Judgement & Grace
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 25: 31 – 46. Focus: We may be saved by grace but we will be judged by what we do or do not do for the least and the lost.
We may be saved by grace but we are judged by our works or lack thereof. And nowhere is that more clearly stated then in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The parable of the great judgment that will occur for all of us as the nations of the world are gathered together before God’s anointed king – Jesus the Christ.
In this parable the Lord lays out the circumstances for the final gathering: All nations will be gathered but with the intention of separation. So why not cast the uncaring ones into judgment and leave it at that? Why the gathering of all nations? Because this is a public event, and event for all to witness; including God, the heavenly beings, spiritual forces of good and evil and all of us. As you can see no one will be left saying; “I didn’t know…”
The word used for divide is to “sever”. However, it is going to be a public act – a declaration. It’s like having a divorce decree made final as a public deed to be recorded in the county ledger. And it’s the reason for the separation that we need to pay attention to.
So the question becomes why would a shepherd divide sheep from goats? Sheep are the gentle and helpless cousins of the goat. Goats are wild, independent creatures that are considered to be willful and stubborn. Just like donkeys are considered stubborn in relation to their cousin the horse. And throughout the Bible goats are used by the Biblical writers as symbols of poor leadership.
Goats would often wander from the shepherd and lead the sheep with them. Then, when trouble arrived, goats would flee and leave the sheep behind to fend for themselves. God separates the goats and the sheep to prevent the weaker ones from being manipulated by the stronger ones.
Now there are two ways to manipulate someone. To use someone for my own ends, even if they act with complicity and the second way is to allow someone to be used by another. We cannot excuse ourselves from the manipulation of another just because it doesn’t involve us. To allow injustice anywhere is to be unjust. Whether we like it not or whether we know it or not we are in fact our brother’s keeper.
Which is to say if we are not engaged in making things right, which is the Biblical concept of righteousness, if we are not using all of our talents and resources then we are not serving God. And at the very heart of the issue before us is the issue of power.
Last week the Lord commended the servants who invested all their talents. The Lord blessed, not the amount they returned, but the effort they invested. Christ shows us quite clearly in this lesson that to be blessed is to feed the hungry, give drink to the parched, invite the alien or illegal immigrant into your life, clothe the naked and cover their shame and humiliation, to visit the sick and the imprisoned. To be blessed is to have the privilege to invite the hungry into the King’s banquet and to clothe them with the King’s glory and honor.
The first thing to notice about those who are hungry is this. To be hungry is to be peinao – someone who is literally famished, someone who’s got a distended belly because they are starving to death. It doesn’t mean poor is spirit. There’s another Greek word for that. And according to Jesus, Christian love begins in those places where people are literally starving to death. It’s very simple. There is no good news where people are starving to death.
Now when it comes to dipsao, to be thirsty it can mean both literal thirst and figurative thirst. This word can apply to all of us. Have you ever felt like your faith has dried up? Have you ever felt like God was absent? Then you have experienced dipsao – thirst.
What about being a xenos, a stranger? In Jesus’ day this was anyone who wasn’t Jewish. The Gentiles were strangers. Who are the strangers in our midst? The illegals that are in our country would be a good place to look for what Jesus is talking about here.
And then there are those who are naked – gumnos, which means to be exposed or without protection. And here clothing the naked is about much more than merely giving someone a garment it’s about covering someone’s shame by being their protector.
And finally we are to visit those who are astheneo, sick, weak, infirmed, feeling powerless and those who are incarcerated. And this one is a harder one for us because most of us do not know what it’s like to be guilty or assumed to be guilty and have everyone who you thought was your friend or family member shun you. But this is precisely why it makes Jesus’ list, because he’s been found guilty even though he wasn’t.
And this brings us full circle, because unless we see ourselves as being a mixture of the goats and the sheep. We run the risk of becoming as those who see hunger and tell ourselves that it’s not our problem or we see people thirsting for faith, or hope and we tell them to get off the welfare dole. Or we become like those at the border screaming at children yelling at them to get out of our country. Or we say to those who are sick that they are the problem draining our social resources or those in prison are those who simply deserve what they are getting. When we act in this way we are acting like goats and there is no gray area here. It’s straightforward – we are either with Jesus or we are not.
When Jesus speaks about the punishment that the goats will receive he uses the Greek word Kolasis, which we translate as punishment but it carries with it an immediate judgment, which is to be humiliated. Those who are judged are humiliated at the time of judgment, which means that judgment happens right now.
I don’t know about you but I know that there’ve been times when I have been humiliated by the way I’ve acted or talked toward others. But being goat like isn’t our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is failing to recognize it and repent of it.
That’s why it’s so important to see ourselves as sinners, because if we don’t identify ourselves as sinners we’ll make the biggest mistake of thinking that we’re not. And when we do that we start judging others, which in turn means we are judging ourselves.
I love repentance and so should you. It’s the key that unlocks the door of humiliation and frees us to be sheep again. It’s God’s grace that let’s me admit I am wrong. God doesn’t make me callous. God doesn’t hide from us what he requires of us. God spells it out clearly. And claiming to be a Christian is meaningless to God if our actions say that we are not.
As a person who desires to call Jesus my Lord, this parable is sobering. For it not what I call myself that matters in the final analysis. What matters is will my actions lead Jesus to recognize me? On judgment day God will turn to the least and the lost and will ask them. “Is this someone who loved you? Is this someone who I should call my friend?”
Do you know why the sheep inherit the kingdom? It’s because they act in such an unconscious way that they don’t even know that their acts of kindness and love are being done unto Jesus. They just act that way because they know what it’s like to be in need of love and kindness. At some point in their lives they remember what it felt like to be the lost. They know how wonderful it is to have been lost and have someone find and love them.
I conclude with this: On Thursday I attended a Catalyst teleconference on church mission and the future church and a woman by the name of Lee Nardella, who has been working in the Sudan for the past 8 years an area where people walk around with distended bellies from famine and who die daily because of a lack of clean water and health care. And as she concluded her talk she said this to us: We are not called to change the world. We are called to love it in real tangible ways. And in order to love the world we must change ourselves. That’s what Jesus is all about. Amen