This is the sermon that nobody wants to hear. It is a passage of scripture about which there are no popular songs written. Just reading this passage in some churches without comments could get you falsely accused of being a liberal or preaching salvation by works. It is a part of the Gospel which we too often shut our ears to. Yet, it contains one of the most important lessons in the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ. It must be preached.
What are our individual and national responsibilities towards the needy?
We will look the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25.
Questions about Charity
Jesus’ Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is a serious warning personally and nationally. How does it translate to our responsibilities as Christians? How does that work in our national politics? How does that translate to our support for welfare? When we look at a homeless person do we see Jesus? The word for “stranger” is really “foreigner” in Greek. How does that translate to the way we view immigrants personally and nationally? When we look at a Mexican, do we see Jesus? How does looking after the sick translate to health care reform? How does it translate to hospital and prison visits or is that just for pastors? What are legitimate complications and what are just excuses? Is our response to the Gospel evidence of a living faith with good deeds or a dead faith without works?
The Gospel that We can Miss
An acquaintance of mine was involved in church sponsored relief in Florida after a destructive hurricane. He noticed how some churches also had large crews to repair their church buildings. Once they had repaired those buildings they packed up and left. My friend and his team stayed on to look after the needs of people. This is a part of the Gospel that’s easy to miss. It is described in Matthew 25:31-46. Repairing church buildings while people outside are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, in need of hospitality, sick, and in need of a visit is a woeful example of our Christian calling. Is it time for some of us to repent? Is it time to get out of our holy places and live the Gospel on our streets by clothing and feeding Jesus Christ in the needy?
The Social Gospel is the Gospel
Some Christians criticize the idea of a social gospel as an excuse for liberalism. But that is not completely true. Social responsibility is a part of the complete message of the Gospel. Probably one of the best places to go to understand that is Matthew 25:31-46. This important passage deepens Jesus' descriptions of being a light in Matthew 5:13-16 where he described it as good works, and Matthew 25:1-13 where he described the need to have oil to light our lamps. Good works certainly entail pious deeds such as prayer. However, good works also involve deeds of charity such as feeding and clothing the poor. This side of good works is what some term the social gospel. When this “social gospel” is spurned as liberal it becomes an excuse for not obeying Jesus Christ in social responsibility.
Problem, Cause, Solution
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus described ongoing problems in our society such as poverty and sickness. What are some of the causes? Poverty is caused by overpopulation, inadequate distribution methods, rising costs, inadequate education, unemployment and underemployment, environmental degradation, individual responsibilities, medical costs, sickness, greed, the cost and devastation of war, natural disasters, industrial changes, recessions, discrimination, pregnancy out of wedlock, disability, crime and unjust incarceration, immigrant status, gang presence, etc. How do we as Christians address those problems? Do we address the short-term need of feeding the poor, or do we address the political and economic issues that cause poverty? Some Christians address the direct need by activity in a soup kitchen. Others address the underlying causes by involvement in politics. Both address the problem, but Jesus only demanded that we at least start by giving the hungry food.
Loving God in our Neighbor
At advent we tend to focus on Jesus’ first and second comings. What we often miss is his resurrected presence with us today. Where can we find Jesus today? Can we find him by worshiping in a church service or in other acts of religious piety like prayer, fasting, tithes and offerings? Yes. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus described another important place. During his ministry on earth he was possibly more often among our most needy neighbors, those who would be considered the least by many people. Jesus came to the poor and needy. He was born in the most impoverished circumstances, lived an itinerant life without fixed abode and served the sick and poor. We are called to join him in his ministry to the hungry and needy. If we want to find him, that is where he is.
Sheep and Goats
What is it about sheep and goats that Jesus used them in Matthew 25:31-46 as a parable for those who would be saved and those not? Sheep farming requires intensive animal husbandry. Sheep require continual work. On the other hand, they are easy to work with because they are gentle and quiet. Goats on the other hand, are more independent and don’t require so much intensive animal husbandry. They are not as easily herded as sheep and they stink. When together in a flock, goats will domineer over the sheep and often butt them out of the way to reach food. However, they are not harmful predators like wolves, so do they stay with the flock to be separated out later? Is that exactly what Jesus will do at the judgment? Can selfish and stinking personalities stay for now?
How God Judges Nations
How will people who have never heard the name Jesus be judged? Are they automatically assigned to hell without a chance? What of those who perhaps heard the name Jesus but were taught lies? Would God just assign them to hell without mercy? Matthew 25:31-46 gives some clues as to how Jesus will judge the world? Whether or not people know the name Jesus, they may have served him by serving the poor. It is a major area where even many who believe in Jesus fail. Could it just well be that some who believe in the name of Jesus will be judged more harshly than those who have never even heard the name? Could it be that some who do not even know Jesus by name will be blessed because they already love him by serving the needy?
What kind of faith saves, dead or living faith? In James 2 we read that faith must accompanied by works, not works of the law, but good deeds or it is dead. Must we do good works to earn salvation? We are saved by faith, and Paul said of faith, hope and love that love is the greatest (1 Corinthians 13:13). How can we have faith that saves without showing love to our neighbors? Does a closer look at Matthew 25:31-46 reveal that good works are evidence of those who are blessed by God? These “righteous” did not even know how they had fed and clothed Jesus. Could it be that their motive was love for God and their neighbor and not earning salvation by works? Could it be that such good works are evidence of living faith?
Do we See Jesus
Do we see Jesus? Perhaps you think I’m crazy for suggesting it. Some people claim to have seen Jesus in visions but that is not what I am asking. Have we seen Jesus in the manner that Matthew 25:31-46 indicates? Some people avoid hungry and thirsty people and perhaps have never noticed them, but if we were to be invited to see Jesus, would we go to see him? If we have never seen strangers or those without clothing would we take the effort to go and see them? When we see a sick or imprisoned person let’s take a closer look. Do we see Jesus? No? Take another look. Look past their faces and deep into their souls. Do we see the suffering, anxiety, pain, rejection, loneliness and depression? Do we see in them the suffering of Jesus?
Causes of Poverty
Jesus did not give us the privilege of hard-heartedness towards the poor (Matthew 25:31-46). Half of Americans will experience poverty at some time. Declining unions have led to reductions in everyone’s wages. Now a quarter of Americans earn poverty-level incomes. People without a high school diploma are 3 to 5 times more likely to be poor than college graduates. Fathers leaving their families makes it 3 to 4 times more likely for them to be poor. Only about a third of disabled people are able to find work. Women experiencing domestic abuse are twice as likely to to be unemployed. Women, minorities, children, immigrants, the disabled and female-headed households face far greater poverty rates. Loss of job, declining wages, poor education, fathers leaving, having children and disability are major causes of poverty. Our job is to feed the hungry.
Source: Rynell, Amy. CAUSES OF POVERTY: Findings from Recent Research. The Heartland Alliance. Mid-America Institute on Poverty. 2008.
Questions about Salvation & Works
Does the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) teach salvation by works? God was kind to us, not because of any good deeds we may have done. By the washing of regeneration in baptism, we were born from above. With our new birth, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives by giving us participation in God’s loving nature. As Christians we are sanctified by faith (Acts 26:18) and by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Good works are evidence of a sanctified life (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7) and faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Saving faith is a living faith shining with the bright light of good works (Matthew 5:16) including good deeds like helping the needy. So works don’t save us but they are visible evidence of a living faith.
Amos was a prophet with a dire warning to any nation which tramples on the heads of the poor and denies justice to the oppressed. (Amos 2:7) Excuses are hollow justifications for greed and selfishness. While the selfish party, the poor continue to suffer. They oppress the poor and crush the needy and say, 'Bring us some drinks!' (Amos 4:1) Campaign contributions are bribes, an assumed obligation to do the donor's bidding. Our politicians oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in our courts (Amos 5:12). Amos issues a dire warning against any nation or people who stomp all over the needy and the poor of the land (Amos 8:4). That nation is cursed by God and will be punished. He echoes Matthew’s message (25:31-46) to relieve the poor.
The Great White Throne
The setting for the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the last judgment at the great white throne (Revelation 20:11-15). Is that judgment according to what people said or did? Words are cheap. True faith is revealed in action by deeds. The judgment is of all the nations, not just the Church. Matthew’s six examples represent human suffering. Other passages include widows and orphans while the Good Samaritan looked after an injured man. Notice that when speaking of all nations, Jesus uses the term brothers and sisters. What does the Holy Spirit say to us? Do we see the suffering as brothers and sisters? Do we have hearts of charity towards those in need? Following Jesus Christ our Savior is to participate in salvation of the world including saving the suffering as we are able.
The parable of the sheep and goats is serious business. As we sit in our comfortable homes and churches there are people outside who are suffering. Sure the issues are complex but do we make excuses or are we going to do something as we are able? Are our hearts hard and calloused or is the love of Christ shed abroad in our hearts?