The Gospel lesson that we just heard is such a familiar one that you might have let it go right past you thinking that it’s one you understand completely, and miss the shocks that it has for all of us. As a description of what we used to call the ‘corporal works of mercy’, it’s especially appropriate to the ordaining of deacons, of course, those works being traditionally deacons’ work. And it’s especially appropriate to ordaining this deacon, being the Matthew-version of ‘here come de judge’. It’s a courtroom scene, with the defendants before the bench; and it’s all about past and present justice, the actions of the defendants as they confronted the need for justice in their world, and the court’s judgment on those acts. First shock: It’s told by a Jew to a Jewish audience, the last teaching Jesus offers to his disciples before his death – but the only Jew in the picture is the judge. The defendants are the nations – the gentiles, the outsiders, the goyim, those people Jeremiah was sent to – us. The story is for us outsiders because Jews don’t need it: they have Torah, the ‘instruction’, what we call the Law, to tell them how to act. For us outsiders, this is the Law; this is what God’s people are to do when they meet the needy people who turn out to be the judge’s little brothers and sisters. They are to do what God does, to set things right: as the prophet Micah says, to do justice and love mercy, which sometimes, as here, are the same thing.
Dick describes that verse from Micah as ‘the polestar’ of his judicial career. For Matthew the demand is absolute: this is how you get in good with God – or not. If this seems to contradict the teaching of people like Paul, in which it’s what you believe that matters, well, Paul’s version of the gospel isn’t Matthew’s – perhaps a second shock – it’s a lot more in tune with James. Matthew’s view is that what you believe will be amply revealed in what you do, and it’s what you do that matters. The story really has no ideas in it at all: neither the good guys nor the bad have a clue that what they did or didn’t do for their brothers and sisters had any religious content. They’re all shocked that it does: ‘we didn’t know it was you, Lord!’ The difference between them is only that some saw in the neighbor’s need a demand for action – and acted accordingly – and the others didn’t.
So the story is about justice – at least the kind of justice you have to practice when mercy is the best you can do. That was the case in Jesus’s world. It was a world of scarcity, in which mercy was a zero-sum game: sharing with the needy was depriving yourself. If someone was hungry, you gave them your food; if they were naked, your shirt; if they were in prison, your stuff. It was a world in which what’s in one of today’s refrigerators would feed a village for a week, one of our closets would clothe half a city for a lifetime. Equally scarce was power. In Jesus’ world people hadn’t a shred of influence over the conditions that shaped their lives; the vote was unheard of, public policy was made by a single man, the divine Caesar – who might be a saint or a lunatic. Might was right, period; for people who disagreed with that arrangement – well, what do you think we invented crucifixion for?
In that world mercy was the only way God’s justice could be expressed – works of kindness aimed at relieving the suffering that nobody could prevent, through strictly personal transactions, one-on-one, with no relation to, and certainly no effect on, the systems and institutions that governed life then as they do now. It was the Mother Theresa model: you pick up the people the system leaves in the gutter, without trying to figure out what kind of a system it is that does that sort of thing, or how you might change it so there are fewer people in the gutter for you to pick up. You give someone food, clothing, medicine, comfort that might make a difference to them that day – but it would be absurd to think that you could change any other aspects of their situation; certainly not the social or political or economic conditions that caused their hunger or sickness or imprisonment, certainly not their place within those systems.
If all you can do is mercy, then mercy is what you do – and, God knows, even mercy was shocking enough in that world. After 2000 years of Christianity, it’s not so shocking – at least the church has had that much effect. And it’s right that we honor those works of mercy that we have traditionally entrusted to deacons. But, brothers and sisters, Jesus’s world is not ours. Scarcity and powerlessness – being without ‘wherewithal’, the stuff you need to get things done, which the Bible calls mammon – is not our problem. We have so much more stuff than we need that it’s a problem to get rid of it. Likewise we have (at least for now, though maybe not for much longer) all the power we need to actually prevent most of the suffering that Jesus mentions. And therefore we can’t take his words any more just at face-value. For the verdict in this trial to go our way, we have to translate those words into our world, and address its needs in the terms available to us – terms that couldn’t even have been imagined in Jesus’s day.
This is shock #3 from this Gospel. Translation means addressing human needs in ways beyond the personal, beyondthe pastoral, beyond the small ideas about ‘service’ that we usually think of when we think of diaconal ministry. Where the need, and the opportunity, for justice exist, it’s simply not legitimate to fall back merely on mercy. Jesus tells us to do it because it’s what you must do when there’s nothing else you can do. But there is a lot else we can do to end the epidemic of hunger, nakedness, sickness, exclusion, imprisonment, in a society that has every resource it needs to do that. Maybe not wipe it out entirely – even Jesus, just before he dies, says to his disciples, ‘the poor you always have with you’ – but certainly make it as rare, and shocking, as it ought to be.
Take feeding the hungry in a world that is more than able to do that for all its people, if we would return to the idea that farming is about food for everyone rather than profit for the few. Feeding the hungry now has to mean not just ladling out soup for homeless people, but finding ways to eliminate the need for the homeless to depend on that. Ministering to the sick in a nation whose health-care system funnels an obscene proportion of its profits into the salaries of its CEO’s, but can’t figure out how to get all its kids vaccinated, has to mean more than bringing flowers and prayers to Hamot Hospital – it has to mean making changes in the whole system for bringing health to all the people who actually need it. It must mean focusing on helping people not to be sick in the first place, changing our people’s access to basic nutrition; clamping down hard on the people who adulterate our food and persuade us to buy their cigarettes and pop, and pollute our land and water and air.
In Jesus’s time, and up until about 200 years ago, ‘visiting’ prisoners meant bringing them their meals every day and seeing to their basic needs. In a nation that has exponentially more people behind bars than any other (including those we call gross violators of human rights), ‘visiting’ those in prison surely means dealing with what besidespersonal wrongdoing put them in prison in the first place, like our insane sentencing laws; and our use of prisons to substitute for the mental hospitals, rehab units, colleges, jobs, social networks, that are closed off to huge segments of our people; our use of prisons as warehouses for packing away all society’s problems (and, of course, training of ever-more-sophisticated criminals). It has to mean figuring out how to get people out of there and into useful life in society. (You can’t really say ‘back’ to useful life in society, because they probably never had such a life before they went to jail.) It means taking drastic action about a system of ‘justice’ that is not just slightly, but grossly biased against the poor and the black, a system in which people whose salaries we pay simply murder in cold blood scores of people every year only because they’re poor and black, and are almost never held accountable for those deaths. I am not starry-eyed about either the poor or the incarcerated – I’m sure they’re just as irresponsible, stupid, selfish, cruel and deceitful as the rich – but in this nation, founded on liberty and justice for all, not only every Christian, but every citizen should cringe in shame at our national mania for locking people up. When even the Koch brothers recognize how bad this situation is, you know it’s really bad.
Which brings us to shock # 4. Reorienting a whole society’s priorities is a work of power, and we don’t usually think of deacons, whose vocation is to be servants, in terms of power. The only reality the old models of mercy can change is personal. But justice doesn’t happen one-on-one – it happens because a society, an institution, a nation, organizes itself around it, cares about it, practices it. And in a society in which injustice is so firmly institutionalized, the powers and principalities who profit from that injustice are not going to give up their profits without a fight. We can go far to establish justice (our Constitution’s first aim) through the exercise of our own political and economic power, rooted in the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God himself – though it will involve us in the messy and corrupt and dangerous world of politics, where religion is not supposed to go. But in a nation whose politics are still a little bit under its people’s control, we can do it; and, if we don’t do it, I think we can also confidently expect the divine Judge to ask us, eventually, why we didn’t. Mt says, in fact, that it’s the only question that will be asked when we all show up before the bench on the last day.
Dick, for you I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. But for the rest of us it could be a little challenging to recognize, in the exercise of that power, the work of the deacon, the work of a servant of Jesus Christ, and his church, and his poor. But our notion of servanthood in our time needs to grow to comprise the exercise of power, not just kindness, and to recognize as Christ’s work its operation not just on a personal scale, but on the systems and institutions that oppress and deform people’s lives. Dick’s got power. He’s a judge, for heaven’s sake (and I do mean that ‘for heaven’s sake’). When he began a career in the legal system, he had to work a Christian regard for justice and mercy into his obligation to be bound by the rules. Now he can, in part, make the rules, handing down decisions that influence other people’s decisions toward justice and mercy, crafting constitutions that write them into laws for whole nations. He can serve those most in need of God’s justice and mercy in ways vastly greater than the small ways that once were the only option. Dick, as your servant-ministry broadens from secular justice into the realm of the church, let part of that ministry be teaching the rest of us our own power to change the world.
The last shock I’d like to propose today is what I call the ‘geezer factor’. Dick and I are well into what people call – for reasons that completely escape me – ‘the golden years’. Around us is a society that worships youth, and which has departed so far from what its right wing likes to call ‘our Judaeo-Christian traditions’, that its leaders of that persuasion have spent the last 40 years designing and increasing – and justifying –the huge gap we now see between rich and poor in this nation, and the radical injustice built on that fact. In a spot like this maybe geezers have something to offer – the first thing being, of course, that power I just mentioned, that a long career allows someone to build up for the good of God’s agenda for the world.
But Dick’s age also has memory to offer. He can remember how our society was before the massive redistribution of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich; so he can testify to the rest of us that, despite the claims of the powers of this world, equity in the public realm is not just an idle dream – it was once our reality, and it could be again. Dick can also remember the last time a great nation became obsessed with its own ‘greatness’, a time the rest of us can only read about in those history books we mostly ignore. It was a time very much like our own, when another nation desperate for a savior, with its soul rotted by ignorance, bigotry and lies, chose to make gods out of violence, hatred and bigotry, and even decent people signed up to help wipe out the outsiders – those ‘others’ – and take over the world. Only people as old as Dick can actually hear in today’s rhetoric the echo of that bigotry, that narcissism, that worship of hatred and violence, that insanity, of 7-decades ago. Dick, as your servant-ministry broadens from the realm of politics into that of the church, don’t let the rest of us forget what you remember.
So here we are, in this crazy enterprise of Jesus v. The World, taking our stand by ordaining as a deacon – a servant – a powerful guy; by picking as a reconciler a guy who personifies that combination of religion and politics that has made such a mess of so much of our world, a guy so old that half our culture would call him over the hill. You have to laugh – it’s all so paradoxical; it’s such a Christian thing to do. We give thanks for you, Dick, and for your work and for your call to do it among us. Be our servant too; lead us, teach us; show us what our Lord’s mercy and justice look like in this time and place. And help us make our own decisions, so that when we stand before his tribunal we can give the right answers, the answers that lead to a verdict, on us and on our society, of ‘Come, you blessed of my Father’. Amen.