Complementary Text: Psalm 98:7-9
Preaching Text: Matthew 25:31-46
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This Lent we have been exploring some of the parables of Jesus and learning what those parables have to teach us about how to live as citizens of “Heaven’s Reign”. Over these last four weeks, we’ve read about unforgiving servants, laborers in a vineyard, guests at a wedding banquet, and bridesmaids preparing for a wedding feast, and each of those stories has communicated some important truth about the life of discipleship – that we are called to live as forgiven and forgiving people, that our human ideas about fairness fall short of God’s will for justice, that God’s invitation to enjoy grace and love must not be received lightly, and that readiness to welcome Christ is an essential part of the life of faith.
This morning’s parable puts the fundamental character of life lived well before God into sharp focus. The setting of the parable is the heavenly throne room, and the nations are gathered before the throne to be judged by the Son of Man – understood in Matthew’s gospel to refer unequivocally to Jesus. What happens there takes everyone by surprise, because the basis of the Son of Man’s judgment seems to be completely unexpected: the sheep and goats are not separated by their profession of trust in Jesus (or lack thereof), or by their attention to the minute details of the law, but by the way that they treated “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. There has been some dispute about how this parable is best to be interpreted, specifically who is being gathered in the throne room and who Jesus is referring to when he talks about “the least of these”. Some commentators define this parable very narrowly, insisting that the nations include non-Christians and “the least of these” is a clear reference to the community of disciples who will be sent out to preach the good news. In other words, they see this as a word to the nations, and a message of comfort for the church as they go out to make the gospel known throughout the world. Others expand the scope of the parable somewhat, but think it’s irresponsible to interpret it broadly to include everyone among the nations and all the needy among “the least of these”. While I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of a narrow reading of this parable, to be honest I don’t think we’re well-served by trying to limit its implications. It seems too human, too easy, too convenient to let Christians off the hook, for example, or to claim that the people who are worthy of being fed, refreshed, welcomed, clothed, and visited are only those within the church. When we read this parable as broadly as possible, we’re left with stunning implications for the life of discipleship, particularly as disciples who are being exposed to greater diversity every day.
If “all the nations” is a term that includes us, then this parable puts an edge on one of the central teachings of Jesus – the so-called greatest commandments. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is approached by one of the experts in the law, who asks him to name the greatest commandment. Jesus responds: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22: ) For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are so closely linked that they cannot be separated. As disciples of Jesus who are called to give up everything and dedicate ourselves to the values of Heaven’s Reign, it’s hard to imagine a more important teaching than this. This parable makes clear that any claim to love God that is coupled with neglect of the needy – whether a fellow Christian or not – is suspect at best and a grave offense with dire consequences at worst. The way we treat others is not a matter of personal preference, but an ethical imperative that lies at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and the language of reward and punishment underscores the seriousness with which our Lord takes our attitude toward others.
By the same token, that this parable concerns “all the nations”, presumably including people who are not part of the community of disciples has profound implications for the way we are called to regard people of goodwill who don’t share our faith in Jesus but who nevertheless live with compassion for others. In both the narrow and broad readings of this parable, the positive judgment rendered on those who extend care, concern, and love to “the least of these” is a direct challenge to rhetoric that seeks to demonize or denigrate people of other religious traditions (or maybe even none at all). This isn’t a matter of believing that anything goes or that it doesn’t matter what we do, but of taking seriously God’s ability to work through people of various faiths to bring about justice and peace and compassionate care for those in need. Put another way, this parable suggests that Jesus is served whenever people set aside their own selfish ambitions and desires and work to meet the needs of others, even (especially) when they do so without expectation of rewards in this life or the next.
Of course, this parable raises significant challenges for us as Lutheran Christians. Like last week’s parable, today’s reading places heavy emphasis on our actions, and links those actions very closely with consequences that have lasting impacts; it’s hard, after all, to ignore the language of eternal punishment and eternal reward that feature so prominently here. Is Jesus really saying that we must serve others or risk damnation? Well, sort of, and let me explain what I mean. I have no intention of diminishing the dramatic implications of this parable. I am firmly convinced that today’s reading speaks of an ethical imperative to serve others, and that there are dire consequences for not heeding that imperative. I’m not convinced, however, that Jesus is talking about a cause and effect relationship. This isn’t a threat: “Feed others OR ELSE!”; it’s a clear reminder that faith makes a difference, that faith works itself out in our lives in service to “the least of these”, and that any “faith” that doesn’t lead us to serve others has some serious issues. To follow Jesus and to be aligned with the values of Heaven’s Reign is to serve others naturally, without compulsion, because that service flows from the saving and transformative faith that is ours in Jesus. In Matthew’s mind, faith that doesn’t lead us to serve others is faith that needs to be seriously challenged and changed for the good of the disciple and the world.
As Lent draws toward a close and we move ever closer to Holy Week, there is much for us to ponder. Through these cryptic and difficult parables, we have been called to the hard work of forgiveness, justice, vulnerability, vigilance, and costly service. Each of the lessons we’ve learned this Lent are deeply important to the life of discipleship, and any one of them is enough to occupy much of our time and attention. I would like to suggest that you consider extended reflection on one of those topics in the days and weeks to come; these are, after all, not merely concerns during Lent. What would it mean for you to intentionally focus on being more forgiving, to use your hands and your voice to advocate for greater freedom, to acknowledge your brokenness and need for strength from God and others, to be more aware and more expectant of God’s power and presence moving in the world, or to ponder new ways of serving Christ by serving others? How are we already living out this call, and how much more powerful might our collective witness be if our trust in Jesus was regularly demonstrated by intentional acts of mercy, louder calls for justice, deeper expressions of community, more ministry grounded in fervent hope, and costlier examples of service toward “the least of these”? I don’t know the exact answer to those questions, but I do know that they are definitely worth asking. Let us pray that God would inspire us by this challenging parable to ponder how we might better express our love of Christ and our neighbors, not so others might know that we are sheep, but so that they might know Jesus and give glory to God, our heavenly King and righteous Judge. Amen.