Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 23:34 (NRSV)
This may reveal a bit of generational and perhaps cultural baggage, but I want to share a story with you about my experience of belonging. My years of public school were filled with many of the same pressures I am sure many of you dealt with – particularly around popularity. My family didn’t come from any type of inherited wealth and we moved around so much that we didn’t really have the longtime connections that many of my classmates had. As a result, I had to overcompensate for these perceived deficiencies in order to attain the peak level of popularity many young people ascribe to.
Around the time I was in the 6th grade, the thing to have was a Starter Jacket. Now, to the naked eye, there was nothing particularly special about a Starter Jacket. It was a normal bomber jacket that featured the brand of local sports teams – in my case it would’ve been the original Charlotte Hornets (the team made famous by Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and that 5’3” point guard by name of Muggsy Bogues – thank you Wikipedia). While I didn’t then, nor do I now, know much about basketball, I knew that the Charlotte Hornets “Starter” jacket was like a giant, brilliant marquee that proclaimed you have taste, you have class, you have money, you are somebody.
I don’t remember my family being particularly poor growing up. Some times were leaner than others, but we always seemed to have food to eat and a place to sleep. But my parents sure didn’t have the money to buy me a Starter Jacket – something around $150. I remember feeling like I’d never be a part of the popular group and how that felt like the end of the world to my burgeoning psyche.
It was only years later that I realized that this sense of not belonging was not the end of the world. In fact, in being one of the less popular kids, I learned an interesting lesson that can only be gained from that perspective – that the innate human desire to draw distinctions between who is “in” and “out” starts young. I am not sure whether it is nature or nurture, but everywhere we look we are faced with a society that has clear ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t.
Matthew’s Gospel seems to grant validity, even divine sanction, to this type of segregation. “All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To my ears this sounds like the opposite of the Gospel that I know. As far as I know, the work of God, and therefore the work of the Church in the world, is to reconcile the world to our original wholeness, to help us rediscover and reclaim our original goodness. How does this segregation help us to obtain that goal and how does this impact our work as the Body of Christ?
Even in reading this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, it is still my belief that the Reign of God (of which Jesus Christ is the harbinger) is ultimately a reign of reconciliation. Another Evangelist, the writer of the Gospel of John, suggests that Jesus admits that there are there are “other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also,” he says, “and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Any temptation we have to separate ourselves from those whom we feel do not belong is met with the swift response of a loving Savior who came into the world not to “condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
So then what are we do to with Matthew’s Gospel? Is he wrong? Do we throw it out?
Rather than pushing it away, I believe that if we sit with the tension and the discomfort of this reading, we might discover that is really isn’t about separation, but about identity. After separating the righteous from the unrighteous, the Son of Man says to those on his right hand “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This phrases raises a question that I believe is at the crux of this reading – Who is blessed? Who has the Kingdom prepared for them? Who belongs?
Everyone. Everything that lives and breathes belongs to the Kingdom of God. That means you, the person sitting nearest to you, and the person you most despise in all the world. Each and every person living, and who has ever lived, has an equal share in the Kingdom of God because the blessing of God cannot be earned. God’s blessing is always God-initiated. The only thing in our power is choose how we will respond to God’s blessing in our lives.
In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, in the context of the Spirit of God fluttering over the waters of chaos and speaking life out of nothing, you and I and every living created were created in a cradle of love. When God was done creating the world, God looked out over the teeming creation and said “that’s good. Each thing that I have created is good.”
That original goodness might be obscured when we turn away from God, when we turn in on ourselves and others, when we deny dignity to one another, when we ignore the pain and the brokenness of our neighbors, when we inflict that pain directly or indirectly, but that original goodness is still there. We all belong to the Kingdom of God because God declared it so from the foundation of the world. You are good. The person sitting closest to you is good. The person you despise most in this world is good.
When we understand this; when we realize that we don’t have to compete for God’s love for there is no poverty of God’s grace; when we see the futility of hoarding earthly possessions to the poverty of others; when we recognize the ways we hurt one another and strive to make the world a better, more loving, more equitable and just place; when we enter the pain of others in order to bear witness to the love of God, we are bearing out our fundamental identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We are showing that we are good.
“Feed the hungry,” Jesus commands. “Give drink to the thirsty, welcome those you do not know, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and stand with those in prison because that is who you really are. You were not made to be selfish, and scared, and small, and skeptical no matter how seductive those voices might be. You were made to be loving, to be compassionate, to be courageous. You were made good.”
I like to think that when Jesus comes again in glory, and separates the righteous from the unrighteous, that his right side is filled to overflowing – standing room only – and that somehow everyone will find belonging in God’s eternal embrace. I also like to think that his left side is empty. I like to think that somehow, we recover and recognize our goodness. I like to believe that we come to understand how exactly blessing works – like water, it stagnates if it stands still. Blessing is meant to be move, to saturate the world’s brokenness and despair with the love and compassion of a dynamic, living, moving, vibrant God who still flutters over our chaos and speaks a new creation into being.
You are blessed by God…
You have been created and nurtured in the bosom of eternal love…
You have a Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…
You have heard the commandments of Jesus to care for the poor, vulnerable, and suffering…
…Now what are you going to do about it?
 John 10:16 [emphasis mine].
 John 3:17