Where is Jesus Right Now?

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During the heyday of the Roman Empire, the word of the paterfamilias – the primary male in a local household – was law.

Roman households could exceed 100 individuals, including the paterfamilias and his wife, their children and grandchildren, various servants and slaves, and others who found it economically expedient for one reason or another to live under the same roof. 

Imperial legislation was secondary to the authority of the family patriarch.  That meant a paterfamilias could literally exert the power of life and death.

This was never more true than at the moment a child was born into the household.

When a little one was presented to the paterfamilias – whether it was his own child, a grandchild, or the offspring of a slave – he could do one of two things.  If the child seemed healthy and vigorous and might be a happy addition to the household, he would take it into his arms and bless it.  Think of the young Simba being held aloft for all to see in The Lion King.  Everyone in the family would celebrate.  Only at that moment would the baby receive a name, along with the assurance of ongoing loving care. 

But if the child seemed weak or frail or deformed in any way – or if it was simply a little girl – he might decline to hold it in his arms.  That was a signal for one of the servants to carry the child away.  It might be thrown into the sewer system or the waters of the Tiber, the river that runs through Rome.  Or perhaps it would be left atop a pile of refuse at a city dump. 

An infant exposed to the elements wouldn’t last very long.  Unless, that is, someone claimed it.  Some of the little girls were collected by brothels, where they would live for the rest of their lives.  Little boys might end up working in the mines, where they would be lucky to reach their teenage years.   

But there were others who routinely came to the dumps to retrieve abandoned babies.  Those would be some of the earliest Christians.     

They valued the lives of these children.  They took them home, offering the promise of a future.  Because their family origins were unknown, the little ones were often named Exposito, the Latin word for “exposed.”  Amazingly, that legacy endures.  Do you know anyone with the surname Esposito?  It’s likely that person’s genealogy goes all the way back to an abandoned baby on a city dump. 

Why did the Christians do it?  There was no precedent in the ancient world.  Historians are unaware of any culture that considered it virtuous to take care of someone else’s rejected child.

But the followers of Jesus were prompted by one of his parables.  Aside from the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, it’s likely that no story of Jesus has had greater impact on the course of history than the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). 

It’s often presumed that Jesus spoke frequently about the Last Judgment – that moment in the next world when every human being will need to provide an account of their life.  But in the four Gospels he only addresses the subject once.  It happens in this parable.   

It is a breathtaking teaching. 

Jesus says that he himself will preside as judge.  He will divide humanity the way a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats at the end of a day in the pasture.  To the sheep he will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 

The sheep will be surprised. 

“Lord, we spent our whole lives trying to see you.  We went on retreats and mission trips, pursued five-year Bible study programs, and sang the same praise choruses over and over and over again just to get a glimpse of you.  Lord, when exactly did we see you?”  The astounding news is that every time the sheep served the sick, the vulnerable, the rejected, and the imprisoned, they were actually serving him.  Who were those babies abandoned in the city dumps?  They were Jesus.

In the extraordinary words of Mother (now Saint) Teresa, whenever she looked into the eyes of the diseased and the poor on the streets of Calcutta, she was seeing “Jesus in his distressing disguise.”

As if this declaration isn’t sufficiently stunning, the goats will also be surprised. 

Jesus reveals that responding to human need cuts both ways.  Because the goats failed to care for others, they actually failed to care for him.  Our final exam – the one that will define the great divide between the sheep and the goats – concerns whether or not we have laid down our lives for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”

As Pastor James Forbes puts it, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” 

Historically, when Christians are asked, “Where is Jesus right now?” they have tended to reply, “He’s ruling invisibly in heaven.”  Or, “He’s encountered in the bread and wine of communion.”  Or, “His followers form his Body here on earth.” 

These are all true statements.  But in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus is as clear as he can possibly be that he is present in the poor, the rejected, and the abandoned.  He declares, “How you treat the least esteemed person you know is how you treat me.” 

Few of us live as if this is really true.  Or as if this really matters.

In his book Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the historian Thomas Cahill laments, “It is perverse that some Christians make such a fuss about the bound text of God’s Word, carrying it processionally, holding it with reverence, never allowing it to touch the ground, but have never considered seriously this text of Matthew 25, in the light of which we would always catch God’s Needy before they hit the ground.”

But we can learn to live a different way.

Mary Glover, who for years helped run a soup kitchen on the East coast, always prayed with her volunteers before the serving line opened. 

She would say, “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so Lord, help us treat you well.” 

That can be our prayer, too. 

“Lord, I know I’m going to see you all day long – in the most unexpected places and faces.  Lord, help me treat you well.”