The Least of These – an Army of Blessed Outcasts
The Least of These – an Army of Blessed Outcasts Matthew 25:31–46 (NIV84) 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you DID for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you DID NOT DO for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Many years ago I took a group of 30 young people to attend an evening worship service at a mega church. With exuberance and uplifted hands, the music leaders danced around on the stage calling us to join them in “celebrative” worship by singing, “I feel good.” Their approach caused me to feel that they promoted a theology that focused predominantly on me and making me feel good. I also felt that they conveyed a message that God should appreciate it when we take time from our busy schedules to recognize his existence. I was profoundly disturbed because it seemed to me that such a call to worship is saying that we do not really need to come to God with humility seeking his presence acknowledging that we seek to live for the sake of his glory. By contrast, that morning Mariette and I and the kids went to a worship service in Saulsville. Rev Masipa invited me to preach there that morning. What I experienced that morning felt radically different. I saw poor people, scrubbed and dressed in their Sunday best, harmoniously attuned, honouring their maker joyfully with humility and reverence. That morning I experienced true religious faith, the reason for gathering corporately – to celebrate the glories of God while confessing his grace toward us in the adoration of his person. The morning we spent our time with the ‘religious outcasts’ and the evening with the ‘religious elite’. I don’t know why, but every time I read our passage from Scripture, I always think back and remember the contrast – on the one hand I saw the erosion of God-centeredness in a worship setup with its pronounced narcissistic self-centred approach and on the other hand a worship setup with a profound well-educated God-centeredness where thankfulness for what God has done and the radical desire to live for the glory of God alone stood front and centre. What a contrast! With my experiences many years ago and the echo of our Scripture reading as backdrop, I’ve been reminiscing this past week: Where do we fit in? Where do I fit in? With the rich and well-off elite, singing: “I feel good”, while we let God know that he should appreciate our willingness to spend an hour of our time with him? Or with the poor and socially speaking outcasts, worshiping God in the splendour of his holiness, humbly submitting ourselves to live for the sake of his glory? I’ve been asking myself: Are we honouring the gospel not only in word but also in deed by caring for “the least of these” as Christ instructed? I was reminiscing about how we as a local church could makes a difference, in the world we live in and how we as individual Christians can meaningfully reflect Christ’s grace in the world that we live in, when the disparities of wealth and power in our world are so great? Have you ever spend time thinking about this? Do you think it’s an important enough issue to spend time pondering about it? Scholars have endlessly discussed our Scripture reading. People who reduce the gospel to social action love it, because it seems to have no theology in it and a great deal of care for the poor and needy. It gives the impression that to serve the poor is necessarily to serve Christ in them. People with a strong Reformed theology have problems with it. It looks dangerously like justification by works, the very antithesis of Paul, Augustine and Luther. Listen again to our text verses: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you DID for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ And ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you DID NOT DO for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ So, let us look at our reading afresh. Matthew lifts up the importance of what we do with our lives. Why? Because how we spend our time and whom we actively love and do not love provide a diagnostic image of our overall health. In my mind a number of features, many of them uncomfortable, stand out. For starters this passage tells me that I am accountable. I am free to live my life as I please, but at the end I shall have to give account to the one who gave me my this life. It tells me that judgment awaits everyone. There will be no exceptions. There will be no favouritism. There will be no excuses. It will be totally fair. He will separate the nations. Our Scripture reading tells me that we are not all going in the same direction though by different roads, as we would dearly love to think in this tolerant and pluralist age. We will not all end up in the same place. It is possible to be utterly lost, and Jesus warns us of that possibility here. It tells me that Jesus will bring people in the presence of God and will bar people from the presence of God. Matthew 25:31-46 tells me that there will be great surprises on that day. Lots of people who were very confident of their condition will be undone. Lots of people who rated themselves very lowly will be astonished by their reception. It tells me that the heart of Christianity is relationship with Jesus himself, which shows itself in loving, sacrificial care for others, in particular the poor and needy. It tells me that people who have never heard the good news will be judged by their response to what light they had, and in particular by their response to the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus, whether these be Jewish or Christian. But most of this entire great account brings us face to face with our Judge, and we need to be clear about three great realities that it underlines. Both those who had cared for the needy, and those who had rejected them, are surprised to find that it was Jesus they were reacting to. ‘When, Lord? We did not know it was you.’ People did not recognize him at his first coming, and, although it will be so public, there is a sense in which people will not recognize him at his second. And in between the advents we are blind to the Christ who judges us in and by our reaction to the poor and needy, the hungry, homeless and oppressed. It will not do for Christians to sing hymns and keep ourselves pure. In the needy world in which we are placed between the advents, we must be known by our Christian love and service. We must realize that in failing to care for the poor and unemployed we are failing to care for those with whom Jesus identified himself. I would say to you this morning that the rule for all of us should be fairly simple: we shouldn’t waste time bothering whether we “love” our neighbour; No, Jesus is telling is that we should act as if we do. The love of our neighbour is the only door out of the dungeon of self-centeredness and selfishness. Given the focus of Jesus’ ministry, carried on through His body, it is not surprising that James makes the following observation about the early church: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5). Similarly, Paul drives this point home in his letter to the very unlovely Corinthian church when he says: “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:26–29) And in Hebrews 6:9–11 (NIV84) we read: Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. Here then from James and Paul and the author of Hebrews is a central witness drawn from all of Scripture: God has sovereignly chosen to work in the world by beginning with the weak who are on the ‘outside,’ not the powerful who are on the ‘inside.’ Friends, the claim is not that the poor are inherently more righteous or sanctified than the rich. There is no place in the Bible that indicates that poverty is a desirable state or that material things are evil. In fact, wealth is viewed as a gift from God. The point is simply that, for His own glory, God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised – and in the way that we deal with it. God’s kingdom strategy of ministering to and among the poor, the weak, the suffering, yes, the least of these, was so powerful that other kings took note. In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Julian tried to launch pagan charities to compete with the highly successful Christian charities that were attracting so many converts. Writing to a pagan priest, Julian complained, “The impious Galileans [i.e., the Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, and everyone can see that our people lack aid from us. They are putting us to shame!” So, in our Scripture reading today Jesus is holding up to us the pattern for practical, Calvary-like love. There is nothing like it in the whole world. It is the supreme hallmark of the disciple of the kingdom. There is one test, and one only, of the extent of our love for him, and it is a very uncomfortable one. How have we treated the poor? The only criterion Jesus set was “least of these,” which means those who are weaker and more vulnerable than us, the little ones, particularly the small ones, the children, the elderly, the lonely, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed, the imprisoned ... I read with a heavy heart, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Not just the community jail where last night’s vagrants and drunks are drying out, not just infamous concentration camps run by evil tyrants, but “prison.” Earlier I’ve shared with you a few things that this passage is telling us. Allow me to now remind you that this passage is also telling us individually that we are God’s plan. Since the very moment of creation, the wonderful kingdom of God—we included—has been the goal that now comes to its fullness and finality. We have been part of the world’s most important movement—faithfully living as a disciple of Jesus—and now we are part of the world’s biggest celebration. Are we lucky? No, we are blessed because we are God’s plan, now fulfilled. So what you and I can do and are called to do is not to ignore and overlook the least of these, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ in the least of these, because that is what he said we should do. Therefore, dear friends, allow this passage to prompt us to develop a loving lifestyle, so that good deeds flow naturally from our normal conduct of life. Because God is generous; we should be generous. God is patient; you be patient. Learn to live that way. Friends, what we do with the Good News of Jesus have enormous consequences, because the punishment of those who reject Jesus is just as eternal as the reward of those who serve Him. Don’t be so sure about God’s will. The deeds you might dismiss, as casual and simple, God will regard as valuable moments of showing his love and grace to people. The deeds you may regard as highly spiritual God may dismiss as calculating and misconceived. Be energetic about the little moments in your ordinary day. Offering a drink to someone is a simple gesture of care and concern. A lot of similar “little gestures” build into a much bigger story: God has changed your life, turning natural selfishness into generosity and compassion. This God is great! Believe in him. That’s your message in each of the little gestures that shows God’s love. Profession of faith or profession of our love for God, or the lack thereof, is not what determine our status in eternity. No, whether our actions displayed that we love God, do. We love God, then, through loving others. In this way, we avoid the danger of concentrating exclusively on God, fashioning a “me and God and nobody else” religion. Jesus teaches that what and whom we choose make a difference. He states clearly and forcefully that those who think there are no consequences to actions are mistaken. In a world that seems too big to be changed, our lives have more meaning and value than we imagine.