Ephesians 2: 6-10; Matthew 25:31-46;
I was reading the sermon I preached on this day 4 years ago. Not bad really – even if I say so myself. It was a solid and challenging message.
But did it get across? Did the message make a difference? Or do we have constant miscommunication in this modern age.
Take this cartoon for example. It’s speaks volumes:
So what is the heart of the message? What do you take away each week? What will you take home today?
This is CHRIST THE KING Sunday. Also known as the “Reign of Christ”. Whether you are a royalist or a republican you can’t avoid the titles of Jesus.
The Gospel text (the reading today – not an sms received on your phone in code) starts very directly with these words: Mat 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.
Sit on his throne. Then in verse 34 we read: “Then the King will say…
The last judgement scene has been portrayed in all kinds of creative ways. It is quite graphic really. Verse 41 speaks volumes really: “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.
We may miss the point however. We obsess about future judgement sometimes. Jesus seemed to say elsewhere that judgement is also now.
Take this for example: John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. A fascinating verse.
But beyond that – the Christian life is not really about doing good and ethics. They are part of it – but not the essence of it.
People do see it like this however. A conversation with a parishioner from a previous church is a good example. I asked her this question – here was the conversation: are you still at church? Her response: No I don’t go to church anymore. Just try to live a good life quietly on my own.
I wonder if her good life includes the kind of care Jesus talks about in Matthew 25.
Mat 25:35 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, Mat 25:36 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.’
Don’t you see? Once you make it about what you do – it gets tricky. And we get picky. That’s why the questions about what we must “do” are a distraction.
Commentator Dirk Lang puts it like this: “Like the person who came to Jesus and asked “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16-24), so we too wonder on what side we will find ourselves — the right or the left? The question, however, is simply an excuse for doing nothing, as Bonhoeffer has pointed out.
The person attempts to engage Jesus in an endless ethical discussion about works or good deeds. In this parable, the question resurfaces but in an importantly different way: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (25:44).
Those at the left hand of the Son of Man seek an excuse and almost put the blame on the Son of Man himself as if to say, ‘You didn’t reveal yourself; how could we see you?’ ” (Workingpreacher.org)
In other words – if I’d known it was you Jesus when that poor person asked for help, then I would have Jesus! You can see how daft that is.
SO: What’s it all about?
Here’s the clue – the people in the sheep and goats account who get the prize – who are rewarded – actually had no idea they were doing it to Jesus (or to someone who represents Jesus).
Their response is this: Mat 25:38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?Mat 25:39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The implication is – they were doing what they were doing because that’s who they were. It flowed out of them without the analysis.
And it fits well with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere does it not. And with Matthew as a whole starting with John the Baptiser:
Mat 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Mat 3:8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Mat 3:9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. Mat 3:10 The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
And Jesus takes this theme further: Mat 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Mat 7:17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. Mat 7:18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Mat 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Mat 7:20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
The implication is that this is gardening again – not philosophy or logic or ethics classes. It’s an organic growth in character if we are connected to Jesus the Head, and the rest of the body.
That’s why holiness and unity are really hard to keep together in tension. People will be happy families (united) until you confront behaviour (go for holiness). They get mad at you. Sulk. Boycott church.
Jesus keeps going at this theme in Matthew: Mat 12:31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Mat 12:32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Mat 12:33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. Mat 12:34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Mat 12:35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. Mat 12:36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
The king in this Kingdom is a King of compassion. The fruit of behaviour in transformed connected people (connected to the vine if you like as in John 15) is people who have compassion like Jesus did.
Compassion on the woman at the well. The prostitute caught in adultery. The tax collector up a tree. The untouchable lepers. Do I need to go on? When they meet Jesus – he changes them through grace.
We try to change the world through condemnation and threats.
So the good-fruit disciples who have no idea helping people is like helping Jesus – feed the poor, visit the prisoners. (Hey – do you want to come with me in the week before Christmas? I’m looking for some singers who can come with me and I will bring my guitar. To the maximum security prison.)
And they help the hungry, thirsty, strangers and naked. They do it and are surprised that it is the same has helping Jesus.
The sheep are good fruit. Fabulous mixed metaphor.
The goats are fruitless. And they are the debaters – they love discussing things. “Really – I would have done something if I’d known it was for you Jesus!”
Modern debaters discuss whether the “least of these” means gentiles or Christians – who do we help. Refugees? Which ones?
The sheep just do it. Nike sheep. Fabulous mixed metaphor.
YOU ARE THIS – SO DO IT
I know there are passages about obedience – and we have to figure out what this means. But the bulk of the evidence (we ponder scripture – we weigh things up) is about doing what we are already.
Indicative: you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
Imperative: be yourselves – salt and light.
PAUL TO THE EPHESIANS
So a final comment from Ephesians 2. It is always grace and not works. A gift – not earned by our deeds. Paul says it like this:
Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— Eph 2:9 not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Legalists agonise here too – “am I doing the right good works?” “I’m sure my good works don’t including visiting prisons. Helping Muslims. Being generous to people who are DIFFERENT!?”
Maybe this will help to make the point:
Tom Wright picks up on a subtlety in the Greek in verse 10 which you see in other translations: 8 How has this all come about? You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. 9 It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. 10 This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.
Other translations pick this up too: (NRSV) For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
(ESV) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
(CEV) God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are.
He prepared good works as the road we must travel. To be our way of life (NRSV). That we should walk in them (ESV) – the word is peripatetic. Περιπατέω – it means to live or walk.
That’s no token – no selective good works. It’s all of life.
It’s the fruit. You can’t have it half the time or selectively. We become fruitful.
We do it because we are this.
Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46
We are reaching the end of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s gospel – just before he faces his Passion. Chapter 26 verse 1 says this: When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2)
It’s a turning point. And it’s interesting that this last teaching – in Matthew’s gospel anyway – is this parable of the sheep and the goats.
Coming to New Zealand for us was a very interesting experience. I used to joke about it when asked whether I would consider ministering here: “Oh too many sheep” I would reply. “I’ve got my hands full already!”
And when we did arrive in Wellington, it was quite a while before we actually saw sheep. I remember my wife getting quite excited when it happened – on the way up the Hutt River Valley towards Kaitoke Regional Park – one of our favourites and the site of the set of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings.
Sheep and goats.
This is a parable isn’t it? The comparison is in verse 32: “…he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
That’s about as far as the comparison goes. There is no other link – not even the tails up of the goats and tails down of the sheep (or is it the other way round?) give us anything to compare or relate to.
Here’s the fascinating thing. I mean you would want to be a sheep on that day would you not?
It’s time to resurrect my first song I taught the children here:“I just want to be a sheep, baa ba ba baa. I don’t want to be a goat, no no no no, cause goats have got no hope, I don’t want to be a goat.”
Of course we teach the children about following Jesus as good little sheep – but we seldom talk about the eternal punishment awaiting the goats. Eternal punishment! Unlike their time-out in the corner etc.
Some thoughts came to mind this week. Here they are.
- Okay it’s just a simile about separation.
- This will happen at the end of things? Yes/no?
- The sheep and goats will coexist (as they often did grazing together) – which means that the sheep and goats are in the church together? Right?
- Does that mean that some of you are going to the eternal fire! Right?
Well I don’t know. Have a word with the person next to you and ask them – is it you? Will it be you? What do you think of this parable?
(Pause for discussion.)
(That sounds like the last supper and Jesus trying to root out his betrayer – and they all say “is it I Lord?”)
HOW DO YOU READ YOUR BIBLE THEN?
- Is this the last judgement?
- Is the judgement based on ethical behaviour – and not faith or a lack of faith?
- I thought we were saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2 says after all: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (vss 8-9).)
- So do you think Paul wrote Ephesians before Matthew wrote Matthew?
- Did Paul even know what Jesus taught on this matter?
Well it’s more complex than that really. This parable or story is I mean.
- For one thing, the righteous in the account and the goaties have no idea when they did or did not do the right thing by Jesus – or to Jesus, when they were doing these things to the least of his brothers – or in the case of the goaties NOT doing these things. This needs some further thought.
Both reply to the King/Judge – “when did we do this/when did we neglect to do this”. They didn’t have a clue. (See verses 37 and 44)
Mat 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
Mat 25:44 “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?’
The sentences seem to mean the same – but they don’t of course. The first means that they could not make the connection between the good they did and Jesus. They are “righteous” – and the Son of Man knows this – because they have been doing these important acts.
The second is an excuse. As Bonhoeffer has pointed out – an excuse for doing nothing. It’s almost as if they are saying – “now it’s not our fault if we couldn’t identify you” – a bit like the undercover boss programmes on TV. “I’ve I’d known it was the boss in disguise I would have behaved differently.”
- Secondly, who are the intended recipients of these acts of mercy and kindness? The least – Christians only, or the least – all created people. What are the chances of the Christians being hungry, thirsty, a stranger needing hospitality, needing clothes, sick and needing help, and in prison and needing some love and care?
Surely the Christians should be employed, wealthy and self-sufficient? When you listen to first world Christians and how scathing they can be about the unemployed who are on benefits, you would assume that we are all prosperity cult members.
And prisoners – nah Christians stay out of trouble. Yeah Right!
In our western arrogance we often see these people (especially unemployed and in jail – maybe not so much the sick) as those people over THERE!!!! – To whom we can give a few dollars on line. Which I do to of course. If you haven’t given something to the people of Vanuatu, then I reckon you could be in trouble here!
Commentators and New Testament students debate as to whether the people we should be helping here in Matthew 26 are family (church family) or simply all created people who land in trouble.
Calvin says – focus on the church, but remember it also applies to others!
Like Paul in Galatians:
Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Gal 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
When Jesus refers to the righteous – he’s talking about people who have responded to faith – chosen to follow him – and do his will!
The trail goes back to the earlier verses in Matthew’s Gospel.
Mat 12:47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
Mat 12:48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Mat 12:49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.
Mat 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
He has this family identified by obedience really!
Go back further in the Gospel and you find this:
Mat 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
Mat 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Mat 7:17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
Mat 7:18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
Mat 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mat 7:20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Mat 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Mat 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Mat 7:23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Mat 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
And of course we go to another simile (comparison using the word “like” or “as”).
Building your house on the rock is about building your life on the WORDS of Jesus! (I remember preaching on that right here!)
The bottom line in this account is that the king is the Judge.
And we will give account.
And when we follow Jesus we should be doing Jesus stuff.
And the key identifier is probably this one thing: mercy.
Matthew 5:7 reminds us: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
And Luke 6:36: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
It has no meaning – this Christian faith – if we are unchanged. Selfish. Like goats with our tails in the air so proud of ourselves – when we should be like sheep with our tails between our legs (or down anyway) because it’s not about us really.
So there it is.
Don’t end up with the devil and his angels. If you can’t get the idea of fire in your head, then listen to Jesus words to the reprobates: V41 – Depart from me….