, quoting Hos. 6:6).[7]  The whole point of true religious devotion is to inspire us to be people who are kind and compassionate to others—especially “the least of these.” We cannot escape the fact that, from Genesis to Revelation, God calls us to practice compassion and mercy toward the least and the lost and the left out.
Now, admittedly, kindness and compassion can be difficult—especially when it comes to people who may seem different from us. But no matter how much the people we encounter may challenge us, we are commanded by our Lord and Savior to cultivate genuine love toward our neighbors, all our neighbors.[8] And it seems to me that starts by treating people with basic kindness and compassion, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or how different they may be from us.
In order to do this, I think we need a heart that is basically open to all people. We need what one teacher called a “boundless heart” to relate to others with kindness and mercy.[9] From my perspective, that means trying to see the people around us--all the people around us--especially those who seem most different from us--as human beings who have feelings and problems just like we do.[10] In fact, the Scriptures call us to see Jesus in the people around us, especially the least and the lost and the left out.[11] When we can do that, then we can freely and joyful feed those who are hungry and clothe those who are naked and welcome those who are strangers to us. Then we can practice the mercy and compassion that come from a boundless heart.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/23/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning, 71: “The point is not the judgement in accordance with good or bad works. It is the identification of the coming Son of man with the hungry and thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary on Matthew 21-28, 282, where he points out that the focus of the passage is on the pronouncements in Mt. 25:40, 45, “which in their repetitions of the works of charity emphasize the standard by which people will be judged.”
[3] Cf. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 159, where he says that the context of this passage is the “economic and political exploitation” that occurred in “the upheaval following the Babylonian conquest.” He points out that the language here is similar to that in Matthew 25:31-46, “Disconcertingly, perhaps, the criteria for discrimination is not religious orthodoxy or orthopraxy but care for the weak and disadvantaged--the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.” 
[4] Ezekiel says, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost” (Ezek. 34:4).
[5] Cf. S. Westerholm, “Clean and Unclean,” in J. B. Green & S. McKnight (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 131; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 670.
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2:507-508, where he identifies the “least of these” as “the world for which [Jesus] died and rose again, with which He has made Himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity.” Many scholars believe that “the least of these” is a specific reference to itinerant Christians who went about without any visible means of support in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10:5-10.  See, for example, Luz, Matthew 21-28, 280-81 and Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 744-45. I find this interpretation overly specific. It seems to me that all of the “least of these” are included, not just specifically Christians or specifically Christian teachers. Besides those cited explicitly in the notes, other advocates of this “universal” interpretation include Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:890-92;  Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 152–55; Kazoh Kitamori, Theology and the Pain of God, 98–104; Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 194, 200–203; Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator, 71–72; and Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 266–267.
[7] Cf. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 239: “Mercy is a better way of obedience.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, 34.
[8] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness, 142-43, where they suggest envisioning those we have difficulty being kind toward as children who are themselves vulnerable.
[9] “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” Cf. “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Snp 1.8), trans. by The Amaravati Sangha, Access to Insight, 14 (June 2010); accessed at .
[10] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man. ... This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”
[11] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, where he observes that this passage has often been treated ethically, “with somewhat colourless talk about ‘love of our neighbor’.” He continues,  “But it is not only love that is demanded. It is in the first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man. It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge of the world, the touchstone which determines salvation and damnation.” He concludes (p. 129), “the question is not how people or happenings outside the church respond to the church, but how the church responds to the presence of Christ in those who are ‘outside’, hungry, thirsty, sick, naked and imprisoned.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:658.

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