What Matters Most (a sermon from Matthew 25:31-46)

This parable is not really a parable – it is but it isn’t. One scholar calls it an apocalyptic drama. Scholars who have studied Matthew in detail see the author’s hand all over this. Some argue that the author probably composed it. Of course, there is no way to prove that. What we can say for sure is that the teaching of this apocalyptic story strikes a theme that is dominant in Matthew’s Gospel, namely, doing the will of God, expressing mercy and justice, engaging in acts of lovingkindness. These are the things that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes and these are the things that matter most.

I hope you know not to take this judgment scene literally. This is an apocalyptic story. Apocalyptic literature is full of symbolism, sometimes rather strange and bizarre symbolism, like the Beast with ten heads or the great red dragon in the book of Revelation. In apocalyptic symbolism everything is exaggerated; it’s full of hyperbole. And when you think about it, most of Jesus’ parable contain elements of exaggeration. This was his way of grabbing the attention of his listeners to make his point or points. The shocking element, the exaggerated element could be an astronomical debt that one could not have possibly accrued or an admonition to cut off one’s arm or pluck out one’s eye if such is prone to cause offense to a brother or sister. We don’t take that literally.

In this judgment scene all the “nations” stand before the King. Or we could say “all the peoples of the earth” or we might even say, “all the peoples of the earth who had never heard of Jesus,” because all those who are judged in this story give the appearance that they had never heard of Jesus. So, it could well be that “all the nations” here is a reference to all those outside the particular covenant arrangement that God made with Israel and the church.

It is important that I pause here and say something about that. The covenant that God enters with Israel first, then later with the church, doesn’t mean that Israel or the church are more special, more loved, or more blessed than everyone else. That idea has been the source behind much pain and damage inflicted upon the world in the name of God by religious people who think they have a corner on God. In Genesis 12 when we read of God’s choosing and calling of Abraham and his seed, his descendants, we read that God’s intention was for Abraham’s seed – the people that emerged from this relationship with God – would extend the blessing of God to all people. The covenant people were chosen, not to be blessed above or over against the peoples of the world, but to communicate God’s chosenness and blessing to all the peoples of the world. And the same thing can be said of the church.

I believe in inviting people to enter into a covenant relationship with Christ. I believe in inviting people to become disciples of Jesus. You can call that evangelism if you want to. I believe in it because I am a disciple of Jesus and I know first-hand through personal experience that one can know God and serve God, one can love God and love neighbor, by being a disciple of Jesus, by being faithful to a covenant relationship with God through Christ. But, and this is very important, I am not biased enough to assume that my way of knowing God is the only way to know God. I do not know enough to claim that my way of loving God through discipleship to Jesus is the only way to love God. It would be prejudicial and arrogant of me to dismiss and discount other religious traditions that I have never practiced. Who am I to claim exclusive possession of God? We of course, don’t possess God anyway. God possesses us. The earth is the Lord’s and all therein. I only know what I know, which is very little indeed. And the same goes for you too sisters and brothers. If you put all our understanding about God together, we really don’t know didlly squat. God will always be Mystery with a capital M.         

In this story the Christ identifies with the least of these in a very personal, intimate way. When those who gave the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, personal care, and health care – to these who are identified as the “least of these” the King says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” In other words, when these people who had never heard of Jesus showed mercy and extended hospitality and cared for the “Least of these” they did it to the Christ. The Christ stands in union and in solidarity with these unfortunate ones who are in such dire need.

Do you remember in Luke’s account of Paul’s encounter with the living Christ on the Damascus Road what Christ said to Paul? At the time Paul was a fierce persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His passion was to wipe them out, to rid the world of them. His religious zeal was so ainted and twisted by his hate and prejudice that he thought he was doing God’s will by ridding the world of disciples of Jesus. In that encounter the risen Christ says to him, “Saul (that was Paul’s Jewish name), Saul, why do you persecute me?” Not why do you persecute my followers. But rather, why do you persecute me?  The risen Christ so identified with the suffering ones and persecuted ones that he could say, “When you persecute them, you are persecuting me.”

Some scholars of Paul who accept the basic trustworthiness of Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion and calling believe this was the experience that set the tone for Paul’s whole theology that developed around this idea of being “in Christ.” Paul uses that phrase numerous times in his letters. We are one in Christ. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. This is why Paul can speak of the body of Christ. Paul calls a local church the body of Christ, he calls the universal church the body of Christ, and he even says that all people are in Christ and will be made alive in Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.

So according to this teaching whenever we do a deed of loving kindness to someone in need, we are doing it to the Christ. This teaching had a major impact on the ministry of Mother Teresa. She considered her work with the outcasts of Calcutta to be work done for, with, and to Jesus. She remarked once, “We serve Jesus in the neighbor, see him in the poor, nurse him in the sick; we comfort him in his afflicted brothers and sisters.” At her funeral she was eulogized for having exemplified this very passage in ministering to the needs of the outcasts and unfortunates. She could see Christ in the disfigured faces of the despised and rejected, the sick and destitute. In her book No Greater Love she writes, “Hungry for Love, He looks at you. Thirsty for kindness, He begs from you. Naked for loyalty, He hopes in you. Sick and imprisoned for friendship, He wants for you. Homeless for shelter in your heart, He asks of you. Will you be that one to Him?”  (88-89) 

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated—his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby! Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

When the mother’s child suffers, the mother suffers. When one of the least of these suffers, the Christ suffers. Frankly, most of us just don’t get how closely the Christ is connected to all of us, how the the Christ is at one with the creation. By the way, the least of these are only the least from the perspective of humankind, not from the perspective of God. In God’s mind and heart, there is no least or most – we are all God’s beloved daughters and sons. And those who are fortunate enough to experience something of the heart of God know that. And they know it, not because the Bible tells them so, but because the living Christ tells them so, and then they find confirmation in the Bible. It’s like the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know Christ lives, he lives within my heart.” We know that all people are God’s beloved children because we have experienced the love of the living Christ, not because of a written document no matter how sacred that document.

A few weeks ago I talked about Thomas Merton’s experience in downtown Louisville where he felt at one with all the people around him, though he did not know any of them personally. He knew from his encounter with God that all these people were his sisters and brothers. He says the walls of separateness came down and he felt he belonged to all these people and they to him. The kingdom of God is actually the kin-dom of God. The “least of these” are not charity cases, they are our sisters and brothers.

In story after story in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to the poor and vulnerable, standing with the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downcast and downtrodden, healing their bodies and liberating their minds and setting their hearts free of fear and anxiety. What this story teaches is that of all things spiritual, social, moral, and religious this is what is most important of all. And to make the point stick the storywriter appeals to heaven and hell. Don’t take this literally. This is hyperbole. The symbols of eternal life and eternal punishment are employed here to point out how important this is, so no one will dismiss this teaching as irrelevant or insignificant. And yet it seems, when you consider the church at large, this is exactly what we have done. How many expressions of Christian faith are you familiar with where the emphasis is on religious beliefs or practices – where the push is on believing the right teachings or practicing the right rituals. This sacred story cuts through all of that by not saying a single word about religious beliefs or rituals. The people here who stand before the King never heard of Jesus. They couldn’t believe in Jesus because they never heard of Jesus. The indictment is not: Why did you not believe in Jesus? The indictment is: Why did you not care for your sisters and brothers when they were in need, when they were destitute, when they were defenseless, when they were the most vulnerable? Why did you not do for them and provide for them.  And notice too. They are not judged for the evil they did; they are judged for the good they did not do. Let that sink in for a moment brothers and sisters.  

If we take this story seriously, it says a lot to us about what we should be doing. Obviously we have our limits. We can’t give to everyone or every good and just cause. We have to be somewhat selective do we not? But clearly this story shows us where our focus needs to be and where we must channel our service. Serving “the least of these” at the very least means engaging in personal acts of loving kindness towards them. It means working in the trenches – in soup kitchens, women shelters, and food pantries. And it means supporting and advocating for public policies that are good for them. If serving them means anything surely it means this much.

This, by the way, is why being a follower of Jesus has political implications. I’m not talking about partisan politics. I’m talking about policy politics. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you take seriously this sacred story and what it teaches then you have to care about our legislators putting together, for example, a compassionate immigration policy that provides a clear path to citizenship. Surly that is part of what it means to welcome the stranger. If welcoming the stranger in our context means anything surely it means as much.

Now, sometimes it gets more complicated. How do we best address poverty, malnutrition, criminal justice reform, the huge economic disparity, just health care, fair tax reform, and so forth. There are no simple answers. If we care about the mistreated, the poor, the oppressed, the most vulnerable among us then we have to care about the laws or lack thereof that affect them. We may well disagree on the policies that will help them, but surely we can come to some consensus on doing some good for them. What would tax reform look like if we actually cared about “the least of these?” Here’s where both political parties get it wrong. We woudn’t be giving big tax breaks to the really well-off for sure. But we wouldn’t be giving tax breaks to the middle class either. If anything we would be paying more taxes so those disadvantaged and more vulnerable wouldn’t have to pay any.  

I like the way Philip Gulley puts it. He says, “The question is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus is to be political. The issue is whether our understanding of Christianity makes the world more gracious or less gracious. Do we work against injustice, oppression, greed, and self-absorption, or do we defend the status quo? Do we take seriously Jesus’ call to “bring good news to the poor, . . . proclaim release to the captives and . . . let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), or do we treat Jesus as our team mascot? Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives all face these temptations.” If caring for the “least of these” means anything, if loving our neighbor means anything, it surely means working for a just and equitable society in which every person is valued and respected.”    

Let me close with a word about judgment, because all of us will face the Divine Judge. All of us will stand before the Judge of all the peoples of the world. Will Willimon tells how his father-in-law, a Methodist pastor, attempted to comfort a grieving family whose son had just died while committing a crime. They were obviously in grief because their son had died, and the grief was intensified because of the way he died and what people were saying about him. This wise pastor says to the grieving family, “Just remember that when your son is judged neither I nor anyone else in this town will be making the judgment. The judge will be Christ, the one who is the embodiment of mercy.” You know sisters and brother, the Christ loves you more than you even love yourself. And I believe that God knows just what to do for each of us that will further transform us into the image of Christ.  

Our good God, help us to see that what really matters is how well we care for one another, and especially how well we care for the least of these, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. Forgive us, O God, not just for the times we have reacted in anger or treated someone badly or selfishly hurt a brother or sister, but forgive us too, Lord, for our many failures, for all the times we have missed opportunities to show grace and kindness, or stand with and speak for those treated unfairly by others. May we come to realize that we are all family, we are all one kin, that regardless of how different we may be in so many ways, we are one in Christ. In whose name I pray. Amen. 


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