Serving the least
Quarter: Acts of Worship
Unit 3: Stewardship for life
Sunday school lesson for the week of Feb. 15, 2015
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture: Matthew 25: 31-46
We return to the Gospel of Matthew this week to study one of the most powerful and, in some ways, most disturbing parables Jesus ever told. Remember, Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jewish Christians at a time when Gentiles were being brought into the Christian faith without having been reared in the requirements of the Jewish law. Many Jewish Christians were very uncomfortable with this breakdown in tradition. Then, as now, many people felt correct belief and proper religious practice should be the determining factor in claiming to be a “real” Christian!
Chapter 25 in Matthew is part of what scholars label “the little apocalypse.” The word apocalypse refers to a type of biblical literature dealing with “the last things” or, in Matthew’s terms, “the end of the age.” The context when Jesus told this parable is the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and his arrest, trials (Jewish and Roman), and crucifixion (Good Friday). We like to think of these teachings as “his last testament.” However you classify the parable, the message is clear and unmistakable.
Life on earth is over. All peoples, all nations, indeed everyone is to be judged by “the Son of Man” (in Matthew, Jesus’ preferred title for himself). The setting is dramatic! The Son of Man is seated on His throne, His glory is evident, and He is surrounded by the host of heavenly attendants. Awesome!
The description of the division of sheep and goats reflects the practice of shepherds who had both animals in a flock to be cared for during the day. At night, however, a separation was necessary. Goats were more susceptible to variations in temperature and were placed in caves for warmth, where the younger shepherds would spend the night. The sheep, with their warm woolen coat, were placed in a sheep fold, and the older experienced shepherds would sleep at the gate to the fold.
The separation complete, the Son of Man speaks words that are surprising to all who hear them. The words have eternal consequences for both groups. For one, there is affirmation, and for the other, condemnation. The surprise is in the standard used for judgment. Nothing is mentioned about family heritage, ethnicity, belief, or religious practice. The standard is a very ordinary one, using the ordinary needs of people for food, drink, clothing, shelter, hospitality, and health! In each case, the one being judged did not know the import of what they were doing. In every case, the one being cared for was identified as “the Son of Man!” This identification of Jesus with people being cared for is stunning and frightening!
We can easily understand the reaction of those who are being condemned with our own rationalizing. “When did we see YOU?” After all, so many persons bring this condition upon themselves. If they weren’t so lazy or indifferent or irresponsible or dependent on others, their condition would be different! And what about those who are in prison? Surely, they did something illegal to be there. How can we be held responsible for not responding to people like that? Somehow, the standard seems skewed by the values we believe are important – hard work, responsibility, self-sufficiency, self-discipline. Most of the folk we see in need seem to have none of those characteristics, and their face is the face of the Son of Man? No way!
Are you bothered yet? We are! We want to do our part, but somehow we want to choose who deserves to be helped. There is no encouragement in the words of Jesus to find a loophole of “deserving” to lift the burden of ministering to the daily needs of people.
This identification of the recipient of acts of mercy and kindness with Jesus has two prior references in Matthew. In 10:40-42 Jesus says: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” In chapter 18:5 he says: “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me.”
This judge seems to some to offer a new way to earn eternal life. Be very careful in arriving at such a conclusion. The reward is still a gift! This is not a new law to be religiously followed. In fact, it stems from the very nature of the people who did or did not do the acts of mercy and kindness. Those rewarded acted from their inner nature, and those condemned responded from their attitudes and perspectives on such people.
We are back at the very core of the good news of Jesus! Our very nature needs to be changed –and can be! Hear the good news! The teaching of the parable is simply a warning to examine closely what we think, believe, and do.
There is another dimension to the passage. All nations are gathered before the throne to be judged. Beyond individuals, the work of the nations is brought before the Son of Man. Here we may seem “to stop preaching and go to meddling,” but here goes. Governments also need to act with mercy and caring to respond to human need! You have heard, “you can’t legislate morality,” but policies can be legislated that are humane and reach out to meet the needs of people.
After World War II, Europe was devastated. Millions of people were homeless refugees. The potential for continued chaos and violent conflict was very real. At that period of history, when the United States had emerged as the one power whose homeland had not been touched by the ravages of war, one man stepped forward with a plan. His name was George Marshall. He had been the Chief of Staff of all the military and, as such, guided our armed forces to the final victory. Now, he was Secretary of State, and his plan called for the giving of aid to the nations and people of Europe. Never in history had a conquering power opened its treasury to those who could not repay! The Marshall plan included Germany, the very nation that had started the war and done indescribably horrible atrocities. I believe the Son of Man looked on the USA and said, “Come, blessed of my Father…”