Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sermon: Sheep or Goats

Matthew 25:31-46

For the past two weeks we have looked at Jesus’ parables. We have read about young women who had extra oil ready for when the groom was coming, and refused to share their oil with others. We have read about a greedy master who punished one of his servants for failing to make him more money. And this week we hear a story that in many ways caps them off. Like the last two, this story is meant to start discussions and debate – it is meant as an opener for teaching, where Jesus will talk with people about what God’s kingdom is like.

It is meant to challenge us to think, to ask questions, to talk to one another! So are you ready to hear it?

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

This story like the prior two is a sorting story – a story where some people get rewards and some do not. Like the last two, this one also challenges the hearers to reconsider what God’s realm means and to contrast it with the world. So this week Jesus says, if you do it for the least of these you do it for me. When you fail to do it for the least of these, you have failed to do it for me.

This is a contrast from the values of the world that say, “if you want rewards you do things for people who can reward you. Help a rich person and you might get a reward, but help a poor person and what good does it do you?” The little guy or gal isn’t going to pay you back. They aren’t going to give you a big donation for your charity or political campaign. They aren’t going to help you climb in social status. So it is a waste of time. Help those who can help you in return. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. You do a favor for me, I’ll do a favor for you.

But, like the other parables, Jesus turns the norms of society on their head and says that the one who judges us and who ultimately rewards us, does so based upon what we have done for those who are most in need.

Interestingly, Jesus’ parable has had pretty far reaching effect on people’s values. Everyone from Mother Teresa who based her whole ministry on this passage, to Malcolm Forbes who said, “You can easily judge the character of a [person] by how [they] treat those who can do nothing for [them].”

But before we get into the things it teaches us, let me remind you that parables always have the potential to be misinterpreted. The biggest problem with this parable is that it suggests that people are judged purely on their works, that God has no sense of grace, and it makes it sound like Jesus doesn’t even know or pay any attention to those who haven’t done good works. But we know that none of us live out God’s will perfectly, and we know that God has deep forgiveness.

The parable isn’t trying to tell us that the only thing God judges us based on is how we treat the least of these; however it reminds us that Jesus clearly aligns himself with those who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are strangers, who are naked, who are sick, and who are in prison. These are Jesus’ people and he wants us to care for them. When we don’t, it is as though we deny knowing him – because we are standing against everything that is important to him. When we do, we demonstrate that we have sat at his feet and listened to his will.

I read this story of Riaz as I was getting this sermon ready. “In The City lived Riaz, a high school student in his last year. “The last year of high school is critical” the guidance counsellor emphasized.

“You can’t put ‘hanging out with your friends’ on your résumé, Riaz. You need to follow the program that we have created.”

Riaz was not sure how to tell his guidance counsellor why he didn’t make it to the various extra-curricular activities they had discussed. It had been an excellent week. On Monday, he meant to go to the yearbook meeting over lunch, but his friend (the one who never seems to have proper food) refused to go, and he knew that if he did not share his sandwich and juice with him, he would not eat or drink all day.

On Wednesday, he got into an argument with some of his band mates who were making fun of the new exchange student from the islands. He was so upset and confused by their words that he did not feel like hanging out with them; instead he went to the mall and got the exchange student a winter hat and gloves.

He missed student council because his sister was sick, and opted to skip chess club on Friday to hang out with his lunchtime friend in detention (since he never had the chance to see him on the weekends).

Riaz regretted that he did not make any of his extra-curricular activities for the week, but he did not regret any of his actions. He wondered what would be better, looking good on paper or doing good by his friends and family.”[1]

Riaz may not have literally sat at the feet of Jesus, but he understood the heart of the teaching. Each and every moment of the day is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to serve others or to serve yourself. You can help those who need it, or you can help yourself. But you can’t do both.

Like I said, this parable caps off the few we have read over the past three weeks. Each of them has asked, what gets us into heaven and what keeps us out?

Is it being excited and prepared so that we are ready on a moment’s notice, even if that means refusing to share what we have? Is it putting all of our effort into increasing God’s kingdom, or should we instead stand up to evil and refuse to be part of a system that is not godly? Is it giving to the poor? And the answer is all of the above. Ultimately it is about our choices – do we choose to do that which leads us closer to God, no matter what; or do we choose to do that which gains us the world?

Choosing one means rejecting the other. If we want to choose God we need to do that in every aspect of our lives – in our emotions, in our ethics and morals, in the people we serve. So where will you serve Jesus this week? In whose face will you see him?

A Jewish story goes: I went up to Heaven in a dream and stood at the Gates of Paradise in order to observe the procedure of the Heavenly Tribunal. I watched as a learned Rabbi approached and wished to enter. "Day and night," he said, "I studied the Holy Torah."

"Wait," said the Angel. "We will investigate whether your study was for its own sake or whether it was a matter of profession and for the sake of honors.

A Righteous Person [a Zaddik] next approached. "I fasted much," he said, "I underwent many ritual cleansings; I studied the Zohar the mystical commentary on the Torah day and night."

"Wait," said the Angel, "until we have completed our investigation to learn whether you motives were pure."

Then a tavern-keeper drew near. "I kept an open door and fed without charge every poor man or woman who came into my inn," he said.

The Heavenly Portals were opened to him.[2]

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., The Jewish Way of Life and Thought, New York: KTAV Publishing Inc., 1981, p.177 , by Rabbi Aaron Leib of Primishlan

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