Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words on the rise of food banks in the UK.
In Matthew 25, Jesus presents an image – a flock of sheep and goats separated, a metaphor for humanity at the last judgement. The sheep are praised for feeding Jesus when he was hungry, for visiting him in prison; likewise, the goats are condemned for leaving him to starve and leaving him to rot. Both sides are confused – neither remember helping or ignoring Jesus like that. Then comes the twist: whatever they did or didn’t do for the lowliest members of society, they did/didn’t do for Jesus himself.
It’s shocking how Jesus identifies himself here. We might like the idea of him hanging out with us at church, patting us on the back, but he’s more likely to be queuing up for the food bank, sleeping in a doorway under a piece of cardboard, fleeing ISIS and hoping that someone’s going to open the border.
Notice that, because it’s important; Jesus isn’t helping at the food bank, he’s using it; he’s not an NGO aid worker, he’s a refugee. The difference is significant. Jesus here expresses an intimate solidarity with the marginalised and that transforms our mental landscape. That homeless guy I ran past when I was late for a meeting? Jesus identifies with him. The victims of natural disasters who fade from our memories as quickly as they fade from the headlines? Jesus again. The immigrants the media tell us to fear? Jesus.
It’s shocking enough that God became a man. It’s even more radical to think that God became a man and then associates with the poorest, weakest, most oppressed of society.
Neither the Sheep or the Goats see it like this. The Sheep just get on with helping individuals; they’re expecting to see Jesus there but they’re going to help anyway. It is, after all, the right thing to do.
The Goats are equally shocked, probably for a different reason. They don’t seem to be helping anyone much but hey, maybe it would have been different if Jesus had been there. Sure, they’d’ve taken Jesus out for dinner if only they’d spotted him cosplaying a hobo that morning. Everyone else should go away and get a job, but not Jesus; Jesus is important.
The anonymity of Jesus in this story exposes what’s really going on in our hearts. Anyone can look like a good little church-goer, but if that doesn’t translate into how we treat others, if the live and grace and compassion of Christ doesn’t get deep into our bones, then our worship is just the sort of empty religion the Old Testament prophets railed against. Jesus isn’t fooled by cynical photo opportunities. Rather, he’s present for every moment of shame, every moment of humiliation, every punch thrown, every second of suffering. “Immanuel, God with us” is something we hear a lot at this time of year. The implications of that aren’t just stunning, they’re also heartbreaking. We don’t always recognise him, not unless we have eyes to see, but he’s there.
But then again, that anonymity is shattered the moment he reveals himself to the Sheep and the Goats. We’re invited to see the image of Christ – the image of God – in the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the starving. That should have a radical impact on how we live life, everything from how we shop to how we vote. Too often it doesn’t: we sanitise things like the incarnation, the Imago Dei, the Sermon on the Mount. States proclaim Christian values then arrest a 90 year old man for feeding the homeless.
So, are we Sheep or are we Goats? The answer isn’t in what we claim, it’s in what we do. And while we’re figuring that out, Jesus still queues at a foodbank.