Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert 23 November 2014
It has been said by many Biblical and theological scholars that Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the oppressed. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus quotes from Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” In his first recorded sermon, he begins with “Blessed are the poor, the weeping, the meek, the hungry…” And as he is completing his ministry, the last words in Matthew before the chief priests and elder plot to kill him, he announces the Great Judgment of the Nations, also sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This vision describes the return of Christ with all the angels. It is the final judgment after three chapters (Matthew 23-25) of harsh judgment of the scribes and Pharisees, of all who are not ready for Christ to come, and all have not risked giving their all for Christ’s sake. It immediately precedes the announcement of the plot to kill Jesus. This is Christ the King Sunday, and this image of the coming of the King, also called the Son of Man, rightly wakes us up – those who are sleeping are cautioned to open our eyes and see Christ in everyone and everything.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, '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?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Let’s deal with this challenging text at several levels of understanding. First of all, the most obvious interpretation. Human beings are created in the image of God. So we should see the face of Christ in every person. How we treat them is how we treat Jesus himself. He taught us that we should love God and love others, so ignoring those who suffer is not loving. If Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick person, imprisoned, then we’d better do that ourselves.
The Christ we see in Matthew is all about how you live. It’s kind of like James who said, “Faith without works is dead.” In Matthew, Jesus say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) He says, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21) So we are welcomed by grace, but not excused by grace to live however the H we want.
It is significant to note that Jesus said, the least of these who are members of my family. Jesus said, “Who are my family members, but those who do the will of God.” So the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, are the poor, hungry, sick, and imprisoned people of God. As Son of Man, he could be referring to all people, but more likely, when he speaks of his brothers and sisters, he means those who are faithful to God. This leads us to the next level of understanding – that the early church was being persecuted, so they were nearly all in those categories.
So we’ve identified the ones we most need to provide loving care. But have we identified who Jesus is dividing into sheep and goats? The Greek word, ethne, translated here nations can be translated people, and can be a way of speak of the Gentiles, all the people who are not Jewish. It is the same word he uses at the end of Matthew, when he says, “Make disciples of all nations” Some have said, this interpretation means that unbelievers (the nations) who treat believers well will be sheep, and those who have treated us poorly are goats.
And the next thing we must notice is the surprise of both goats and sheep. When did we? It is as if the sheep have been so sheep-like in following the Shepherd, they do not know what they have done – did not do it to earn their righteousness. Meanwhile, those who were busy being goat-like (doing whatever they want) equally never noticed that they could have been serving, helping, caring for Christ.
Lastly we must also talk about that word “eternal” which is the same root as our word, eon. It is used in Romans to refer to “long ages” and to the eternal God, and in Hebrews to talk about eternal covenant of God. It seems sometimes to mean forever and sometimes to mean an indefinite length of time. Either way, I’d rather be in heaven, please help me, Jesus. And he will.
This is a tough passage, one that makes most of us tremble a bit. And so we should. We should tremble with gratitude for Christ’s gift of grace. We are meant to take seriously his call to be disciples, which means we need to see him in the sick, the naked, the hungry, the stranger, and the prisoner.
Christ is our loving Shepherd. He says he will go after us when we are lost in Luke, and in John, he says that he lays down his life for his sheep, and that there are other sheep, outside the fold that he must bring too, and that they will listen to his voice.
He calls us his sheep. We must follow him or be lost. If we are too busy doing our own thing – being goats, then we are not following the Shepherd, the King, the one in charge. We saw a teen yesterday with a bracelet that said, “I’m second.” Richard asked the youth who was first. He said, “God.” God IS first. We are the followers. We are called to live like Christ.
Let me say it again – the sheep did not line up and say to the King, “See, I took care of all the marginalized people. I gave food every time we had a food drive at church. I always handed money to homeless people on the street.” No. Good sheep just live their lives focused on the Shepherd, trusting the Shepherd, seeing people and helping them. They are not trying to earn their way to heaven. They are genuinely caring for their neighbor, not selfishly using their neighbor to earn their way to eternal life. For that kind of egotistical falsehood would never cut it with the King. Loving our neighbor in order to achieve something for ourselves (like giving to the church solely to improve your tax burden) is not real love or generosity.
If we are truly generous, we do not even recognize it in ourselves. We are not thinking of ourselves at all. So to worry too much about how to grow wool and be a sheep instead of a goat is to get this story all wrong. Jesus is talking about a way of life, and not one that is motivated by fear of hell or hope of heaven, but driven by authentic Christ-like love. So, instead of worrying about when Christ is coming, let’s get on with preparing to meet him. Instead of worrying about whether we are sheep or a goats, let’s get on with following him. Instead of worrying about when we should help and when we should not help, we need simply to cultivate the courage to see Christ in other people. Jesus said to Peter, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, of course I do.” “Then feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.”