The Disguised King
Someday, when I’m old and grey and I’ve preached through all the lectionary passages a dozen times or more, I won’t find myself in the situation that I found myself this week as I prepared my sermon for this week. The situation that I found myself in this week is that I came across something in my study of our Gospel passage that completely changed my understanding of the passage. When I’ve been around the block a few more times, I think this will happen more rarely, but as it is it does happen sometimes that I come into the week thinking that the passage is about one thing, and by the end of the week I’ve learned that it wasn’t about that at all. And I’m going to get to that point, but first I want to tell you a little story.
My first week of college, I was in a bus with a bunch of other college students, and we had gotten into a debate about theology. I remember myself as being uncharacteristically quiet during this debate, which is either wrong or maybe I just couldn’t get a word in edgewise. But there was another person on the trip, and he was Presbyterian just like me (in fact, he went on to become a Presbyterian minister). And he was defending Christian orthodoxy on a series of issues, and the question of hell came up. I don’t remember the exact question, but the gist of it was about whether or not someone was going to hell. And I remember this so distinctly because I think of it as a very Presbyterian thing to do when someone brings up the topic of hell.
He cocked his head to one side, and said “Come on. That’s just cheating.” I think of that as a Presbyterian answer, because, for the most part, Presbyterians don’t like to talk about hell. This is just my experience, and yours may differ. Presbyterians are a diverse lot. But in my experience, we like to talk about love. We like to talk about helping people. We love to talk about Jesus. But we don’t like to talk about hell.
And you know what? I don’t like to talk about hell either. One reason is that I’m committed to telling the truth about what the Bible says, and the Bible is not nearly as clear on the issue as you think. Most of what we heard from preachers growing up about hell comes more from Dante and Milton than from Jesus or Paul.
But the real reason I don’t like to talk about hell is this: most of us go through enough hell in our lives that we don’t need to hear any more about it on Sunday. We don’t need to hear more about hell—we’re intimately familiar with it. What we need to hear is that hell can be defeated, and has been defeated, in Jesus Christ.
But here we are, in the third week of a series of parables in Matthew on Judgment Day, and Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats. And in my study this week I ran into something that I hadn’t run into before, and it’s gotten me thinking about hell, and specifically this question, which may have been the question my Presbyterian friend was responding to: Is Gandhi going to hell?
Gandhi isn’t really the point of the question, just an example. The real question is whether or not someone who is a righteous person, but not a Christian, is going to hell (whatever form or shape that may be). Now my good Presbyterian answer is that I’m glad it’s not up to me to decide. I’m called to love people, and let God sort them out later. If anyone ever asks me on a plane or at a party what I think on the subject, that’s about all I’ll say. And my more biblical scholarly answer is that the Bible is a complex document, and it represents a wide variety of views on this issue and others, and even in biblical times Christians may have disagreed about the answer to this question. That’s the truth, but it’s not an answer.
But this week as I was studying our passage from Matthew, I ran into something that brought this question to my mind again. As I think about it, it seems so obvious, I really ought to have noticed it before. It’s revolves around who Jesus is talking about in this story, and there are two passages that come up. In verse 32 it says, “all the nations will be gathered before him.” The Greek for “all the nations” is pάντα τὰ ἔθνη. In New Testament Greek, “the nations” refers to the Gentiles. Everyone who studies the Bible in Greek knows this, it’s right there in the dictionary. Most of the time it’s just translated as “Gentiles,” but sometimes for various translation or history reasons, it is left in as “the nations.” So in the parable, when the Son of Man gathers “all the nations,” Matthew is referring not to everyone, but to the Gentiles, that is, to the people who did not receive or did not respond to the Gospel.
The second phrase is in verse 40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The least of these who are members of my family. Now Jesus has told us who are the members of his family. In chapter 12, starting with verse 48. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Now I’ve always read this as a story about how important it is for Christians to see Jesus in the poor, the imprisoned, and the hungry. But as I read it in context, the whole thing has been flip-turned upside-down, as the Fresh Prince would say. If the Son of Man has gathered the Gentiles, and is judging them according to how they treat the members of his family, this story has a very different flavor. Instead of this being a story about Christians being judged for how they treat others, it has become a story about how non-Christians will be judged for how they treat the least of the faithful. I recognize that that’s a tall order, if this passage has been as important in your life as it has been in mine.
But it’s not like this is the only passage that tells us to care for our neighbor. Just in the book of Matthew we hear the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and condemnations of the authorities for ignoring justice for the poor. Even if this passage is about the Gentiles it doesn’t mean that Christians should stop clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick or imprisoned. All of those are fundamentals of the Christian faith already.
It doesn’t tell us anything new about what Christians are called to do. It does, however, open up a possibility. Most interpretations of the last day or the day of judgment imply that “the nations” will be judged harshly for not believing the Gospel. But Matthew seems to be telling us that there will be another standard through which non-Christians will be judged. And that there might even be some room for Gentiles at Jesus’ right hand. And the standards that Jesus will hold these non-Christians up to are not too far from the standards that Jesus expects the faithful to live up to. Kindness – not just to friends and family, because everyone is kind to friends and family, but to the vulnerable: the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned. The implication here is that there might be room for Gandhi after all.
If we worry a little bit less about who Jesus is talking about, and more about what Jesus is saying, there is still more to be gleaned from this parable. In particular, it talks about what kind of king Jesus is and will be. That’s the reason this passage comes up today, on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian year. The change in the identity of the characters doesn’t change the truth at the heart of the passage. Jesus is king, and he will be found in the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those in prison.
When I was a kid, I used to love those stories where the king (or queen or some other powerful figure) dresses up in disguise to walk amongst the common people, and see how they live. Inevitably, something would happen, and the king would reveal himself to the delight or dismay of the people around, depending on how they had treated the disguised king. You know those kind of stories? Like the witch who comes disguised to a prince’s castle asking for a place to stay, and when she is refused, reveals herself to be a beautiful and powerful sorceress, and curses the prince to look like a beast.
A good example is a story about the Polish King Casimir the Great, in which he dresses up as a beggar asking for food. A cruel noble sends him away, but then he goes to a peasant’s house and the peasant offers to share his last loaf of bread, and even invites the beggar to his son’s baptism. On the date of the baptism, the king and his retinue go to the noble’s house and scold him for his cruelty before appearing at the baptism of the little boy, bearing his own loaf to share with the peasant, a loaf of pure gold.
This parable is sort of in line with these old stories. The idea is that you should treat everyone kindly, because you never know who they might be. Only in Jesus’ story it’s backwards. Normally the disguised king throws off his cloak and reveals his fancy robes underneath. He is not some ordinary peasant but a king. But in this story it goes the other way. In this story the king throws off his royal robe and reveals that he is the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. Jesus doesn’t tell us to treat everyone kindly because you never know who you’ll meet. Jesus tells us this story so that we’ll know exactly who we’ll meet. He is in the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those in prison. If we’re looking for him, that’s where we’ll go.