If Jesus were to present himself in front of you right now and ask you: “who do people say that I am,” how would you respond? Who do the people around you think that Jesus is? Who do you think he is? One of the most problematic responses that is awfully common is: Jesus is my comforter. He gives me comfort.
But our Gospel lesson should make it pretty clear that Jesus, whom we claim, is God, is not simply a comforter. Jesus says: Then [I, who am God], will say to those at my/his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment.”
To me anyway, these are not, at least at first glance, words of comfort. They fulfil God’s own promise spoken through his prophet Ezekiel: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Perhaps we think of Jesus as a comforter because we consistently think of ourselves as being right, good, just, and holy, or maybe we think we’re the weak one, the underdog, the constant sufferer. Newsflash: “if you say that you are like this - that you have no sin, that is - the truth is not in you,” so says John.
Everyone falls into these barnyard figures of being the fat sheep who uses various tactics to push others away from God, from the Church, or from those who might be able to support them. Everyone falls into goat like behaviour of becoming so caught up in their own concerns, their own desires, or their own ways of doing things, or even in their own suffering, that they push others away who might be trying to help them, to show them there are different ways or approaches, to help them step down from their high horse, or to step up into getting out of their own heads and their own struggles so they can see other approaches to dealing with suffering: a reality for everyone in various ways.
So at first glance, Jesus is not a comforter, but fulfils John the Baptist’s warning of God’s coming judgement. Wake up, get your head out of your own obsession and out of your own narrative constructions about the world and pay attention to what God is doing instead. Look around you and see how God is working in the lives of other people. Why is that person sad? Why are they belligerent? Why are they drunk or high? Why do they seem to present like two or more people when faced with various circumstances? The first and most important response God asks us to have is to be curious: who is this person that God made. The second is: what is God doing with this person, and through this person, what is God doing with me.
To begin by approaching others with curiosity is the first step in feeding, in clothing, in loving, comforting, nurturing, opening, being a conduit or catalyst through which God works to draw people to him. What prevents curiosity? In my experience, curiosity is smothered when we begin by forgetting that we are loved by perfect love: God given to us in Christ. When we forget this, it’s so easy to lead with fear rather than curiosity driven by hope. And fear often leads to insecurity, insecurity to arrogance, and arrogance to the need to judge others so we can assert our own superiority to try to demonstrate to others we are worth loving. But judging others blinds us and causes us to construct a narrative about what is important, about what or who matters, about how things are supposed to be. This is to become a goat: a self serving goat who refuses to follow the good shepherd, Jesus. It is to take our own path, as goats do, rather than inviting others into our lives and through us, into God’s own flock, the people of God. It prevents us from creating relationships of trust where people are willing to be vulnerable, to receive nurture and healing by Jesus through the many parts of his body, his Church.
I don’t buy the line that Jesus is a personal comforter. That’s a weak vision of who God is. It leads us into arrogant and false presumptions to know fully the will of God for ourselves without the need to be curious and to learn from God himself. God, in Jesus Christ, changes all of reality so that the measure of goodness, kindness and justice, can only ever be the holy mercy and judgement of Jesus Christ. His love alone casts out our own futile attempts at judgement. So we cannot say that we are reconciled to God because we care for the poor or the sick. We are reconciled to God because Jesus loved us by giving us his own life. Accepting this love; being healed from our own wounds incurred through sin both we and others commit, is to take on the life of a sheep, of following where Jesus goes. But following him is a challenge. It is about laying down our own claims on what is or ought to be, and committing ourselves to seeking Christ in those around us; supporting them, loving them, and learning from them, how God is drawing all of us to himself. That is that food, the manna from heaven that never ceases. AMEN