I’ve always been puzzled and somewhat amused by the choice of readings on this Meatfare Sunday. And by the way, that is a terrible English version of the Greek name for this Sunday: Κυριακή της Απόκρεω. Apokreo means “from meat”; in other words, leave-taking of meat, saying goodbye to meat! “Meatfare Sunday” almost sounds like a Sunday dedicated to celebrating meat!
The Epistle reading for this Sunday was presumably chosen by monks because of Paul’s line about not eating meat. But Paul’s statement has nothing to do with Lenten fasting! As always, it’s the context that we fail to recognize. It was customary in Corinth at that time to sell meat in the marketplace that had been offered in the pagan temples. So many Christians in Corinth were offended to see a fellow Christian eating such meat. Paul had no qualms about eating such meat, but if it meant that weak Christians would be offended (scandalized), he would give up meat. “Therefore, if food would cause my brother or sister to fall, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother or sister to fall.” Paul’s concern is for the other, for the brother or sister, and this text is the opposite of the usual Lenten focus on my own spiritual condition. The Epistle and Gospel today tell us that the focus is the other, the brother and sister. And that is the real meaning of Lent. The message is the exact opposite of the self-righteous, self-absorbed, finger-pointing Christianity that comes so easily to us.
If God is with us, how can life go on as usual? This is Matthew’s overall message. God is with us and nothing can be the same again. And yet Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry told his disciples, “the poor you will always have with you.” The poor will always be among us as a challenge, as the fulcrum for judgment. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is the “God is with us” judgment.
Poverty is unacceptable to God. It is unacceptable because God created everything to be good. God created a world, a universe, that is abundant in all the necessities of life. I believe that before long, life will be discovered in other parts of the universe. I believe I will live to see proof that there is other life in the universe. And that will only show yet again that God is the God of abundance – not only here on our earth, but throughout the universe.
God’s purpose for us is to have life and have it abundantly. Those were Jesus’ words. So when people, God’s children, are denied the necessities of life, it is tragedy and sin beyond measure.
The parable about the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, is Jesus’ final teaching! It was his final parable. The very next words Matthew wrote after this parable are these:
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matthew 26:1-5)
The parable was indeed the beginning of the end for Jesus. But did you notice the beginning of the parable?
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…..
The parable is aimed at nations, entire societies. In chapter 16 of Ezekiel, God accuses Israel of “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but [you] did not aid the poor and needy.”
Does that mean we are not judged individually? No, we are judged as individuals, but also as members of a nation, a society. What are the nation’s priorities? How do our personal priorities fit in? Is it hard to clothe the naked, to welcome a stranger, a homeless person into your home? Is it hard to visit a prison? And by the way, all English translations say “stranger” in this parable. But the Greek word is ξένος, which more accurately means foreigner, alien. All the things Jesus lists in this parable are difficult for most of us. But are they too difficult for a society, a nation? God says, No – there is no excuse for a nation to neglect the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the foreigner! No excuse.
But wait, what about the church? We are a society. Jesus placed the church in the world not to massage our egos, but to enable us as a group, as a community, to do what we can’t do as individuals or as a nation. Can’t we as a church do the things Jesus speaks in this parable? Can’t we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoner?
Why are we not more involved in soup kitchens? Why are we not out there advocating for the homeless and the refugees? Why do we call the poor lazy? Surely we can find ways to fulfill Jesus’ commands? Surely he is not asking us to do the impossible. Take something like ministry to prisoners. While it may be much harder to visit prisoners now than it was centuries, or perhaps even decades, ago, a ministry to prisoners is within the ability of every church. I remember many years ago Eula Chrissikos, despite her severe physical disability, used to visit regularly a prisoner at the state penitentiary, a man who was serving a life sentence for murder. I went along with her on one or two of her visits.
The church is capable of many things, but not so that we leave a calling card behind everything we do, so we receive thanks. Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory or the thanks. When, Lord, when did we see you naked or in prison? This is not a parable to depress us, but to challenge us to new faith. Every year we read this a week before Lent begins to remind us that Lent is not about our needs, but the needs of people around us. We are on a journey to Easter, but on this journey we encounter the other – whoever the other happens to be.