Stewardship Series 2 ~ Matthew 25:31-46
Today’s scripture reading is from near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, so it’s kind of like a summation, or a completion of all of Jesus’ teaching. In the past I’ve called this “graduate level Christianity” because it really requires us to leave behind all sorts of preconceived notions about how faith or religion are supposed to work and truly accept the vision of faithfulness that Jesus offers. He uses a lot of words, but essentially I think he’s saying “a transformed heart is faithful even when no one’s looking.”
In human interaction we find it completely natural and obvious that if I do something nice or helpful for you that you will think better of me or reward me. And if you have a lot of power then I’ll probably try to be even nicer to you, or curry even more favour with you because it will help me with my reward in the long run. That’s human nature – it’s a transactional economy – like buying goods for cash we like to buy favour with our positive actions toward someone.
A transactional economy certainly has its place, but it is even more certainly NOT God’s economy.
God fundamentally does NOT operate on transactions. God’s economy is about grace and love freely given, received by humans, internalized, and then channelled into loving action toward others.
BUT, and it’s a great big but, God is not on the other side keeping score of how well we do with our received gifts. God just keeps giving them.
And that’s confusing because that’s not how humans work. But that’s how God works.
That’s why it’s so hard for us to really understand God’s ‘grace and love’ economy. And what we’ve done as a religion is to try our best to force our human transactional economy onto Jesus’ lips, when in reality he says no such things. But because we’re looking for it we sometimes misread our stuff onto Jesus.
Take today’s scripture reading for example. It’s graduate level teaching because beginners can’t get past the first verses without getting it wrong.
Here’s how Matthew 25:31-33 starts:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
It sounds like Jesus is talking about some final judgement and ultimate damnation here but that’s just not true. Yes, he paints a metaphor that looks like judgement – and, of course, any time you say thing A is better than thing B you’re making a judgement – but it’s not an end of the world scenario he’s describing.
What do you think his purpose is here?
Well, it isn’t to scare you into worrying about your next-life address.
He’s trying to transform hearts and influence action right now.
The thing the sheep get is to receive the kingdom – and we know that the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is not something that awaits us upon death – it’s something that’s already here, now, surrounding us and awaiting us but we don’t realize it.
So he’s cast us all as sheep and goats to get us thinking.
We know the sheep do it right and the goats get it wrong, so we’ll be listening hard for what we sheep should do!
The sheep get the kingdom because, Matthew 25:35-36
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.’
And instantly our human transactional brains go “Yes! I did it right! Jesus needed help and I helped him! I earned my way into the kingdom!”
And then it hits us.
“Wait a minute. I never saw Jesus hungry or thirsty, and I never invited him in, nor gave him clothes, and I certainly didn’t take care of a sick Jesus or a Jesus in prison.
Oh no! What if he has me confused with someone else?!?!? Maybe I’m a goat!?!”
And Jesus replies that it isn’t just about him, but anyone. And when no one was looking and you were helping someone who couldn’t give you anything in return, or help you back, that’s when you were living in love. read on