Summary: Christ comes to us today in the guise of the poor.
The Incognito Christ
Introduction: The point of our scripture reading for today reminds me of an ancient legend about one of the early saints. St. Lawrence was one of seven deacons in the church at Rome, in the middle of the second century. Rome, surrounded on every side by threatening enemies, and in a near state of financial collapse, desperately needed money to finance its armies. According to this legend, a high official in Rome demanded that Lawrence hand over the treasure of the church. In response, Lawrence assembled all the poor people, to whom he had already given away the possessions of the church, before the Roman official, and he stretched out his hand to them and said, "These are the treasures of the church." The Roman official was so infuriated that he slowly roasted Lawrence to death on a gridiron. I’ve always found today’s scripture reading particularly sobering and challenging. Our reading is not a parable. It is instead a vision of the Last Judgment. Contrary to the way it is usually interpreted, the passage does not direct our attention so much to the future, as it does to the present, and the ways in which we respond to Christ in the present. The point of our passage is not that Christ is merely present in an indefinite future. Instead, the message is that Christ is here in the present with us, but too often we fail to recognize him. Accordingly, I would like us to examine three fundamental questions that I believe the text is addressing: 1) First, where is Christ present? 2) Second, in light of the passage, What is to be our response to the Christ? and 3) Finally, Why is this presence good news for us? I believe that by approaching the text with these three questions, we can better understand the central message.
I. Where is Christ present? From reading the text, we might be tempted to conclude that Christ is simply present at the right hand of God exalted on the throne of judgment. Although this is true enough, there is another more important point that’s being made. Although Christ is present with God in exaltation, he’s also present with us in this world. Christ is present in our world, but not in the way we expect. As the theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote about Christ, "He goes incognito as a beggar among beggars, as an outcast among the outcast, despairing among the despairing, dying among the dying" (Christ The Center, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, New York: Harper and Row, p. 111). Contrary to our view that God is among the wealthy and powerful, we find Christ makes a most amazing statement, "insofar as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Jesus is among the little folk. The people we so easily despise and overlook. There he is, among the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, those sick in mind and body, the prisoners. Wherever people are suffering and oppressed, there is Christ. We might wish Jesus to be somewhere else, a place that’s more respectable, an environment that’s more affluent and pleasing. But Jesus is there were he has ever been, on the cross. He’s suffering with those who suffer, dying with those who die, wandering in search of a home with the homeless, sick and in prison with those who are being tortured. He who was himself poor, makes his dwelling among his people, los pobres de mundo, the poor of the earth. He who was born in a feeding trough for animals, lived his life in poverty, wandering as one without a home, teaching love and doing good. The only reward he received was to die a humiliating death as a criminal on a cross. Jesus still suffers with those whose only crime is that they were born. Their only offense is that they desire to live in peace, and raise their families like you and me; to have enough food on the table to stop the gnawing pains of their stomachs, and to have shelter over their heads and warm clothing on their backs. These little folk are so despised and rejected by the world, that they must live as strangers and aliens without a home. These are the ones for whom Christ has prepared a home, for they are his family, his brothers and sisters, since he so intimately identifies himself with them. “Insofar as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you’ve done it to me.” Years ago, a film was released called El Norte, about the sufferings of migrant workers who come into our nation and risk their lives. It portrays a side of life that none of us has had to experience (thank goodness)! The story concerns a young native American man Enrique, and his young sister, Rosa who flee from Guatemala, after their parents are ruthlessly murdered by soldiers. Enrique and Rosa, after asking for money from their godmother, make a dangerous trek out of Guatemala through Mexico, and finally across the border into El Norte, the U.S. They work very hard, but live in constant fear of being captured by immigration, and being sent back to Guatemala which would mean certain death. There is a very powerful scene in the movie where Rosa is sick and very close to death. Enrique is sitting next to her holding her hand. We hear the following conversation: