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November 30, 2014 - Matthew 25. 31-46

“The Wise and the Foolish – part 3”

Matthew 25:31-46

November 30, 2014

 

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.’ 44Then 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?’ 45Then 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.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, about every sermon I had heard on Matthew 25 basically stressed the parable as an oratory speech about how we are supposed to reach out to "the least of these." We are expected to visit, to feed, to clothe those who are less fortunate than ourselves.  That’s true.

Something about us loves to hear that sermon. After all, most of us are people of some means. We may not be all that rich, but we are not poor either. So we have the means to help those who need help. Furthermore, most of us are basically good people. When we see someone in need, we like to respond. There are those who feel no obligation set upon them by the suffering of others. I know that is not the case with you. I've seen you reach out, here in our congregation, again and again, to "the least of these."

I'll tell you something about Jesus' parables. On the whole, the parables of Jesus are meant to shock us, to surprise and dislodge us, not to confirm and to reassure us. For example, we expect that the poor man in the ditch will be helped by someone who is thoughtful and kind, some good religious person like us. To our surprise, he is helped by a no-good Samaritan.

In our world of "my conscience is my guide" morality, this parable makes a great enough shock upon us in its simple, but vivid assertion, we shall be judged.

One day we shall stand before the throne of God, we shall hold our lives in our hands, and we shall render account. God shall surely consider all that we have been given, in judging us, all of our opportunities and advantages, and we shall be judged.

And the judge is Jesus, the Christ, the one who loved us, even enough to die for us, who returned to us even after we had betrayed him and forgave us. He shall judge.

And what shall his judgment be? What does God want out of us anyway? What does Jesus expect?

I expect questions like those are on our minds almost anytime that we gather here to worship. Today Jesus tells a story, the story of the last judgment, in which we hear a set of criteria for God's expectations of us. Everyone ("all the nations") will be judged on this basis: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Mt 25:35-36).

 

We expect to encounter God in the grand and the glorious. Saints are heroic martyrs of the faith. Surprise. God is to be found in the exchange of a cup of water, in the unexpected visit, in the sandwich passed across the counter.

When the king comes in his great glory, when all the peoples of the world are arrayed before him, when it is our time to stand before the bar of judgment, what will the king ask us? "Did you feed those who were hungry?" "Did you reach out to the unloved and unlovable?"

"It was nothing," we might say. But in the judgment of the king, it was a visible sign of the in-breaking kingdom of God.

It is God's job to worry about issues of effectiveness, long-term worth, and global value. It is our job to be faithful, to be, in our lives and deeds, an outpost of the kingdom, a credit to the king. We know who sits on the throne. That doesn't mean that we do what we do in order not to be punished by the king. It means rather that we do the good that we do because we know the nature of the kingdom, a kingdom that takes form through an infinite number of small steps toward the world that God intends. As our friends the Quakers put it, "A great amount of light is produced by a thousand small candles."

 

Why are pop quizzes so cruel?  Because you never know they are coming.  If you know that a test or evaluation is coming up, you don’t feel cheated because you have the time to prepare.  We know this test, God’s judgment, is coming, so we have the time to prepare.  What’s more, God already has given us the answers!  How easy!  All we must do is get ready!  God’s judgment is a gift, a test to which we have the answers, which we are able to prepare for, so that we might be the best humans, the best Christians we can be.  If you know there is test, you study harder.  God does not want to surprise us, God has told us it is coming so that we can be ready.

The test will reveal the integrity of the person taking the test, but it will also reveal the integrity of the person giving the test.  For instance, there was this guy at a college, I am told, that was having a hard time in his Biology class.  He was determined not to fail and master the material at least to a C level.  He vowed to not flunk and did all it took to try to pass his final on living creatures and their classification, such as genus and species, etc. He studied long and hard and entered the room ready for the test, regardless if it was a fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice or essay.  Turns out it was none of the above.

In the classroom, there were 25 pictures of different hung on the wall.  Each one was to be identified by their genus and species and common name.  This would not have been a problem for the young man except that the pictures were of just the birds’ feet.  The student went berserk.

“This isn’t fair!  This is a sham!  We are supposed to be tested on more than this!”

“This is part of the material studied.  I am choosing to test you in this manner.”

“I am not taking this test.  You can just go ahead and flunk me because this is ridiculous.”

“Alright then, what is your name?”

Student lifts pants legs above his knees.  “You tell me.”

The test revealed the tester to be the kind of teacher that finds a way to fail his students.

God is not that kind of tester.  God wants you to pass this test.  The answers to all the questions have already been given.  God will not find a way to judge you harshly, even if it costs God his only Son.

 

We are going to be judged.  There are several things I want you to notice about this passage.  Do not approach it as if you and I already have been judged.  We do not know the outcome of that.  This text is not about becoming saved.  That’s John 3.16.  This text is about getting judged.  It is important to note that both sets of people – the sheep and the goats - are surprised. 

 

How many of you have ever, at one time or another, done something to clothe the needy, feed the hungry, show kindness to a stranger, or done something for someone in prison?  Good, you are all sheep.  How many of you have ever, at one time or another, failed to do something to clothe the needy, feed the hungry, show kindness to a stranger, or done something for someone in prison?  Too bad, you’re all goats.  We are all both, because we have done both.  The question that will remain for us is this: what will Jesus think about it?

 

We have a tough time admitting that there is actually something greater than ourselves.  There is something greater than our own opinion of ourselves.  Our culture doesn’t agree with that.  Truth is not determined by our opinion of it.  Truth is determined by God and Jesus is the judge of us all.

 

P. T. Forsyth was correct in saying, "The first duty of the soul is not to find its freedom, but rather to find its master." Or as Bob Dylan put it, "Everybody serves somebody." The free, unattached, autonomous self is a modern conceit. So the issue is not if our lives will be judged by some authority beyond ourselves, but rather will the authority which judges the significance of our lives by truthful or not.

Ralph Sockman once said, "A man can boast, 'My conscience is clear' because often his head is empty."  When we bow to no greater authority than ourselves-our limited experience, our puny notions of right and wrong, our suspect evaluations of our action-then little wonder we are able to say, "my conscience is clear."

Conscience – author unknown

The buzzard never says it is to blame.

          The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.

                   When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.

                             If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.

          Lions and lice don't waver in their course.

                   Why should they when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton in every other way they're light.

          On this third planet of the sun among the signs of bestiality

                   a clear conscience is Number One.

When we lose our sense of accountability, we lose our sense of identity as well. Lee Keck says that we have paid a price for freeing ourselves from the idea of final judgment. To abandon the last judgment is also to abandon the conviction that the verdict upon our lives and final matters is dependent upon something outside ourselves – Jesus.  Jesus is our Judge.

Please note here that the people are not read a list of their sins.  That is an image from Revelation – just as right, but not Jesus’ point here.  Here the people are judged not for the bad things that they did, but for the good things they did not do.  Many of us begin to feel a bit confident when we begin to recite the list of things that we have done, all the times we taught a class, or tithed, or helped out a person in need, or shared our faith, or came to church and Sunday School.  We look at that list and think, “I’ve done well.”  We compare that list to the list of the bad things we did and we think we have got this thing figured out.  But how does that list compare to the lists of things we chose not to do?  It is a sobering thought, to realize that Jesus has not been somewhere in our lives – he has been everywhere, just waiting to be recognized in the least significant people that populate our days.  Taylor says, “The only way to tell if they are really Jesus’ eyes, is to look into them, to risk that moment of recognition that might change your life.”  We are not called to be philanthropists in this world; we are called to be brothers and sisters.  A belief is not held if it is not lived; if we say that Jesus calls us to love others then we must love them.