By Rev. Charles Garland
We have been going through the study of the parables of Jesus and this is not the last in our series but the last one Jesus told on the night before his arrest. It is the parable of the sheep and the goats and if you've heard it you probably remember it because it's really a startling account he gives, a story mixed in a lot with some normal didactic teaching. When you read the Bible the most troubling things that you read tend to be the things that Jesus says. He is the one who says the most perplexing things, and where you think you need footnotes the most but he doesn't give. He lays things out there and doesn't pull his punches. He does that in this passage as well because he is talking about the judgment seat, the day of reckoning in which he will come as our judge and everyone's lives will be evaluated by Him with massive eternal consequences and he lays it right out there. Then he gives this criterion by which he is going to judge and its not what any of us would have expected. He draws lines where none of us would have thought to draw lines. That is what we are going to look at this morning, to make sense of it and to feel the weight of what Jesus says in this. Let's read the text of Matthew Chapter 25:31-46:
The Final Judgment
31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' 40 And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' 45 Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
If your Bible is like mine this passage comes in red letters. That is a reminder that it comes from Jesus himself. The savior himself says these things that are so hard to listen to. Jesus says things like, "depart from me you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." If that does not want to make you fidget with your "what would Jesus do bracelet", what does? The box I have built around Jesus as to what his sentiments might be and what his attitudes might be is exploded by things like that. What do we make of our Savior, the one who is full of grace - the one who has emptied himself, humbled himself, gone to lengths beyond which we could imagine in order to be merciful to us yet comes to us with this teaching, yet with no winks and no footnotes, no "don't worry this doesn't really pose any threat to you" statements. In its full force what do we make of this?
First of all, He is coming as King at the end of history. Full plausible … Jesus says this is going to happen. I will come at the end of history. History is moving toward an end point and I will come at that point. And everyone will stand before me to give an account. And He separates people. To some he says "come you who are blessed of my Father", to others he says, "depart from Me you who are cursed". To some he says, "enter eternal life to the Kingdom that has been prepared for you" to others he says, "go away from me into eternal punishment … into eternal fire." The metaphors of fire for eternal punishment all come from Jesus. This is where these harsh ideas come from. Just in the previous passage he talks about eternal punishment as being "outer darkness" and "a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth" which have more of a sense of long-term bitterness, regret and disappointment. The image of fire has more of the connotation of conscious torment. These are the images that are given to us. We don't have many images, which describe heaven or earth in the Bible and are given figurative language with most of them but the figurative language that comes from Jesus is devastating language. The idea of being apart from Jesus - apart from the presence and influence of his grace is more devastating that we would imagine. Because in this life none of us is fully cut off from the grace of Jesus. None of us is treated as our sins deserve. None of us has had the rebellion in our lives develop and mature to its full extent. I am selfish but my selfishness has not had 10 thousand years to grow and develop and brood. I am angry but my anger has only been going for about 40 years right? But what will it be after 250 or ten thousand. My alienation, my pettiness, my calculating nature, in relationships with other people is still in its infancy. What will it be without the mitigating influence of God's grace …what will it be like to be together with people who are only driven by that, only driven by bitter selfishness? What would it be like? This is the picture we are given from Jesus of the life apart from the influence of His grace - what it means to depart from him and not enter into his kingdom.
The imagery in the Bible about eternal punishment is often caricatured and it is imagery but that does not make it less forceful or less terrifying. The imagery of the Bible points to the fact that the existence apart from God is more terrible than we might imagine. And that is what Jesus says and points out here.
C.S. Lewis probably writes as interestingly and profoundly as anyone. One thing he says is that hell, eternal punishment, eternal separation from God, is always freely chosen... It is always freely chosen. Ultimately there are two types of people in the world. There are people who say to God, "my will be done" and people who say to God, "Thy will be done"…. And you see a hint of this in this passage because when Jesus describes these two destinations he says to the believers, "come into my Kingdom which is prepared for you since the foundation of the world." But to the cursed he says, "depart from me into eternal punishment to the place prepared for the devil and his angels." It is a small difference but a significant difference because we are made to live in the presence of God, in His favor, in a relationship with Him, to live in his heaven with him under His grace, saying "Thy will be done" but as we insist on saying "My will be done, I will live autonomously, independently of God, I will not bow to Him for mercy" then we are pushed away into a place that is not natural for us even though we are naturally bent that way. There's always a choice that goes along with rebellion against God. If someone finds themselves in heaven its all a matter of gift and God's grace but people who find themselves away from God, departing from Him and cursed always have a culpability in it. It is always what they have chosen. That does not take away the emotional trauma of thinking about eternal punishment. It doesn't and Jesus doesn't seem eager to take away that trauma, but lets us stare at it in the face, dwell on it and think of it. But it is an important qualification nonetheless. Hell is always freely chosen.
If you are like me when you read this parable and account maybe the most disturbing thing to you is not that there is a judgment day and that there is heaven and hell. The most disturbing thing is the criteria that Jesus uses …when he says, "depart from me you cursed" not because you were genocidal dictators but depart from me you cursed because you didn't visit me in prison. I read that and think, "ok when is that last time I visited at a prison" and I think well it has been awhile, Oh oh." I don't know many people who read this and say, 'Wow this is encouraging news, encouraging criteria, … Mother Theresa will be heartened by this passage but wow sins of omission of what almost looks like forgetful neglect to look after the poor and the needy are the things Jesus uses to say this is the diving line of those who enter into life and those who enter into death. So what is going on with that? James does the same thing if you noticed in the New Testament reading today. But Jesus is saying this, as James says, "You attitude towards people who are needy is a reflection of the state of your soul before God…" What he is not saying is that if you are nice enough to poor people God will love you for it and let you into His heaven. He is not saying that but that is what it looks like on first blush - a merit badge to get to the next level of scouting. If you get your homelessness merit badge and your prison merit badge and your hungry and thirsty merit badge. If you do these things and check them off your list then you will be received into heaven. You'll earn it. But that is not what he is getting at. You can see that he is talking about the gift of grace and its fruits. Look what he says when He describes those who are going into Heaven. He says, "the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father" Now that is the passive voice … those who are blessed by my Father. They are the objects of God's action towards them. They are blessed by Him. They come to inherit the kingdom not that they have fully earned by their recent performance but they come into a kingdom that is what? That has been "prepared for them since before the foundation of the world"…since before they were born and did anything nice or mean. We are talking about a gift here. To go into God's heaven is a gift. But mercy to the poor is the symptom of the disease. If you have received the gift of God's grace in your life it is going to have the symptom of a transformed attitude and behavior in your life towards people who are in need. It will turn you upside down with regard to people who are in need. And that is what James says too. If you say you love God and have faith but you life is not changed at all, you don't have any symptoms, then your faith is dead. Its not real faith. You can't say I am justified by God through my faith when the faith is bogus. And James said you can tell whether you faith is bogus by asking yourself what is going on in my heart and behavior toward those people who are in need.
That is very hard. Introspective people are likely to already be on the treadmill thinking,
"Ok how much have I done ... have I done enough? Looking back over my resume. My doctrinal component looks pretty good, church life component, sexual sins - I have been working really hard on those, but sins of omission to the poor, good grief I just haven't gotten to that yet. There are other things that had my attention. Its like an appendage on my Christian life. Its not at the heart of things, so what am I supposed to make of this"
Here is what you are supposed to make of it - you're not supposed to say, "have I done enough? I better bulk up on my mercy component so like an admissions test into a prestigious university - I want my social service component to come up to where my GPA is so that they will admit me." Rather, you're supposed to say, "Lord examine my heart, is there a disconnect between my faith in Jesus who has been merciful to me and my attitude toward those around me who are in need? Is there synchronization there or are these two segmented parts of my mind and my life." I am guessing that for most of us there is a pretty big disconnect. I bet for the people who originally heard Jesus say this there was a big disconnect and it was very disturbing. A couple of reasons for this disconnect. (1) You can be totally deluded about your faith. You could think you're a Christian and not be. That is a hard thing to hear but Jesus is clear about that and his apostles too. You can think you're a Christian and not be. Now what I am not saying is you can throw yourselves on Jesus for mercy look to Him to forgive your sins and make you right with God and then ultimately be rejected. There is no hint of that in the Bible. But there are things in the Bible which say religious people can be deluded and will be turned away in judgment and you need to know why. If there faith is not real then they don't have hope of being well-received by God. The religious people of Jesus' day were constantly at odds with him because they were trusting in their own righteousness. They thought they were good enough, merciful enough to be well-received by God. They were very religious and believe almost all of the right things about God. They were very conservative in their religion and yet they were at odds with Jesus. For us we have to take into account that we can be deluded by our faith. But let me say this, people who worry about their faith saying "I wonder if I am really a Christian", "I wonder if God's grace is a reality in my life and I deeply want it to be and I beg Him that it would be, but I feel unsure," are people who need to be reassured that they are where they need to be in humility before God. The people who are in danger are surprised at the judgment day. "Lord why would you reject us … when did we do those things … we did what we were supposed to do." They are surprised. So if you are surprised now and say wow there is really something disconnected in my life with regard to mercy and my faith then that is a sign that God is at work in your life for good and grace, that he is looking to bring reality to your faith, life to your faith rather than make you despair about whether or not you belong to Him. This is not meant to make you despair but to examine your heart before God. To say, "what is broken in me? Why is there this disconnect? Would you please address it in my life.?
Another reason for a disconnect for you is (2) bad teaching. If you have been in our circles then you have had bad teaching on this because the central things in our tradition are doctrinal things. We butter our bread on doctrine and we reassure ourselves before God on the basis of our doctrine, so mercy ministry, compassion for the poor, corporal works of mercy, which the church has always listed as the six things in this parable. You can go through about 20 pages on Google until you hear people speak of the corporal works of mercy that is not Roman Catholic. Why? There are lots of Reformed protestant web pages. But it is off to the side for us. We are for it. It is good…(:-) "You know you don't want the Government to do it of course )" But it isn't something we put at the heart of our faith for some reason. And if you read this parable from Jesus its because we're off on this. It is not because our doctrine is wrong but because our doctrine is not driving us to the right places. It is supposed to drive us to solidarity to people we see in need. The big reason for us generally have the disconnect between mercy and our faith is that we have too loose a grasp of what God's grace is all about. We don't really know what it means to be blessed from the Father and an inheritance prepared for us from the foundation of the world. That is the thing which transforms our attitude toward the needy and towards the poor. Here is how that works:
Jesus has come and lived the life I should have lived - a life of compassion toward the needy - an identification with Him as how I should have lived. He's done it. And He died the death I deserved to die. He has endured the curse that certainly legitimately come to me. And now he has set me free in a relationship with God where my sins are forgiven. I am not having to make up for the lack of mercy in my life but am set free from the guilt of the lack of mercy in my life. I am free before God in his love and acceptance. Then that is going to transform me in ways that make me merciful.
First its going to say to me: All the things that drive me, and make me busy to make money are not so important any more. I can give away money without giving away self. It is not going to kill me to live more modestly. It is not going to kill me to live less busily - to have a less complete resume to have a less impressive social, physical vocational identity. It is going to be OK - I have time and money I can burn for those in need because I don't have to have it - because Jesus has taken care of me. He has accepted me. I am already somebody in His sight. I don't have to prove myself by filling up every moment of my life - to drive myself for money as if I had to keep it and identify myself by what I possess. Jesus frees us from those things and sets us loose to care about people who are in need. And then safety becomes less of a concern for us. We don't say, "Well I can't get involved with those people because I have got my children to think of and we might incur some danger" Instead we say. "there is an eternal heaven prepared for us from the foundation of the world that Jesus said He has given us. So what if you die soon? ...So what? You think, "that is easy to say"… well it is easy to say but if you really believed God's grace - if you believe what Jesus is saying here, how torqued up would you be about dying? You're going to die anyway sometime. It sets you free if you really believe these things. With God's grace you really don't have that much to lose. The danger I incur, the discomfort, the contingencies we incur by being around people in need are not that threatening to me anymore because of what Jesus has done in my life. That is how the gospel of grace should affect us.
Superiority and envy, the pathologies that occur when you help someone ""less fortunate than yourself. (foghorn leghorn accent) " Or when you are helped, God forbid, by someone more fortunate than yourself. Envy and superiority just poison those things. The gospel says I am not less fortunate than the guy in prison, whose broke, whose sick … I am just like them. I am just as unfortunate as they are … Jesus has had mercy on me. When I go to them I am not coming down to them I am coming over to them. And people who are above me are not above me in Jesus' eyes but are with me, needy before Him. The gospel just undoes all the superiority and envy that poisons most philanthropy and charity. Self-consciousness, paralyzing introspection when you help people. Look at me what I am doing, look at me helping. If you hear people talk on TV about their exploits in helping the poor they always talk about how preoccupied about how good they fell about themselves. The gospel undoes that. The gospel puts you in the position where these people are which says, "What? When did we do that?" It makes you self-forgetful because you don't move out in need to make yourself feel better or give some back to those who are less fortunate -- you move out because it just seems like the normal thing you do because that is what you want to do if you are somebody who has been given grace from Jesus.
Now I am painting a pretty picture. It is not like if you look to me you would have these things down because they are also elusive to me. I am trying to somehow bring this from the periphery to the center of my life. Wouldn't this be a great life? When you are cut free from the pressures of money and safety and introspection and you stride through life as a compassionate person who is strong who helps people when they are needy. Wouldn't it be cool to be that kind of a person? Wouldn't it be cool to be a part of a church that is characterized by that? This is what the gospel holds out to us. A life of restored beauty, a life of grace to other people that becomes a possibility to us because of what Jesus has done. Not a little guilty question of "have I done enough, have I done enough, have I done enough?" Guilt is not enough to produce the kind of character you need to do what Jesus is saying here. Guilt will never make you a self-forgetful, merciful person. Grace shapes us. Needy people are like you. Jesus came to you when you were bankrupt and naked and poor and in prison to your sins. You are like needy people so Jesus in his grace makes you identify with them. And then Jesus makes you identify needy people with Him. "When you did it to the least of my brothers you did it to me." This is our humanity which Jesus has taken on and dignified and what it means to be a human being. Now the most ruined person that I see bears in my eyes the reflection of the image of God in its beauty that we have seen in the person of Jesus Christ. We say, "you know what? This person is a mess but they bear the image of God that Jesus bore and they could be angelic under the influence of His grace." So it creates a solidarity for us. Not a condescension but an honoring from us as we reach out to people who are in need.
If your neighbor's house caught on fire and you walked out and saw it - you would not do any calculation or math. You would bolt to the door, probably endanger yourself, help your neighbor get out of the house - its burning. And you wouldn't do it because you did a calculation earlier this week that you need to do more to help the poor. "Here's an opportunity - I better respond in this way. My children need me … and I am the primary wage earner and if I go in and burn or be killed it might not be the wisest stewardship for me to go help my neighbor. Really if I went into every fire that burned, that is really asking me too much to do that." Why don't you do that math? Because it just seems normal - it is what humanness requires of you. You don't have to muster anything up you just go do it.
The idea of what Jesus is saying here is that under the influence of his grace it ought to seem as natural to us to move out to people who are in prison as we do to people whose house is on fire. We say, "oh these people are facing ruin because of the fire so I will help them" and then we say to the person in prison that "he is facing ruin in prison morally - I better go help him." I would expect the same from them. "This person is facing ruin in their life financially. I better go help them. They are like me - someone who is desperately needy." But with the corporal works of mercy we are more calculating. Jesus is saying we could live in a way where we are not calculating about the way we move out to people who are in need. This harrowing passage is so tremendously hopeful to us that God could take a broken fearful person like me and make me a blessing to the people around me where I would move out in strength beauty and grace. Think what a church full of people like that could do in a city. What a blessing that would be. I heard one of our deacon candidates saying he wanted our church to have such an influence in our city that if we closed our doors the people would say, "oh no". If Intown's gone who is going to take up the slack. We need them. Look at the safety net that exists in our city because that church is there."
We could close up tomorrow and not make much of a ripple. But if we knew what it meant to have God's grace take hold of our lives to be supplicants of received mercy and see our lives transformed to be like Jesus'. It is what he says he is after in our lives, what he has the power to do with broken people like us. So lets seek him for that - not get on a guilt trip mill from this passage. Let you imagination soar with what God's grace might do in a life like yours.