Sheep, Goats, and Other Disciples

Matthew 25. 31-46

The bible contains a big story. A big story that we have tendencies to over complicate or over simplify. Sometimes it seems we are capable of both at the same time. We sometimes chop it up into smaller stories or even special verses. Sometimes we skip past the difficult parts or focus on parts that comfort us.

The Gospel of Matthew handles this dilemma well. It tells part of the story and connects it with the larger story. Matthew’s story is connected to what has already happened and points us forward to what is to come.

One of Matthew’s primary themes is what he calls the kingdom of heaven. He reaches back into the Law and the Prophets and grabs old words from the bigger story and puts them smack dab in the middle of the story of the kingdom of heaven.

In chapter 22, a question is asked and sounds something like this; “Jesus, this is a big story. There is so much we have been told, so much we have learned, there is so much in the Law and the Prophets – which of these things is the greatest?” Jesus answers without hesitation “Love God with all you have… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew does not want us to miss that Jesus connects the gospel of the kingdom of heaven with the story told by the Law and the Prophets. Neither does Matthew want us to miss that Jesus makes a connection between loving God and loving others.

Matthew wants us to imagine a world that is larger than what we think we need to get done today. To imagine a world that is more than what can be read on your facebook wall or your twitter feed. To imagine a world that is not limited by what we see or hear on the news. Imagine a world unlike any earthly kingdoms that have ever been. Imagine a world not dependent on power, control, coercion, manipulation and arm twisting. Imagine a world not dependent on those in charge making laws to keep themselves in charge.

Matthew wants us to imagine what the kingdom of heaven is like. And he wants us to know that in this kingdom the greatest commandment is “love God… and love your neighbor.” Matthew wants us to imagine a world like that. And the least of these have a prominent place in this kingdom. Our text is explicit about this.

We want to be careful here, we want to be sure we do not read these words as words for people who don’t go to our church. The fact is, we often read Jesus’ words as words for people who aren’t us. The fact is things get a little messy when we read sayings from Jesus. Because Jesus does not speak into a vacuum. He is always talking about real situations. He is always talking about real people. He is serious about love of God and love of people. These things cannot be separated. This is part of the older, bigger story told by the Law and Prophets. And Jesus says that story is about loving God and loving people.

In our text, Jesus mentions himself explicitly. He often hints he is a character in a parable – this time he is pretty straightforward “When the Son of Man comes.” Later he uses the term “King.” But perhaps most noteworthy, in this parable he is connecting himself to those who are hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and imprisoned.

We want to be sure and get this. Jesus has already connected the command to love God and to love people. Now we are being told that loving Jesus and loving people is essentially the same thing. To love the “least of these” is to love Jesus. To deny the “least of these” is to deny Jesus.

When did discipleship get so complicated? Why can’t we just attend a weekend retreat or a six week course or work our way through a good book and come out on the other side a card carrying disciple of Jesus? Why does it have to matter how we treat difficult people and needy people? Why does it matter how we treat people who are different? Why does it have to matter how we treat people who are risky to hang out with?

The fact the king of the story connects himself with the least of these is eye opening. If we should treat the least of these in the way we treat the king, then perhaps we should imagine a world where everyone gets treated like queens and kings.

We know the golden rule – “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Matthew seems to trump this rule and suggests we treat the marginalized as royalty. This kingdom of heaven is full of surprise. We never know what we will be challenged to do next. Imagine a world where the least of these are the toast of the kingdom!

Our text is part of a theme that Matthew thinks is worth repeating. Jesus keeps talking about being prepared and being faithful. He keeps telling stories where the master gives instructions, goes away, and returns… it is almost like we are stuck here. Earlier in chapter 25 we find ten virgins waiting on a bridegroom. The bridegroom returns to find some of them prepared, others not. Then we find three servants given bags of gold by their master. The master returns to find two faithful, but one is not. And now again, he is coming back and the question is hanging in the air “will we be found faithful?”

This time he returns to separate sheep from goats. Perhaps it is a good time to mention that in the first parable, Jesus is not really talking about a wedding. In the second, he is not really talking about investment. And now, in our text, he is not really talking about sheep and goats. Still here he comes, and he is handing out rewards to the faithful. And being faithful has everything to do with what kind of disciple we have been. It has everything to do with how we have treated the master. I mean how we have treated the least of these. I mean how we have treated the master. It all gets so blurry at this point.

When Jesus begins talking about the kingdom of heaven, things get messy. Like those in the parable, we understand the importance of treating Jesus well. But it is difficult to treat others the same way. Jesus has already made it clear that we cannot separate loving God from loving others. And so, we want to take it seriously when we read “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

The least of these is an interesting idea. Some of us may relate to what this means. Others have no clue. Since Jesus tells the story we may ask if he might have known something about the least of these. We think it possible that Joseph died early. If this is the case, would Jesus and his family have benefitted from the kind of hospitality the parable talks about? Or would the family have known what it was like to have been denied such hospitality? We can be certain Jesus knew the least of these in his adult ministry; it is at least possible he experienced it as a child.

We get a short list of what the least of these means; 1) hungry and in need of food, 2) thirsty and in need of drink, 3) stranger in need of rest, 4) naked in need of clothes, 5) sick and in need of care, 6) in prison and in need of company. We start to get an idea of what this means, needy, marginalized, exhausting types of people… and we might be able to think of others who might fit on this list.

Matthew has reported a number of stories that Jesus tells. And all of them want us to imagine a kingdom of heaven where the rule is different. And the rule is different because the ruler is different. Jesus wants us to be living the mission he has given. He wants us to forgive those who are not deserving. He wants us to befriend those hard to get along with. He wants us to love enemies. He wants us to serve the least of these – he wants us to treat them like queens and kings.

Matthew is not proposing that we do not live by faith. He is not trying to start a debate between faith vs works. Matthew is just reminding us of something we already know. That when we receive love – we love. That when we receive forgiveness the proper response is to forgive. And when we are cared for during times of need, the proper response is to serve those in need.

Let us imagine a world that challenges the way we have been taught to think about things. There is a brand of spirituality that claims faith is a private matter. That what goes on in your everyday life is between you and God. That as long as you know what you believe then God will bless what you have and give you more of it. That your possessions and your schedule and your dreams are right where they should be and you can stay where you are and start to sing “it is well with my soul” til kingdom come.

But that is not our brand of spirituality. Because we are trying really hard to take what Jesus says seriously. And when we do that it challenges our worldview from our possessions to our schedule to our hopes and dreams. The fact is, we try hard to figure these parables out – instead, it seems we always find out they have us figured out.

There is a real danger of not following through with our part of the story. A danger of not following through with discipleship. There is a danger of thinking we have got this figured out. There is a real danger of thinking we are a disciple when we are a goat. There is a danger of thinking we are entitled to eternal glory.

But in our parable the goats are surprised, for that matter so are the sheep. The goats were thinking they had this wrapped up. They were members of a reputable church. They were convinced they were disciples by their own definition. Yet they forgot that part of the great commandment that tells us to love our neighbors.

Loving others is hard. It is hard enough to love our biological families, how are we supposed to love other people? How are we supposed to love the least of these? Jesus is inviting us to imagine a world where to love God and to love others cannot be separated from one another. And that, we discover, includes the least.

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The Challenge of Joshua

To state the obvious, preaching from Joshua is a challenge. Especially for churches from pacifist traditions. Joshua is full of war. It is aggressive. It is violent. And God is involved in it. That makes Joshua an invitation to participate in a difficult conversation. Preaching Joshua should allow for feelings of disagreement but the text must be taken seriously. Preaching Joshua includes the temptation to make the text more acceptable or to force it into saying something that matches our presuppositions. Or even to dismiss portions of the text.

There are parts of this narrative that pull us into the story. Although violent, Joshua is adventurous. Partnership in warfare is not the usual way God intervenes. However, in Joshua we cannot walk over it, cannot go under it, and cannot walk around it. We must walk through it. Joshua must be seen in its place in the biblical storyline. Such warfare may not be found in other parts of the story, but it is here and we cannot pretend it is not.

Joshua is like an arena that hosts a contest involving text and listener. We struggle between rational thinking vs. faith in God. We struggle with violent warfare vs. worshipful celebration. There may even be a sense of preacher vs. God. We would do well to reread the encounter at 5.13-15 before we preach, regardless of the text for the day. Far too often, preachers have come up with a plan and afterward asked that God endorse it. We may be tempted to enter the situation asking whether God is for us or against us. The text is clear this is the wrong question. The right question is “Whose side are we on?”

Preaching Joshua will leave us with unresolved questions. But we can be certain about this God who demonstrates strength and salvation through strange strategies. Joshua makes us aware of the reality of God.

Ultimately, preaching Joshua takes us to the question, “Who will you serve?” This is the conclusion of the book. After 23 chapters of following this God through the Jordan River at flood stage, circling the city of Jericho, and wandering deeper into the promised the land, we know the correct answer. Joshua reviews what this God has already done, the answer seems obvious. Yet preaching Joshua admits it is difficult to be a disciple. It is to admit out loud that to serve the Lord is not an easy decision. This is the most serious of questions “Who will you serve?” This is where things become difficult. “We will serve the Lord” we say. And the preacher replies “No you can’t do it.” We insist we can and face a challenging future. Other gods are easier to serve. Other kings easier to follow. Allegiance is a difficult decision to make.

Preaching Joshua is to preach about discipleship. To serve the Lord means you cannot serve other gods. You cannot have a foot in two different kingdoms. To preach Joshua is to be reminded of the words that come later from Jesus “No one can serve two masters.”

Where are the Disciples?

Sometimes the biblical narrative gives profound truth. Other times we get details about things that seem trivial. We find both in the Gospel of Mark 8.22-10.52. R.T. France considers this to be the second act of the gospel. As this act begins we receive profound truth “You are the Christ.” Yet, we do not want to ignore the details of movement in the text. The posture of disciples seems to matter. For example, Jesus turns around to see disciples behind him. Jesus then tells Peter to get behind him (in rather strong language). The text may be letting us know where disciples belong. Disciples belong behind Jesus.

When a man with great wealth approached Jesus he “ran up to him.” Afterward, Jesus “looked around” to tell his disciples how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. On the road to Jerusalem, Mark tells us it was “Jesus leading the way.” When a blind man receives his sight, Mark adds that he “followed Jesus along the road.”

Of course, these things could be simple details. They could be an effort to tell us where someone is standing in a particular scene. They could be efforts to help us picture events in our mind. However, they could be deliberate references of where disciples should be in proximity to Jesus. These references might be reminders that our plan may not be God’s plan. Such references may be reminders of where we ought to be. We are to be where Peter belongs, where all disciples belong – disciples belong behind Jesus. To be anywhere else, to offer any advice on the way the kingdom should work is to be in league with Satan.

The cycle has not changed since Mark chapter 8. Jesus starts talking about the cross. We still disagree with this plan and insist there may be more effective ways to build a kingdom. It becomes easy and tempting for us to allow some of these ideas into our sermons. It is easy to point fingers at Peter from where we are. Yet, in honest moments we are able to admit that we are still not comfortable with a cross as part of the plan. Again, Jesus will emphasize where we are to be (and he may use strong language) – we belong behind Jesus.