In our gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a powerful and poetic image of the climax of human history. And many of us may find it more helpful to treat this material in Jesus’ teachings as being poetic in nature, rather than something we must necessarily interpret literally. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells about a great scene of judgement, a great sorting-out of humanity. And this scene can speak to us about all the little judgements we face every day of our lives as well as it can to any great future event.
Let’s enter the scene as set by Jesus. The ruler of the universe is about to pronounce judgement. A rag-tag group is asked to move forward. As they shuffle to the front, a few sneering remarks can be heard:
- “A bunch of bleeding heart leftie do-gooders,” one voice snarls.
- “Heretics. Theologically unsound.” intones another voice.
- “Hoi polloi. Not our sort at all,” a third voice brays.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 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,
- 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.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
As the next group is called up, many observers have their fingers crossed. If the first group was given great joy because of their active generosity and hospitality, perhaps the next lot would be condemned because of their active evil. Perhaps the active “bleeding-heart do-gooders” would be followed by some active “do-badders”. Perhaps many waited to hear something like this:
- I was hungry and you stole my food.
- I was thirsty and you polluted my water.
- I was a stranger and you tried to ban my headscarf.
- I was naked and you paid money to stare at me.
- I was sick and you made my medication too expensive.
- I was a prisoner and you said, “Throw away the key!”
But there were also many ... ordinary people brought up to answer the charges alongside the Pontius Pilates and the Neros; alongside the Hitlers and the Stalins, alongside the Pol Pots and the Idi Amins. These people were “ordinary’ in two of the ways we use the word “ordinary”.
- They were “ordinary” in the sense that some politicians and talk-back radio personalities use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “I represent the views of many ordinary people in the community.”
- They were also “ordinary” in the sarcastic sense that many Australian sports commentators use the word “ordinary”, as in the sentence “Both sides played some really ordinary football this afternoon.”
- I was hungry and you ... did nothing.
- I was thirsty and you ... did nothing.
- I was a stranger and you ... did nothing.
- I was naked and you ... did nothing.
- I was sick and you ... did nothing.
- I was a prisoner and you ... did nothing.
For those of us who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation, this passage of scripture sits uncomfortably with much of our religious upbringing.
- We were taught in Sunday School, in confirmation class, in some hymns, and in far too many sermons that our good works ultimately mean nothing in terms of our status before God.
- We were taught that our status before God is a matter of “by grace we are saved through faith”, which for far too many Christians merely means “getting our theology right”.
For some Christians, this is the sort of passage that there is great pressure to “explain away”, almost as if Jesus had said something like this to those who were blessed by God:
- I was hungry and you preached to me about the bread of life, even if you forgot to offer me any bread to eat.
- I was thirsty and you lectured me on my drinking habits,
- I was a stranger and you examined me on my theology of the atonement, biblical inspiration, infant baptism, and sexual ethics before allowing me to become a church member,
- I was naked and you expressed your disapproval of my appearance,
- I was sick and you told me that my illness was a sign of a lack of faith,
- I was in prison and you debated the shortcomings of liberation theology.
The problem is that many Christians take this emphasis on grace to mean that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives. Neither Paul, nor Luther, nor the Wesleys, nor Karl Barth ever said that. And let’s be honest here: any people who believe that “getting our theology right” is more important to God than the ethical quality of our lives have really got their theology wrong … dead wrong.
Here, in this climactic passage in Matthew’s gospel, we hear a challenging message
- that our good works actually mean a lot in God’s sight;
- that our reflecting God’s mercy, hospitality and generosity is far more important to God than “getting our theology right”.
This is a challenging message we hear in many other places in the scriptures:
- in the Sermon on the Mount,
- in the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
- in the Letter of James,
- in many sections of the Hebrew Prophets,
- and, very dramatically, here in Jesus’ poetic vision of the climax of human history.
When I needed a neighbour, were you there? ...
... the creed and the colour and the name won’t matter, were you there?
“... just as you did it to the least of these ..., you did it to me.”