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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Preaching and Politic

Between now and the election candidates will do their best to convince us that party politics fit nicely with the Kingdom of God. More specifically they will try to convince us that the Kingdom fits nicely with their personal vision for the country. In a further effort to convince us, some will even share their vision in sanctuaries and from pulpits.  The fact is, the Kingdom cannot fit into any of these artificial temporary structures (think new wine in old wineskins). It would be like nominating Jesus for president. Why would we try to limit His authority to the United States? His vision is much bigger than that.

I am not opposed to political action (the fact is, I can be quite opinionated about these things). However, I am opposed to the church thinking any political party or candidate speaks for them. Anytime the church becomes bedfellows with any lesser kingdom we will find an unfaithful church.

Taken to its extreme, one side of American politics positions government as a god. Government will become responsible for us, will care for us, and will deliver us from the evils and injustices of this world. At the other extreme, the individual is placed in position as a god. The individual becomes responsible for self, provides for self, and delivers self from evils and doubts. Both of these extremes belong to the same systemic problem that gives allegiance to something other than God and disregards the reality that only God is able to deliver.

This is not a call to solve society’s problems or to ignore them. The fact is, our worldview expects that we will be doing good whenever and wherever we are able. We just do not want to fall into the trap of thinking we can change the world by using the ways of the world. This presents us with obvious challenges. At our best, our struggle of how to go about work in the public sector is connected to a desire to influence as many as possible. At our worst, our struggle of how to work in the public sector suggests a lack of confidence in the plan of God and Jesus as King.

Government is gift but it is not the way of the Kingdom. Winning the culture wars is not the same as the Kingdom story. Our confidence is in King Jesus and our politic begins by gathering in His name. Our politic goes further by acknowledging His Kingship and following His Kingdom vision. This includes being salt and light. But as Scot McKnight says in Kingdom Conspiracy, “the best way to be salt and light is not to coerce the rest of the nation through political power but to witness to an alternative reality by living out the kingdom vision of Jesus in our local church.”

McKnight’s discussion about peace may be helpful here and we can use the same process with a number of other issues. Nearly everyone agrees with the idea of peace but most who talk about it are talking world peace or nuclear disarmament or stopping ethnic wars. The New Testament, on the other hand, keeps talking about peace in the church. Our tendency is to politicize peace but we are actually called to “seek peace in our local fellowship”, to “seek reconciliation with God and with one another”, and “out of this peace-shaped, kingdom shaped church we spill over peace into the world.” If the church is not shaped like peace “Why should the world care what the church believes about peace?”

Any preaching that encourages us to cast confidence in any political kingdom is not in step with preaching about the Kingdom of God. Such preaching implies that things are ok as they are and that the way to change the world is through politics. Such preaching suggests the salvation plan of Jesus is not sufficient on its own and requires help from someone who holds real power.

Preaching should call us to be living as if King Jesus is ruling now. We are not looking for someone else to run things for us here; we are participants in an alternative vision. Ecclesia describes a political gathering. So does Kingdom. This does not make us part of the current political process. It does make our preaching in this political gathering a significant word about what it means to live under the rule of King Jesus.

Matthew and Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew weaves together narrative stories with sections of teaching to help us recognize that Kingdom words are related to the narrative stories of earth. An implied question becomes “what kingdom are you claiming as reality?” Matthew knows there is a difference between what God wants and what people are doing.

This may be the reason Matthew uses the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven” – to present a contrast with the rule of earthly kings. It is certainly interesting that we read a disturbing story about an earthly king immediately before Matthew introduces the phrase “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Does Matthew present Herod as a representative earthly king who is rival to Jesus and therefore a representative of the kingdom of earth vs. the divine rule of the Kingdom of heaven?

Matthew presents a case that rule has been re-established in King Jesus. This rule on earth becomes connected to the rule of the King of heaven. Preaching the Gospel of Matthew includes the announcement that heavenly rule has invaded the land in Jesus and is challenging the corrupted rule of earth’s kingdoms. We are called to live obediently under this rule on earth.