A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by Nathan Nettleton
I would gladly have ignored the parable of the sheep and the goats at the moment, but there it was as the set gospel reading for the day. It used to be my favourite passage to preach on. My most famous sermon was based on this parable. It was a sermon that every time I preached it I got invited to preach it again somewhere else. I’ve preached it nine times, including at Scots’ Church, the presbyterian cathedral in the city where the pulpit is so high you need to take oxygen with you just to get up there.
It was a simple but hard-hitting sermon in which I just retold the parable, but with each of the circumstances that Jesus describes, “I was hungry, I was a stranger, etc..” I fleshed them out with modern day examples, and then fleshed out the responses a bit. It was perhaps the definitive Nathan Nettleton sermon – Nathan’s manifesto of how to live Christianly in today’s world. It graphically illustrated my view of Christian mission; that the mission of the church in the world was to overthrow all oppressors and the wipe out all injustice. The church was to be actively engaged in political and social reform and in significant welfare programs. And this parable was the key for me, showing that Christ’s judgment of us would be directly linked to our engagement in these activities.
Well, I don’t know if I could preach that sermon any more. It’s not that my politics have changed or that I no longer think that justice and peace making are important. I still think that the overthrow of oppression and the liberation of all creation are integral to God’s agenda in the world and therefore to the message of the gospel. But I am no longer so sure that political action and welfare and reform programs are the central purpose of the church. This probably sounds a bit paradoxical or confusing – it is to me too, but hopefully I can make some sense of it. It is not that I am saying that the church should not be involved in those things or that individual Christians shouldn’t be involved in those things. Our world and society are in desperate need of radical reform and billions of people are in dire need of adequate food, shelter and clothing, and the Christian voice is needed in that work.
But I’m no longer convinced that it is the first work of the church or the first responsibility of its people. Let me try first to explain why I have begun to doubt that, and then move on to how we might seek to faithfully live this parable if my doubts are correct.
I’ve been involved for almost fifteen years in churches that get labelled as the “social justice churches”. I am very much a product of those churches, because much of my faith and life have been shaped by my investment in them. I have seen and sometimes participated in major ministries reaching out to prisoners, street people, homeless youth, people with psychiatric disabilities, substance abusers, outlaw bikies. I have seen and sometimes participated in church based organisations campaigning against nuclear proliferation, American interference in Central America and the Philippines, logging in native forests and the continuing marginalization of aboriginal people.
Every one of those things did some good work and achieved some victories for needy people in the name of Christ. I’m not ashamed of my involvement with them, and especially in the case of the House of Hope I remain quite proud of what we achieved. But there is another side to all this; a side to which I’ve only recently begun to own up to and face, and a side to which I’m not yet sure how to adequately respond. Most, if not all, of those works have left in their wake a trail of broken and dispirited Christians who have been either wounded or burned out by their involvement. Drained dry and then left behind. Some have left the church completely. Others have stayed, but are afraid of getting involved in any kind of ministry and usually feel a nagging, or even excruciating sense of guilt about their apparent failure.
And when you add that information into the ledger along side our accomplishments it is no longer such a rosy picture. And the scary thing is that despite the occasional dents we’ve made, oppression and injustice continue as strongly as ever, and so although we’ve alleviated some cases of suffering along the way, if we’ve had to use and abuse our own people to do it, perhaps we’ve created as much woundedness as we’ve healed.
Now I’m not entirely comfortable admitting this stuff, because I have repeatedly used the parable of the sheep and the goats to inspire, or perhaps guilt-trip people into increasingly strenuous action in welfare and reform programs. And eventually I, along with many of them, ended up burned out and unable to continue. I can’t even walk down Fitzroy Street any more without feeling a cloud of depression descending around me.
What we failed to do in most of the “social justice” churches was nurture our own people. We filled their heads full of ideology and set them to work, but we didn’t nurture their spirituality or replenish their emotional resources. I’ve quoted great theologians saying things like “the church is the only organisation that exists entirely for the benefit of those who aren’t in it.” Well I think that we failed the people who were in it along the way, and so while we may have alleviated a bit of suffering here and there, we have failed to model a a genuine alternative, a sustainable community of love, hospitality and justice.
But it’s one thing for me to stand up here and critique our past, even my own past, it’s another to offer a clear alternative. This parable is not about to be deleted from the scriptures. I still have to work out what to do with it now. What does this parable call us to if it is not welfare programs and reform movements on behalf of the poor and needy with whom Christ clearly identifies himself?
On the one hand I think the answer may actually lie in a more literal interpretation of the parable, but on the other I am going to have to qualify that carefully because it can open up another big avenue for guilt and burn-out. If you wanted to parody my past preaching and practice of this parable, it would be something like this; “I was hungry and you established a welfare meals kitchen. I was a stranger and you formed a community development program. I was in prison and you joined the prison reform society.” And if you wanted to be really scathing you could suggest that all those things were as much about self-agrandisement and empire building as actually helping other people.
The people Jesus rewards in the description of the judgment are not commended for running programs, they are commended for their loving hospitality. “I was hungry and a stranger and you welcomed me to your table. I was in prison and you came to the prison and sat with me.”
At one level it’s easier, at another its more costly. It’s much smaller in scale, but it may be more significant in impact. House of Hope fed hundreds of people when I was there, but most of them still can’t feed themselves. Welfare handouts don’t heal people’s lives, they just cushion the blows. Inviting one person to dinner may seem far less significant, but love and hospitality are what heal people’s souls and turn their lives around. It is no accident that the words hospitality and hospital both originate in the same idea.
But let me qualify this. This will not work if we are living our lives along the standard patterns of our society, each hidden behind our deadlocked doors and our paling fences. If you operate as an isolated individual and try to recognise Christ in the face of every needy person you encounter and respond accordingly by opening your home and your heart, you will again burn out in a matter of weeks and begin hiding strenuously avoiding contact with needy people to cut down your work rate. And you will again begin to be weighed down by guilt because you have failed Jesus again. This is not of God.
Hospitality is a community activity. Sharing food and drink, visiting each other, even when we’re sick or in prison, caring for one another and supporting one another, encouraging and nurturing one another’s growth; these are the basic features of community life. Much of the brokenness and suffering in our society comes not so much from evil oppressors as from the privatisation of life and the consequent loss of these communal values. Though many decry the loss of traditional family values, I would argue that it is actually the idolisation of the family to the exclusion of the community that has impoverished our lives. The nuclear family is too small a unit to provide an adequate social context for the shaping and nurturing of healthy creative human beings.
We here in this church are not as bad as many churches, and perhaps better than most at welcoming, accepting and supporting one another and sharing food and drink together. The challenge for us is to build on those skills in order to develop the sort of community life that can really welcome those who come to us as strangers, as the poor and needy, as the dysfunctional and unlovely. The challenge for us is to continue to develop our care for one another while simultaneously opening it up to the Christ who comes to us in the stranger’s guise and who will one day pass judgment on how we welcomed him into the vibrant nurturing heart of our community.
This needs a lot more time than I have here to develop, and I don’t have all the answers. We are going to have to work out those answers together over time. We are going to have to explore and experiment together with what it means for us to be a community of radical hospitality in South Yarra end of the twentieth century. I don’t think this is a cop out from the gospel imperative for justice and peace-making. I think it is as we develop among ourselves a sustainable community living a lifestyle of radical communal hospitality that we will best enable others to find a place of liberation and healing, and that we will best model the life of peace and justice and thus critique the society around us, and ultimately it is in such a community that we will best nurture one another for any involvement in bigger struggles.
I hope that when the judgment of this parable comes to pass, we won’t hear Christ say, “I was hungry when I visited your church, and you all went down to the pub afterwards without inviting me. I was stranger and you had a wonderful time over coffee with each other.” But I also don’t want us all to engage in such frantic over-ambitious mission response that we hear Christ say, “I was a member of your own congregation and you drove me to pour myself out in your programs until I was drained, discouraged and depressed and you replaced me with someone else.”