the penultimate WORD
Series 1999 - May Canon Jim Irvine
They would never have neglected Jesus;
... they hadn't seen him in such need! 


‘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?’ Then he will answer them,
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

Matthew 25: 44ff. New Revised Standard Version

Listening to Jesus' stories as we so often do, is a repeated luxury we take for granted. The stories are familiar. And naturally, we have our favourites. Listening as we do, in a cycle of readings set out by the lectionaries of our Church, we become jaded. The stories no longer refresh us. We know the ending at the outset. Their familiar ring comforts us but it seldom challenges. The stories are about others, and their freshness no longer speaks to us.

Imagining what it might have been like, listening attentively to Jesus' voice as he told a story for the first time, is a worthwhile exercise. I do it a lot. I read the story aloud. I read it over and over and over again. Each time I read it, I discover that my voice gives fresh expression to his voice and I am startled. This phrase is emphasized at one reading, that phrase is emphasized at another. The scene comes alive for me, and my hearing is engaged.

On one such occasion, we learn that Jesus told his listeners a story of a king who called his people to account. The familiar image Jesus used in this case was that of a shepherd who, having gathered in his livestock from the hillside, proceeded to separate the animals: the sheep were penned in one group, with goats separated and penned in another group.

Now I didn't hear which group was the "good" group. And I don't know which group was the "bad" group. Jesus just doesn't say. My suspicion is that the goats are the bad group, but that may expose a sheepish bias on my part. I think I'd prefer to be a sheep rather than a goat. And if I was going to be identified by a metaphor, then the sheep have my allegiance. But perhaps I'm a goat. And perhaps the goats are just as okay as the sheep may be.

What Jesus says is this. He speaks to one group (maybe the goats, I don't know), and commends them on their care, their active engagement and support of others in need. I do know that it surprised them. They didn't know that they were in some way feeding Jesus, that they were visiting him, that they were ministering to him!

To the other group (could it have been, perhaps, the sheep?), he said that they had not cared for him, that their avoidance of active engagement of others in need was their failing. And, you know, that really surprised them! They hadn't recognized Jesus in the lives of those without food, those without shelter, those imprisoned and hungry. They would never have neglected Jesus; it's just that they hadn't seen him in such need!

On the one hand, unwitting grace touched the lives of men and women and old people and young people, each one in need.

On the other, conscious avoidance prevailed.

In the 30's, newsreels documented trains filled with children of Abraham taken to unspeakable places, and the silence (of sheep, perhaps?) erupted in war. And evil leaven fermented and lives were lost.

And now, children of Abraham by another son, Albanians fleeing Kosovo, are seen walking in an endless line along a ribbon of steel gray: hungry, afraid, and destitute. The scene is unbearable and I cannot look at it for long before switching to Seinfeld or Law and Order or The Price is Right. I can turn off my pain of seeing others' pain.

The other day, when I was watching the live reports from the Balkans, it seemed to me that I heard Jesus' voice again.

Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine

Series 1999