Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS
We’ve come to the end of the church year. We spent this church year with the Gospel of Matthew. The late Swedish dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl, proposed that the final form of this Gospel is from the school of St. Matthew, a kind of Christian Yeshiva dedicated to studying the Torah taught by rabbi and Son of God Jesus the Christ. So we’ve been attending the school of St. Matthew this year and we want to be passed on...into the kingdom of heaven. But as with completing any school, there’s a final exam and a last evaluation by Christ our headmaster.
Students always want to know what’s going to be on the test. What do we have to know to get into the kingdom of heaven?
Well, actually it’s not a matter of what you know. Nor do you have to cram for a final, because you’re actually doing the final exam right now…in every day life.
What are we doing every day that we will be evaluated on?
Oh… things like feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned.
How will the examiner know we have done those things? Do we have a card that gets checked off every time we do something that shows care for someone?
No. Christ knows how we are responding to the needs of his lowly ones because…we’re doing those things for him. When have we seen him hungry or thirst, naked or a wandering stranger, sick or in jail and taken care of his needs?
Christ tells us: inasmuch as you have done to it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. Christ the king will welcome into his kingdom those who have cared for and welcomed him in his lowly ones. Those who have not done these things for him will be excluded.
“Excluded?” It’s not a word we like to use. It’s not politically correct. So I suppose we could say, well, there’s another place prepared for those who failed the exam where they will be included. But however you want to imagine that place, you won’t be happy to be there, because you won’t be basking in the approval of the king, or eating and drinking at the heavenly feast, or singing in the heavenly choir---or however you want to imagine the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps before we go any further I should remind us that this is a parable---the third of three parables of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 25. It is not a literal script of the last judgment when the dead are raised and stand before Christ the king. Like all parables it is a story that draws on something familiar but has a surprising twist. The familiar is the custom of dividing the sheep and the goats into separate pens when they are brought in from mingling together in the pasture of the world. Jesus uses this as an analogy of the separation of the nations at the last judgment.
So we had better bring that part of the story to our attention also. In Jesus’s parable it is the nations who are gathered for judgment, not individuals. But the text invites us to think not of nation-states, but of “all the peoples” (panta ta ethnoi). When we ask how a nation as a whole people cares for its sick and hungry and takes care of its prisoners and welcomes the strangers who cross its borders, we are asking questions which need to be asked and which can be answered. Nations have the means of responding to human need in ways that individuals do not. But especially in “democratic” countries like ours, the government is to a large extent a reflection of the people and their values and opinions. So it would be a mistake to conclude that because it is a judgment of the nations that it’s not about us individually. The nation won’t change unless its people change, and if we want the people to change, then we’d better be prepared for the change to begin with us. We’re not off the hook. We still have to ask how we personally should respond to this teaching.
I should also tell you that it is likely that Jesus is referring here to the members of his community of disciples in all their nations---those nations to whom the apostles took Jesus’ teaching in the Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew when he sent them into all the world, making disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah. Our NRSV translation refers to “members of Jesus’ family” whereas older translations had “my brothers.” “Brothers” is more accurate, and if it were just a matter of inclusivity the translation could have expanded this to “brothers and sisters.” So obviously the translators were imposing an interpretation on the text. They were opting for the view that Jesus intends by “the least of these” to mean the lowly members of his own community—that is, the church.
The Gospel of Matthew is very much a manual for the church in which Jesus himself is present where two or three gather in his name. We are aware that the early church took care of the its widows and orphans, ministered to its sick members, welcomed traveling apostles, prophets, and teachers, and visited the brothers and sisters who were apprehended for the faith.
But even if we accept this interpretation, we cannot rigidly limit those to whose needs we respond just to the members of our own congregation. Most of the needy who receive the ministries of the church in food kitchens and shelters are probably baptized or have had some church connection at some point in their lives. Like the sheep and the goats out in the pasture of the world, we can’t keep one group away from the other until we corral them in. So as a practical matter, we don’t have to decide whether “brothers” refers only to church members. They don’t have to produce a membership card to receive our ministries.
Those who have needs that we can meet are the ones who receive our ministries. Our willingness to meet those needs provide criteria for the judgment of Christ the King.
So is it good works after all? This has been the year of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. A lot of print was spent on arguing about faith versus good works. Was the Reformation’s emphasis on justification by faith wrong?
No, because the works of ministry done by those who are passing the test were done in a non-calculating way. You see, they didn’t know they were doing things for Jesus. That’s the surprising twist in this parable. In Jesus’ story of the last judgment both the righteous and the unrighteous have to ask the same question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you something to eat or thirsty and gave you something to drink or a stranger and welcomed you in or naked and covered you or sick and took care of you or in prison and visited you?”
Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers were not opposed to doing good works. They were opposed to works righteousness: that’s performing good works in a way calculated to merit something good for ourselves, like God’s approval or blessing or even salvation. Luther said, Christ has taken care of our salvation so we are free to take care of our neighbor.
St. Matthew doesn’t advocate works righteousness any more than St. Paul does. What Matthew is saying is: If we have been schooled by the Holy Spirit who was given to us in Holy Baptism, we will do what is needed when situations arise. Faith will be active in deeds of love. Little Cecilia who is being baptized today doesn’t know what she’s getting into. But the church which sponsors this baptism had better know what we’re getting her into and provide the means of having her schooled in the teaching of Jesus as she grows more deeply into his life, death, and resurrection.
Since what we are doing for every person in meeting their needs we are doing for Christ, we are growing in our relationship with Christ by performing these deeds of love. Those who receive our ministries are representatives, icons, of Jesus himself. The traditional icons that we use in prayer and worship are representations of Jesus that, when contemplated over time, begin to reveal to us who Jesus is. So it is quite a big statement to say that each person is an icon of Christ. Even more so if we emphasize that it is those whom society generally regards as the least who are most especially icons of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps then it is in the very things that cause them to be regarded as the least—their sickness, their poverty, their brokenness—that most reveal Jesus to us. We say, in the words of Isaiah, that Jesus on the cross took upon himself all our infirmities. It is a more difficult, but ultimately an unavoidable step, to see in the brokenness and wretchedness of others the image of the suffering Christ.
So the next time you find yourself haunted by an image of someone in need, whether here in our local community or somewhere else in the world, take that image with you in prayer. Spend some time asking Jesus to show you how he is in that person, how that person reveals more of who Jesus is. Genuine and worthwhile action for humanity and justice does not usually come from knee jerk reactions, but from a deepening understanding of where God is within the situation. If you and I spend a bit more time contemplating the meaning of the icons of Christ in human need, and less time worrying about what’s on the final exam, we might begin to see how and where the reign of God comes in this world. And then comes the surprise. When we pray “thy kingdom come,” God’s kingdom is coming to us. Amen.
– Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS