Day 228: Matthew 25:31-46

When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’

The righteous will then answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’  The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’ 

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels! I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink; I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes, naked but you would not clothe me; I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me.’

Then they will answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not help you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.’ These, then, will be sent off to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go to eternal life.

[[The disciples want to know when Jesus will return and the New Age will begin.  Jesus replies, “No one knows the day or the hour.”  This is one of several scriptures that further illustrates this statement.  For more on the Second Coming see Day 150.  For more on the Messiah see Day 145.  For more on the End of the Age see Day 128.]

Jesus believed that there would be a final judgment.  He says, When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

One more time he uses the phrase “Son of Man.”  Is he referring to himself or an enlightened humanity at some point in the future?  Is this literal or metaphorical?  Are people born sheep and born goats, or do they evolve?  Is Jesus saying that he himself will be judging, or does he say that history will prove that he is right when all has been said and done?  Is there really eternal fire?  Is he referring to hell or is it a prophetic reference to social chaos and suffering?  I don’t know for sure and neither does anyone else.  What’s important to me here is not the logistics of how all of this will work.  What’s important here is what Jesus has clearly stated.  I think that instead of being distracted by the mythological, unknowable mysteries of the analogies used in this scripture, it is far more productive to focus on the tangible elements of this scripture which are very, very easy to understand.

This scripture, whether prophecy or parable, states that at some point in the future Jesus, based on his experiences here on earth, will divide everyone into two groups.  And what will be the criteria that he uses to judge the people?  Their sexual preference?  Their religious affiliation?  Their theology?  Their level of integrity, obedience, humility, remorse, or faithfulness?

According to Jesus there will be a very limited set of criteria that will determine whether or not we will receive eternal life. He will reward those who demonstrate kindness:I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me…I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!”

Let’s look at that again.  This is a very simple list of things that Jesus will use to judge us:

  • Whether or not we fed the hungry.
  • Whether or not we gave the thirsty and drink.
  • Whether or not we were willing to receive strangers into our homes.
  • Whether or not we clothed the naked.
  • Whether or not we took care of the sick.
  • Whether or not we visited those in prison.

In this command Jesus is summarizing his ministerial emphasis on love, generosity, and kindness for those in need, as well as his distaste for selfishness and money, as expressed in some related scriptures from Matthew:

  • When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. (Matthew 5:42).
  • So when you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it, as the hypocrites do in the houses of worship and on the streets. They do it so that people will praise them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. (Matthew 6:2).
  • You cannot be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24).
  • While Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and other outcasts came and joined Jesus and his disciples at the table. (Matthew 9:10).
  • Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts. (Matthew 9:13).
  • You can be sure that whoever gives even a drink of cold water to one of the least of these my followers because he is my follower, will certainly receive a reward. (Matthew 10:42).
  • Jesus answered, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor.  How happy are those who have no doubts about me! (Matthew 11:4-6).
  • The seeds that fell among thorn bushes stand for those who hear the message; but the worries about this life and the love for riches choke the message, and they don’t bear fruit. (Matthew 13:22).
  • That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the villages to buy food for themselves. “They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat! (Matthew 14:15-16).
  • Large crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the dumb, and many other sick people, whom they placed at Jesus’ feet; and he healed them.  The people were amazed as they saw the dumb speaking, the crippled made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:30-31).
  • If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me. (Matthew 19:21).
  • Which one of the two did what his father wanted?” “The older one,” they answered. So Jesus said to them, “I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31).

This was the final challenge that Jesus laid down to the Pharisees and all who will listen to reason.  He implores them to reach out to the outcasts and care for those in need. And with this Jesus ends his long critique of Jewish religious practice in his time.  He has said all he has to say, done all that he could do, and demonstrated in every way possible that they need reform.  He has laid it all down and now he is leaving it up to God.

So how do we stack up today?  Certainly from the way Christians talk and act, one would never suspect that demonstrations of kindness were the important things to Jesus.  To listen to the media one would think that Jesus only cares about whether or not you are heterosexual, oppose abortion and birth control, believe in creationism, support prayer in schools, and approve of the use of religious symbols on government property. I’m sure this is what it looks like to the many, many millions of people in this country who have never set foot in a church, because those are the things that Christians seem to be passionate about.  In fact, these things have become a “litmus test” as to whether or not one is in fact a committed Christian, and consequently whether or not one will go to heaven. To me it is an enigma why churches are so concerned with these things when none of them were ever mentioned by Jesus.  Christian priorities have become so horribly confused over the centuries.  Very unfortunate.

                       

It seems to me like many Christians have not been exposed to this particular scripture.  Or else they must have slept through it because it seems like there are lots of Christian folks who only want to help the hungry if they live in a third world country.  They say the hungry ones here are just lazy, crazy, shiftless slobs. They think that only those who have jobs deserve health care.  They don’t want to let strangers into our country, let alone into their homes.  They happily dump their crummy old clothing on the poor so they have an excuse to buy nice new things for themselves.  As for visiting people in prison, it’s pretty impossible today unless you are a relative.  We have, however, done pretty good job with the water thing.  People have plenty of water, at least in this country.  Unless you live near a toxic waste dump or something.  Then it’s a matter of economics and we tell people they have to live with it.

If we are wise and we want to have any credibility whatsoever we should listen to Jesus and be more intentional about the kinds of things listed in this scripture.  I have already introduced on Day 21 how the Law of God represents some kind of eternal truth.  The Laws are not arbitrary rules put forth to test our faithfulness and obedience.  They are inescapable and absolute, like laws of physics.  The Laws of God are like the Law of Gravity.  You can throw the apple up into the air and defy gravity, but it will come down sooner or later.  You can’t escape it.  Just as there are laws that describe the way things work in the physical world, there are also laws that describe the rules that govern human nature and social organization.  One of those laws is that which Jesus illustrates in this scripture:  You cannot have a peaceful, stable society when people are poor and neglected.  

People in America seem to think that if you ignore the hungry, the homeless, and the sick that they will just go away.  Ah, but the lesson of the French Revolution taught the world otherwise. What was the French Revolution?  Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The French Revolution was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France from 1789 to 1799 that profoundly affected French and modern history, marking the decline of powerful monarchies and churches and the rise of democracy and nationalism. Popular resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and aristocracy grew amidst an economic crisis following two expensive wars and years of bad harvests, motivating demands for change.

To put it more bluntly, the peasants got desperate and killed the rich in a bloody uprising.  The lesson of the French Revolution is that if you flaunt your wealth in front of the poor they will eventually kill you and take your things away from you.  It is the truth.  Like gravity.  That’s why governments today have learned that it’s imperative to set aside a few bucks to take care of those in need.  Not because they follow Jesus.  Not because they want to get into heaven.  Not because they feel sorry for them. It’s because wise governments know that it is the only way to maintain stability.  It is the only way to avoid riots, violent revolution, and rampant crime.  It’s the only way to keep everyone safe.  It is an essential component of world peace.  Just as good health care for everyone is the only way to prevent the spread of disease.  It’s a pragmatic matter.

Jesus figured all of this out 1800 years before the French Revolution.  Too bad there are a lot of people out there who still don’t get it 200 years after that bloody uprising.  I guess those same folks who were sleeping when their pastors were preaching on this scripture were also asleep during their world history lessons.

And of course Jesus wasn’t saying anything new.  The Law of Moses requires observant Jews to help those in need:

To provide for those in need –  “If in any of the towns in the land that the Lord your God is giving you there are Israelites in need, then do not be selfish and refuse to help them. Give to them freely and unselfishly, and the Lord will bless you in everything you do. (Deuteronomy 15:7, 10).

To be charitable –  There will always be some Israelites who are poor and in need, and so I command you to be generous to them. (Deuteronomy 15:11).

To love the stranger –  He [God] makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes.  So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

Jesus didn’t invent this stuff.  He simply reminded everybody about these Laws because he thought they were so important and he perceived that they were being ignored. I think people still need to be continually reminded about social justice, although there seem to be some signs of progress in this new millennium. I think there seems to be a change in the mood of the country.  Many young people are finding a sense of purpose through volunteerism and charity work, even though they have never attended a church.  They set up enterprises where the goal is to help people and not just to make money off them.  They avoid purchasing things that were produced by companies that take advantage of the poor.  They seem to care about the poor and they support immigration reform, not because they want to get into heaven but because they think it’s the right thing to do.  The new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is a defender of the poor and a critic of capitalism.  There is an increasingly vocal Progressive Christian community composed of former evangelical Christians who want to shift the church’s attention back to Jesus’ teachings on social justice.

And it seems that teachings that I grew up with in the Methodist church are coming back into vogue, because they always took this scripture very, very seriously. Just like the Lutheran church I attend now.  Yes, the good old mainline churches never got distracted from the mission that Jesus set before us.  Maybe that’s why they are called mainline.  They never stopped making the “main thing” the main thing.  They always followed the straight and narrow path and never fell off the rails.  Just like Jesus, who will now follow a straight and narrow path to the cross.

Finally, does this mean that if we don’t personally feed, clothe, and house every person in need that we won’t get into heaven?  Of course not.  But our first priority as a community and society should be to take care of each other.  It should not be to take care of ourselves, or to take advantage of each other.  We need to pool our resources and talents and make sure no one is in need.  Nobody can do everything, but everybody should do something.  Collectively we could alleviate so much want and suffering if we set ourselves to the task.  With or without the church’s guidance and resources.  One way or another.  God doesn’t give us the right to be selfish.

I’m going to end with these words from Basil of Caesarea, a Christian who lived in 4th Century Turkey.  I think Jesus would agree:

The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.

And this ends Jesus’ final critique of the religious institution of this day.

What does this scripture say to you?

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