Yr A ~ Matthew 25:31-46 ~ Reign of Christ
This is one of those scripture passages that pretty much means exactly what it appears to mean. It seems utterly straight forward. The problem with this one isn’t understanding it, it’s owning it, it’s living it out. There’s good stuff to pull out of it but in the end the message is not about interpretation but application.
It begins with the nations being gathered before God, but the word nations doesn’t mean countries but rather ethnicities – in other words, the non-Jews. Matthew’s gospel, more than the others, is addressed to a Jewish audience so this story is intriguing because it’s about the non-Jews, the outsiders. And what’s really interesting is that the outsiders are called blessed. Apparently you don’t need a membership card to enjoy God’s blessing (he says on the day we welcomed new members!).
Jesus says to one group of the outsiders, “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit/obtain/possess/acquire the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”
Well, that’s kind of interesting. Not only are these outsiders blessed they are invited into God’s kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. It’s a very universal and inclusive text. Everybody’s invited in and everybody always has been! Of course, there’s a catch.
How did these outsiders lay claim to the kingdom? Jesus says, “I was in need and you helped me.”
The blessed ones say, “What? When were you in need and we helped you? We never saw you in need and did anything for you?”
And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Well, technically he said “the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Now he might just mean his disciples, but most interpreters take it to mean anyone associated with Jesus.
Now, that raises a couple of problems for us. Is he saying that our good deeds only get counted if we do them for insiders? Does that mean we’re not supposed to be all that concerned about people who aren’t Christians, or who are not “in the family”?
No, we read it broadly, that Jesus means anyone who he would love as a brother, which means everyone. But that’s still a pretty interesting idea.
In their society – and to be perfectly honest, in ours too – you get ahead by helping people who can help you. That’s kind of human nature. We’re probably more favourably predisposed to help when there’s something in it for us.
But Jesus says when we see anyone with a need and help them it’s the same benefit to us as helping Jesus himself. Now that doesn’t mean God is keeping score and we’re earning points with every random act of kindness – but it does mean that your personal spiritual benefit builds when you act in love regardless of what it gets you.
In fact, you get the sense that if you thought about it and planned to love people with kindness for the purpose of gaining a benefit that it would nullify the benefit entirely. As soon as you are doing it to make yourself look good, or feel superior, or to get something out of it, it becomes powerless.
That’s what happened to the other group of folks – the goats. Jesus says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was in need and you didn’t help me.”
Please don’t get hung up on the fire and devil bit. It’s just a story-telling technique. You set up one group as getting the absolute best thing and contrast that with the other group as getting the worst. The important words aren’t kingdom vs fire; the important words are “come to me” vs “depart from me.”
The reward is basking in God’s Presence, and the punishment is to feel separated from God’s Presence.
Back to the story. “For I was in need and you didn’t help me.”
The second group is shocked to hear this. Even more shocked than the first group. These people are 100% certain that they’d never NOT helped Jesus, or the prime minister, or their boss, or some other “important” person.
You get the sense they spent all their time looking for ways to help Jesus, or those who could help them – looking for ways to be seen doing good for those who would reward them for being seen.
“Jesus is spiritual, I want spiritual rewards, so I’ll be on the lookout for times when I can help Jesus, and impress him, and get my reward.”
But Jesus turns our human transactional economy on its head and speaks of God’s spiritual economy.
He says, “It’s not what you did for me you dummies, it’s what you did for the least of these, for those people who can’t help you, because that would mean you were doing it out of love and not for gain.”
And that’s pretty much the deal. There’s not much more to this passage. Of course I’m going to say more, but the big thing is right there – participation in God’s kingdom is marked by how you love people generally and without regard for how it reflects on you.
It’s really a story challenging us to live with integrity, and character, to practice what we say we believe.
Well……do you? Are you a sheep or a goat? (maybe it depends on the day!)
Are you a person of integrity and character?
Are you a person who lives the same whether someone is watching you or not?
I have a confession to make. I’ve been walking around with my phone video camera going at church functions for the last few weeks and secretly recorded you all interacting with one another. I’ve put a few of the bits together and I’m going to put it up on the screen now to test if we’re really people of integrity…
Ok, I lied, I didn’t secretly record you. But it’s an interesting idea. It’s kind of like candid camera. Would you live your life differently if you knew there was a video camera on you all the time – and these days with so many security cams going it feels like there is. If I actually had video tape of your life for the last week and said we’d randomly show it to your partner would you mind? What about to your kids? Or your friends? What about in church?
If someone looked over your shoulder at the websites you’re surfing would you be embarrassed?
How about this one? If little cartoon speech bubbles appeared above your head and showed people what you were actually thinking would you have any friends left?
It’s unbelievably hard to live a life of absolute integrity. It’s pretty near impossible to always be a sheep and never have a little goat creep into your character. We’re human. God doesn’t expect perfection. It’s not our occasional stumbling that turns us into goats – it’s our blatant hypocrisy.
One of the things that has historically turned people off of organized religion is the sense that some people go to church on Sunday morning and they’re all “God loves us – share everything you have – Jesus is Lord and King and I follow him” and then Monday morning they go to work and all bets are off.
“Well, geez Larry, you just don’t understand how the real world works” – says the goat.
Jesus says to love. Period. And the truth is the times when no one can see you loving are probably the times when you’re being the most authentically loving.
It’s hard to be a person of high integrity.
It’s hard to love.
It’s hard to stand up for what’s right when it might cost you.
It’s easy to just relax and cut some ethical corners because, well, you know, nobody’s really gonna find out anyway.
But you’ll know. Whether I put you on candid camera or not you are still with you each and every day.
Ok, here it is…
It’s not God who’s going to judge you and separate you from God’s Presence. It’s you.
God’s one and only posture is love.
God’s one and only position is openness and welcome.
Those goats who departed from God’s Presence did so because they didn’t want to be in God’s Presence; they wanted to be elevated in their own presence.
You can’t rest in God’s love if the only thing you love is yourself.
And so we celebrate that we are called to love and we turn our lives toward the light of God and we do our best to love. The sheep enjoyed the kingdom of God because they lived that love – they loved the least of these without regard for gain. They loved because they were loved, whether the cameras were rolling or not.
One last thing. I just want to take a minute to make sure we’re not reading this story too literally. The list of needs is hunger, thirst, welcome, clothing, and care. For me that triggers images of homeless people. These are people with profound needs and they certainly can’t reward you for loving them so it’s an ideal example of what Jesus is saying. Surely the homeless are today’s least of these.
But I want to push us further here. There are all kinds of need. I want us to look outside our church doors and into suburbia and ask ourselves if these neighbours of ours aren’t also the least of these.
Can you have a nice house, two cars in the garage (ok, driveway, because the garage is so full of toys), and a nicely kept yard and be in need? What if you go beyond physical, material needs?
Yes, we the church can use our resources to meet the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, and the sick. But shouldn’t we also be thinking about deeper kinds of loving?
What about feeding spiritual hunger?
What about slaking theological thirst?
What about being community for people far away from their support systems?
What about offering loving compassion to those whose lives have been laid bare by hardships, loss, and disappointments?
What about offering healing for those infected with the illness of affluenza?
“For I was in need and you didn’t help me.”
And the key here is not to love the “least of these” because it’ll get them into the church. The point is to love them because we are filled with God’s love and love can do none other than love.
And the best way to love someone is to show them how to know God’s love for themselves.
“I was in need and you loved me.”
Let me leave you with this challenge. This is the last Sunday of the church year. I like to think of it as the day that we think about the culmination of all Jesus’ teaching – the epitome of what it means to be a mature follower of his Way, living in the kingdom, enjoying the reign of the king.
I challenge you to love when no one is looking.
I challenge you to risk loving with more than your cheque book.
I challenge you to see spiritual needs beneath the disguise of affluence, and offer love.
I challenge you to live with supreme integrity.
I challenge you to love, love, love – and smile, you’re on candid camera.