Paying it Downward

Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

Picture it, the year is nineteen hundred and ninety-one. I’m a senior in high school, I’m having the time of my life, I’ve got my whole future ahead of me, everything’s coming up roses…and then my girlfriend dumps me. I’m devastated, just beside myself. I went from having to wear shades because my future was so bright, to wearing mourning clothes in a flat second! She was my first serious relationship and in the words of the Princess Bride, I thought, “I will never love again.” Teenage love, so dramatic, right? Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

However, on that day it sure felt like it! Believe it or not, the pain of that break up is not what left a lasting impression on me. Later that day I was at home and a close family member noticed I had been crying and asked what was wrong. After I explained, the response was a shrug of the shoulders and, “There’ll be other girls”, as they walked away. Not only did that seem like the coldest thing someone could have possibly said, I felt humiliated, nullified, and altogether judged for how I was feeling.

And oddly enough, I remember thinking, if I ever have a child, that goes through a breakup, I will not make them feel this way, I will make sure I affirm what they are going through, because it will be very real for them, even if it’s not for me. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever been treated a certain way and thought, I am never going to make someone feel the way I am feeling right now! I have a feeling we all could share a story like that. I call them pay it downward moments.

You’ve heard of pay it forward, right? When, instead of paying someone back for something nice they did for you, you pass that gift on to someone else? Well, pay it downward is when you take something bad someone has done or said to you and you just bury it down in the ground and let it die with you. You don’t pay it back to the person who hurt you, you don’t spread to someone else, you just lay it down, to die. Period.

Now, just to keep us grounded, we could also, I’m sure, share stories of us doing the exact opposite, right? Those times when we are wronged and so we wrong someone else, and we somehow justify it because of that past wrong that was done to us. Psychologists sometimes call this transference. Another phrase that describes it, that you may have heard is, “hurt people hurt people.” Instead of paying a wrong downward, and just letting it die a quick death, we sometimes have a tendency to transfer those feelings onto someone else and end up hurting them. Sometimes we do that to the ones we love the most but that’s for another sermon.

A lite version of this is when you hear someone say something like, “Well, back in my day I had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways, why do kids need a ride these days!” I joke, but it’s the same concept. That person feels they were wronged at some time in their life and so, instead of paying it downward, they choose to perpetuate the wrong, even a minor wrong like transportation to school.

Ok, so why all this talk about paying it downward, and past wrongs, and judgment? Well, Jesus has been talking a lot about judgment lately. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Jesus has been in a bad mood lately. Well, in our Bible story readings anyway, I think Jesus has gotten over it by now. But we have been reading stories from the last week of Jesus life for a few weeks now and these have been some tough passages.

Two weeks ago Jesus told a story about a ruler who was throwing people into the farthest darkness. Last week Jesus told a story about a door shutting on bridesmaids that just wanted to join the wedding party. And today we have Jesus telling a story about everlasting fire, fallen angels, eternal punishment, and judgment! Either Jesus needs to refill his prescription of chill pills or, our author Matthew is expecting us to connect some dots here and draw our own conclusions. So let’s see if we can do that.

Jesus tells this story about the promised one, coming with all these angels, ready to cast judgment on the world, there’s a bit about sheep and goats but that’s not really important to the story. The bottom line here is the judgment that ensues, and that judgment is based on how we’ve treated Jesus in this life—how we have cared for Jesus or, wronged Jesus. The point that Jesus was trying to drive home was that whatever we do to people in this life, we are simultaneously doing to Jesus, good or bad, right or wrong. And that also means that, and this is a bit of a side note, that Jesus’ return, the return that he spoke about at the beginning of our reading, has already started. Because we meet Jesus in every single need that this world throws at us. But back to our story, where were we, ah yes, Jesus is coming to judge us.

Now, before I share with you how I imagine this judgment taking place, let me be clear, I take it very seriously, though maybe for different reasons than most people. I take it seriously when Jesus says when you didn’t do it for the least of these, you didn’t do it to me. That causes me to think twice when I want to pay someone back for the wrong they’ve done me, or when someone needs my help and all I want to do is go home and watch the game, or when I’m short with a loved one because I’ve had a bad day that they know nothing about. And the thought of reviewing all that with Jesus, not a happy thought let me tell you. And so, we can use that to motivate us to be the best baptized children of God that we can possibly be.

And I love the method that Jesus uses here to teach this to us in this story. Jesus basically gives us the ghost of Christmas future scene from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol! It’s like the ghost gave us all a vision of a possible future! What I love about this is that since we are in the now, and not in the future, it’s still in story form, it’s a parable, not reality. So, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wake up and either go about our business as usual, or we can do all we can with the time we have left, to make a lasting positive impact on our world the way God expects us to.

And though Jesus seems to be speaking of the end of the world here, time really has no meaning for Jesus. And it’s the present that’s important for Jesus anyway. In this story, I hear Jesus saying, don’t worry so much about the future, I need you to focus on the present. So, when I say I take this story seriously, I mean it. Jesus was not joking here.

Now, let’s figure this judgment stuff out. I mentioned earlier that Matthew was hoping we’d connect some dots here. Those dots lead us to Holy Week. This is Jesus last teaching before he’s handed over and arrested. The next verses after this passage are literally about the plot to have him killed while Jesus and his followers are on their way to share their last supper together. And here’s the key, Jesus then endures all that he had just taught them about in this last story.

Jesus was hungry and thirsty, but instead, he was beaten and given vinegar to drink. Jesus was a stranger to them and yet was “welcomed” with shouts of “Crucify him!” Jesus left clothed only to be stripped naked and humiliated. Jesus was not visited but instead was abandoned and denied by his closest followers. This is the one, the one who endured all of this wrong against him, all of this judgment against him, this is the one who will now come again to judge us.

Now, how do you think that judgment is going to go down? For two thousand years, the church has led you to believe that Jesus is going to come back in the same bad mood that he left in, and that Jesus is going to be looking for blood and vengeance. And my friends, that narrative really needs to die. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, if we, weak human beings that we are, we self-centered egotistical souls that we are, if we know how to pay it downward, if we know how to break the cycle of judgement, to break the cycle of abuse, to break the cycle of exclusion, to break the cycle of vengeance, if you and I know how to let judgment die with us rather than perpetuating it, how much more do you think Jesus will know how to do that when Jesus returns to judge us?

Knowing all that we know about Jesus, do we really think Jesus will come and pay us back for our wrongs, do we think Jesus will pay it forward and take his anger out on someone else? Or, knowing all that we know about Jesus, is it possible that Jesus will have the power, the might, the love, to pay it downward, and lay all those bad behaviors, all our wrongs, all our shortcomings, down, to die, for good, forever? I’ll let you answer that. Amen.

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