An art installation back in 2013 made a big splash in the church world. There was this Canadian sculptor named Timothy Schmaltz who made this bronze statue of Jesus. Only, it doesn’t really look like Jesus. In fact, some people were really offended by how little it looked like Jesus. Instead of the traditional imagery of the crucified Christ hanging from the crossbeam, Schmaltz had depicted Jesus as a person sleeping on a bench, with a blanket covering every part of him except his pierced feet.
The intention of the art piece was to help Christians get a real, earthy, physical reminder of what Jesus meant when he said “when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” And it was good in some places, with congregations wanting it installed by the church, and the Pope blessing it as a truly holy representation of Jesus. But other reactions were…well, not so great. In one installation, a woman called the police shortly after the art piece was installed, assuming it was a real homeless person.
“What you did to the least of these, you did it to me.”
This parable is one of the most challenging of Jesus’ parables in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus makes it explicitly clear that when we serve our needy neighbor, when we show mercy to the outcast, when we feed the hungry or visit the sick, we’re not just doing it to them. We’re doing those things to Jesus himself. It really ups the stakes, doesn’t it? Suddenly the needy people we meet aren’t just needy people we need to pity, or judge if they’re needy enough to require actual help. They’re Jesus. It’s little wonder why so many people have tried so hard to split every hair they can find in this parable to soften its meteoric impact on our lives.
But I don’t think we should shy away from the shock of what this parable is telling us. After all, the reaction of both the sheep and the goats to Jesus’ big reveal is exactly the same—“you were what?!” Without realizing it, the way they treated their needy neighbors, the humble and outcast, the hungry, sick, poor, imprisoned, and sick—the way they treated the least of these was actually exactly how they were treating Jesus himself. The fact that they didn’t know revealed exactly what was in their hearts. However they treated their needy neighbors was exactly how they treat Jesus. There is no distinction.
Of course it’s tempting to spiritualize that link. It’s not really Jesus himself that we would be serving in our needy neighbor. It’s just a metaphor: caring for our neighbor is as if we were caring for Jesus. Tending the sick or feeding the hungry is like tending and feeding Jesus, spiritually, because reasons and soft-focus sentimentality. If it were really Jesus that we were serving, then we might have to face the terrifying prospect of the fact that the people we deemed unworthy to serve, the least of these who weren’t quite least enough for our discerning eyes, were also Jesus. If it’s just a metaphor, a play on words, then we are still free to pick and choose where we extend the metaphor, and where we stop it. But Jesus wasn’t giving us a metaphor.
You see, when you paid up the balance on the grocery bill for the mother counting her pennies only to find there wasn’t quite enough, you were feeding Jesus.
And when you boxed up that not-quite-old coat knowing that the needy family in the coat drive would get more use out of it than you would, you are putting a coat on Jesus.
And when you gave a lift again for that neighbor whose car just never seems to work right, you took Jesus to work. It’s not a metaphor.
And in this time, in this pandemic, when your neighbor needs you more than ever, it’s not a metaphor. When you pick up the phone to call an older congregation member who’s been stuck inside since March, knowing that your phone call “just to catch up” will brighten their day, you are brightening Jesus’ day.
And when you put on your mask, enduring your own coffee breath while getting groceries so that the immunocompromised spouse of the cashier who doesn’t have the option of staying home can stay safe, you are keeping Jesus safe.
And when you chose to forego Thanksgiving with your extended family so that there will be one less route of transmission to first responders who don’t know if they’re going into a COVID positive situation or not, you are protecting Jesus.
And when you don’t do that sleepover with your friend because it might get school back to being in-person sooner, ensuring that the kid who learns best in person actually learns something, you are helping Jesus learn. It’s not a metaphor.
There is no distinction between your neighbor who needs your good works and Jesus. God is always on the side of the needy, and that’s a fact throughout the entire Biblical witness. When we serve our needy neighbors, when we do the hard things that take the burden away from them, when we feed them when they’re hungry or protect them when they’re vulnerable; when we miss in-person church services but endure drive-in or live stream for the sake of others, we are doing these things to Jesus because that’s where Jesus is. When we love our neighbor, we love God.
And that’s the bedrock of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom over which Jesus reigns. Service to the needy, no matter who they are, is who we are as Christians. We don’t make sense without it. Christians were accused of a lot of things in the early days, but one dumbfounded Emperor, Julian the Apostate, complained that “these Galileans care for our poor as much as their own!” When we stop making the distinction between needy people and Jesus, we will start dropping those barriers to our willingness to serve our needy neighbor. That radical notion of service, to the point that our love for the needy confounds and shocks the cynical and powerful, should be the hallmark of who we are as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Christ is King, and we have a duty as citizens of his kingdom to serve him. And the way that he calls on us to serve him is to serve him in the people who need our good works. So serve your neighbor in need. Give to the food shelf and the coat drive so Jesus can be fed and warm. Wear a mask and avoid large groups so that Jesus can keep breathing free. Call your siblings in Christ, or write them letters, so that Jesus’ heart can be warmed by your thoughtfulness. Do your duty to your King, and serve him by serving your neighbor.
Thanks be to God. Amen.