To Justify Our Indifference
Last Sunday after Pentecost - Christ the King, Year A, RCL, Track 2
Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
“Jesus said. ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will sit on the throne of his glory.’” Today is the last Sunday in the Church year. And this reading is the last parable and teaching that Jesus offers us in this Gospel. In the very next chapter, we enter into the Last Supper and then the Passion. As such, many would say this story in Matthew is the climax of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus says, “You that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” We also hear that on the day of judgment those who are not blessed in this way will be banished to eternal punishment.
Oh my! How are we to know if we are the blessed sheep or the rejected goat? To answer this we have to look carefully at this passage and see what it says and does not say. This can be difficult, for we often come into a reading like this with our preconceived ideas. One such idea may lead us to think that we enter into the kingdom by faith alone. But this passage doesn’t mention the need for faith at all. It doesn’t speak about confession or repenting either.
The sheep and the goat, the righteous and unrighteous, are equally confused; not knowing what they did or needed to do to enter this kingdom. Jesus said, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. You welcomed me, clothed me, took care of me, and visited me in prison. And the sheep and goats look dumbfounded wondering when they did such a thing. The gears in their heads turn and turn trying to find any moment when they could have possibly helped the king in such away. Together they draw a blank. After all, it’s the king. I would remember helping the king. And they tell the king we do not remember doing any of this. The king says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Who did the righteous help? The passage says the least of these and the least in this parable and not veiled or disguised. We know that they are those people who are in need; hungry, thirsty, lonely. Those who are sick, need clothing, or those who are in prison.
How often do we and I mean WE see someone who is hot and thirsty on the side of the road? Or someone who is actually holding up a sign saying they are hungry and need food? And our first reaction may be to ask questions to justify our indifference to their plight. We may ask, how do I know they really need it. Or, how do I know they will spend the money I give them on food and not “drink.” But these questions come from our worldly thoughts; from when we have been hurt or scammed, not from God. And I think I can say this because Jesus includes prisoners; people who most likely have committed some crime and are serving a sentence for what they have done wrong. If we are asked to be generous to those we know have done wrong shouldn’t we also be generous to everyone? It’s not our place to question if they might be taking advantage of us in some small way. And in response, I’ve heard people say, “What, am I supposed to give to everyone I see?” I believe Jesus might be telling us yes.
When I ponder the people we run into on a weekly or monthly basis, even knowing that I’m in a small town and don’t travel into Houston a lot, but if we think about this number of people who ask for our help, is it 5 people a week? 20 people a month? What would it really cost you to give a quarter or a dollar or even 10 dollars; maybe a bottle of water or some granola bars to each of these people? Would it actually put you in financial straits? Only you can answer this question. And this is the difficulty of this passage.
Jesus says we are not to judge those who ask for help. And I can say this confidently because this passage clearly says we can’t even judge ourselves. Neither the righteous nor unrighteous knew if they were sheep or goats. They don’t even know what they did or didn’t do to be judged the way God judged them.
Many will say that this is works righteousness. I know there are people who push back on this idea especially when James says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” But this is what Jesus is telling us and this is what we hear in Ephesians as well. The author of Ephesians says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.” Think about it. You cannot easily hear of someone’s faith or loves without the actions that go along with them. The two go hand in hand. Yet is not the works themselves that bring God’s blessing on the sheep. The sheep were doing these works out of pure faith. Their faith in the Lord transformed them into generous people. The works they did were not done so they could enter the kingdom but because this is what they knew in their hearts was the right thing, the righteous thing, to do for their neighbor.
So let the love of Christ transform our hearts so that we may love and serve our neighbors as deeply as he loves and serves us.