The Victim’s Name Is Jesus Matthew 25:31-46 11/26/2017
Mohamed Bzeek is a Libyan-American Muslim living in the Bay area of California, who for nearly 30 years has quietly cared for terminally ill foster children no one else would take. He doesn’t consider himself an angel or a hero. Instead, he believes he’s doing just what we are supposed to do as a human being.
Bzeek was 23 when he came to America in 1978 to study engineering. Eventually he married Dawn who introduced him to the world of foster parenting. They had a soft spot for terminally ill children who were difficult to place.
Since then, more than 40 such children spent some time under their roof. Ten children died because of their health issues while in their care, some of them in Bzeek’s arms. The first hadn’t made it to her first birthday when she died in 1991.
- She was born with a spinal disorder to a farmworker who had breathed toxic chemicals sprayed in the fields during her pregnancy.
- Another boy with short-gut syndrome had been hospitalized 167 times before he died at the age of 8.
- And then there was the 8-day-old girl with a rare brain defect, who was so tiny that she was dressed in a doll’s dress and buried in a coffin the size of a shoe box.
Later, the Bzeeks took in a 1-month-old deaf and blind, epileptic, quadriplegic girl with the same kind of brain condition. Doctors didn’t expect her to survive past the age of two. “These kids, it’s a life sentence for them,” Bzeek said. Yet in December 2016, she celebrated her sixth birthday.
She would not have lived this long had it not been for her foster father’s devotion, according to her pediatrician, Dr. Suzanne Roberts. Dr. Roberts says, “Her life is not complete suffering. She has moments where she’s enjoying herself and she’s pretty content, and it’s all because of Mohamed.” Mohamed says, “I know she can’t hear, can’t see, but I always talk to her. I’m always holding her, playing with her, touching her. … She has feelings. She has a soul. She’s a human being. … The key is you have to love them like your own. I know they are sick. I know they are going to die. I do my best as a human being and leave the rest to God.”
Eventually, Mohamed’s wife Dawn developed seizures in 2013, leaving him with more responsibilities for the household. When Dawn died just over a year later in 2014, Mohamed continued caring for his foster daughter as well as for the couple’s biological son Adam, who was born with brittle bone disease and dwarfism.
Bzeek plans to keep caring for such children as long as his health holds up. You see Bzeek was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2016, but had successful surgery and is now in treatment.
He collects $1,700 each month to care for his foster daughter, but he says he doesn’t do it for the money. “To me, death is part of life,” Bzeek says. He wants the children to feel they are part of a family and that they’re not alone. And he wants to be there to love and comfort them when they pass from this life to the next.
Now here’s a question:
Bzeek is not a Christian, but when he dies, should he be welcomed into heaven?
Now of course, as a Muslim, he has his own beliefs. Islam suggests a paradise after death, but depending on how you view Christianity, you may think of heaven as reserved for just those who follow Jesus.
We have, for example, Simon Peter’s statement in the book of Acts that “There is salvation in no one else but Jesus, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Whether Peter intended that as an exclusive claim or not, I believe this passage today from Matthew 25 can be thought of as a resounding yes to the question about Bzeek going to heaven.
We commonly read Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats as a message for all Christians. It has no doubt launched countless acts of good works toward people in need, as it should have, for there’s no missing Jesus’ message embedded in this parable: “Just as you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (v.40)
But I believe in addition to hearing Jesus’ statement as an instruction for ourselves, there are reasons to also hear it as a statement about non-Christians who are nonetheless people who do good – who work for peace, justice; who are kind & compassionate.
For one thing, near the beginning of this parable, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, all the nations will be gathered before him. Biblical commentators point out that while “all the nations” could mean “everyone,” that’s not likely here because if that had been the meaning, the Greek word used would probably have been pantes, which means “all.” Instead, the word is ethne, “nations,” which commentators say had become a technical term in Jewish Greek to designate non-Jewish people. In fact, in Hebrew, it’s rendered as goyyim, which by Jesus’ day, meant Gentiles.
If that’s correct, then the judgment described in this parable excludes Jews and must also exclude Jewish Christians, and consequently Christians in general.
For another thing, preceding passages in Matthew suggest other grounds for judgment of Christians, such as their performance of assigned tasks, as in the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and in the ways of living suggested by the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). Matthew certainly does not wish to suggest that Christians have no other obligation than to help the needy.
So, this sheep-and-goat passage gives us a way to think about those who do not profess Jesus Christ, but whom we recognize as good people who do acts of kindness, compassion and mercy for others, people such as Bzeek. Though such persons are not intending to have a salvation type relationship with Jesus Christ, their actions of good in fact give them one. They just don’t realize it.
Coming at this passage from another direction, we might also think about what these acts of mercy and help look like to those who receive them. The fact is, when you are in need and someone helps you without asking for anything in return, chances are you aren’t particularly concerned about whether they are motivated by a commitment to Jesus Christ or human kindness or even some other impetus. You’re just thankful for their help.
People who work for agencies in Third World Countries point out that from the viewpoint of people who are hungry, anybody who gives them food, regardless of why they give it, is doing the right thing – showing compassion, etc.
A dictator may give bread to enslave people; a nationalist leader may give bread to win their support and a capitalist may give bread to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor. But in each case, people are being fed. And for the people, this is what is the most important.
We might say that from the victim’s point of view the “Devil’s name is Hunger” and “God’s name is Bread.” This parable indicates, however, that the victims’ collective name is “Jesus.”
Of course, neither the fact that this passage may have been talking about righteous non-Christians nor that the recipients of the help may not worry about who is providing it does not excuse us who do profess Jesus Christ from the implications of the words of Jesus. If caring for those persons in need is actually ministry to Jesus, then we Christians should do no less.
And for us, I believe this passage teaches three important things:
- God is good and wants from us a life of virtue & justice.
God is not neutral about how we behave and how we behave toward one another.
- God is no absentee deity.
No action is too small for God to miss, & no action is too large to deceive God. God will judge whether we have kept the faith or not.
- The principle of judgment in the parable is based on love & helpfulness.
Have we helped those in need? If so, good. If not, not so good.
I believe there are also two strange and, in a sense, troubling insights that are to be found in this parable:
1) Some people discover that, although they have not known it, they have been on God’s side doing God’s work, keeping faith with God’s will all the time.
2) Others discover that in waiting around for some remarkable moment, some great way in which to demonstrate their loyalty to Jesus Christ, they have missed the only chance they would ever have to serve God. In other words, they wait instead of serving.
I believe the modern day cry of today’s Christian is “I believe in you God, but don’t inconvenience me!” “Don’t inconvenience me with hungry, & homeless people; with issues of peace & justice; with the abused, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the marginalized; and certainly not the immigrant, the refugee, and others here and abroad who do not talk or look like me.”
Christianity is about being inconvenienced – all the time. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
On the church calendar, this Sunday is designated to proclaim the Reign of Christ, and that invites us to ask ourselves, “Does the God, whom we acknowledge has a claim on our lives through our baptism, have specific expectations regarding how we treat the least of these, and is there any judgment against us if we ignore those in need?
In other places in Scripture, we hear things about repentance, confession, forgiveness and faith, and we shouldn’t disregard those. But here, Jesus himself is explicit about our actions toward the hungry, the thirsty, the outsiders, the sick, those with insufficient protections and prisoners, and we suspect that is a representative, but not inclusive list. Jesus was not trying to limit our help for others to only individuals in those six categories.
There is no ambiguity in Jesus’ statement in this gospel reading. Those who faithfully do God’s work on earth help the needy will be invited to “go away” into “eternal life.” Those who don’t, won’t. And that invitation to eternal life will include even those who never professed the name of Jesus, but who, like Bzeek, cared for the least of these, and thus ministered to Jesus.
Because we started by talking about a non-Christian who is doing good things for the least among us, and because we acknowledged that in this parable, Jesus may have been concerned especially with persons outside the faith who unknowingly care for him, we might miss that the parable also speaks to us who are Christian insiders.
We are saved by grace and not works — but it’s awfully easy to rest on that and let our lack of help for those in need become sins of omission that spurn the grace we have received.
Let us not do that.
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, November, 2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 11-26-17” name of the sermon.