Text: Matthew 25: 42-45
42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘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?’ 45 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.’
I’m thinking there isn’t any other passage in the New Testament that identifies as clearly our calling to care for the poor and oppressed, to lift up the downtrodden and to bring those who are marginalized back into the mainstream of society than this passage. It seems like some of us have forgotten what that looks like or our collective fear of the other has blinded us to that need. What seems even more ironic to me is the real messages of the Christmas story echo these same sentiments, but they are often overlooked.
There are a lot of varying theological positions regarding the Christmas story. There are some who long for the evidence to prove that Christmas unfolded exactly as it is recorded in the Gospel narratives. There are others who acknowledge that some of the historical facts may be accurate in the story, but other parts are more metaphor or creative license on the part of the authors. There are of course other positions which claim the entire Christmas story is simply that, just a story, and our job is to find the meaning in the story rather than trying to prove it happened exactly in one way or the other. When we consider the Christmas story with an eye toward caring for the other, it is interesting to me that it doesn’t matter what theological position you happen to subscribe to-in this case, all roads lead to the same conclusion. In other words, I don’t think it makes any difference what you believe concerning the factual accuracy of the Christmas story; the truths that the Christmas story points out remain the same.
Let me see if I can explain this in greater detail.
A good place to begin may be at the beginning…and so I want us to first look at the choice of Mary to bring a son into this world. In the grand scheme of things, if you want to believe that the end game was to get Jesus here on earth and functional, it would have been much quicker and possibly more efficient to just have him materialize somewhere. You know, kind of like the Terminator movies where Arnold just sort of shows up in a back alley somewhere-God could have done that, but chose not to. I wonder why? Mary was a nobody, there wasn’t any notoriety to be gained through having Mary give birth. By most accounts, Mary was just an ordinary young woman; but for some reason God chose the common over the spectacular, the unremarkable over the remarkable. I think there is a truth in there for us if we choose to look for it. Perhaps God wanted us to notice the value in the ordinary, perhaps God wanted us to see the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary.
So Mary and Joseph take off for Bethlehem. I guess they didn’t have the chance to make reservations with Expedia or Priceline or even with relatives that one would assume lived in Bethlehem, because it seems they were having trouble finding a place to stay. So the last Inn they checked with was also full, but they might have mentioned the barn. Any way you look at this, it seems odd to me. Mary and Joseph were arriving in Bethlehem because of a census, they were returning to where their roots were. There wasn’t any family on either side that had an extra couch or room on the floor? I mean, this is where they were from; certainly there was an aunt or an uncle or the crazy cousin Larry-somebody? But instead they find themselves on the outside of the Inn. I think that is an important ingredient in our story. Mary and Joseph and eventually Jesus were on the outside. They were kept outside and not allowed inside where everyone else was allowed to stay. Does any of this sound familiar? Is the story trying to once again point to the ordinary, point us in the direction of those who remain on the outside? Is the story really about greatness coming to us from the most unlikely places; is the story reminding us that humanity will always divide between the outsiders and the insiders? In this case it is the outsider who is the hero. There is a truth here for us. The truth that God uses the potential of everyone, even the outsiders, or those considered outside of the norm by the rest of us. When Jesus was born he was on the outside; seems like he stayed on the outside his entire life. That is significant and it is worth thinking about. Any way you cut it, Jesus was on the outside.
Now I want to talk about marketing. This is something that I know at least a little bit about, and for all intents and purposes, God sort of blew it in this department. I mean, there wasn’t much marketing and what there was didn’t really hit the mark. Shepherds? Really? If you want to get a message out, you talk to the mayor, you get the king to issue a decree. Actually, think about it; the scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph had been informed they needed to go to Bethlehem and be counted. How did they know this? The age old and very familiar beginning of the Christmas narrative from Luke tells us that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”. So you see, if you want to get the word out, you issue a decree, or have Emperor Augustus issue a decree.
Now I will give God some kudos for creativity. The sky full of angels thing was pretty cool, even by today’s standards that would make a pretty big splash. But here’s the thing; nobody saw it. A few shepherds in a field someplace. What was God thinking? You go to all that trouble of rounding up all those angels and choreograph the angels and the bright lights and the voices and the singing and all that just for a couple of shepherds? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like having the production budget for a Super Bowl commercial, having the best creative team in the world come up with a great concept, you have Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise for a spokesperson and maybe Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez as well, just for good measure. You produce and edit and mix this absolute blockbuster of a commercial. It is award winning in every sense. And then you have it play on some obscure college TV station that only reaches about 15 students who happen to be channel surfing at 3 in the morning.
So the shepherds are wowed by this stunning marketing effort of the angels. So what? They go to Bethlehem and check out the story and find it to be true. Now what? What exactly are shepherds suppose to do for you? I’m not certain, but I don’t think in the first century shepherds were exactly at the top of the food chain. My impression of the average shepherd was a hard working, probably poor, little bit of a loner kind of guy that if you got too close to you might notice he smelled a little funny. Why shepherds?
If you are beginning to notice a theme here, I don’t think it is a coincidence. Once again, the choice seems to be in favor of the marginalized and not the main stream. Apparently the shepherds did their job, because word of Jesus eventually got out. And once again we are reminded that the lowly, the unnoticed, the unremarkable are the stars in this Christmas story.
The scripture I read a few minutes ago has Jesus speaking of the least of these; I’m wondering where he learned that? It seems the Christmas story is packed with the least of these, and in spite of that lowly standing, consider what has happened. Is the truth of the Christmas story designed to point us toward the least, the lost, the lonely and the lowly? I think it is.
If we are to recognize any shred of truth at all in the Christmas story it must be this; in the eyes of God, there is no least. All are worthy and all are important. And if you find yourself on the outside, you are in good company and when you need to entrust a world changing message to someone, character is more important than status.
And that, as they say, is food for thought. And it is also the truth. Go in peace, and go with God.