Last week we considered John chapter 10 and learned about the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who cares for his sheep. This morning we are going to consider what this Good Shepherd expects of us, his sheep.
Our passage in Matthew addresses both the future and the present. It addresses the future in that it begins with the parousia, a term from the Greek that refers to the second coming or the final return of the “Son of Man” in glory. And it addresses the present because Scripture consistently reminds us that how we live our lives now matters. Our lives have meaning because God created us and he created the world in which we live. Our lives have meaning because the end of our earthly life is not the end of our lives as human beings.
The passage begins with a reference to the “Son of Man” which is a Messianic title from the Old Testament that is being claimed by—and fulfilled in—Jesus. The Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite self-designations and the sense with which he is using it here is consistent with what we find in the prophet Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:13–14. Listen to these words from Daniel:
13“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
The time prophesied by Daniel ultimately is to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. When the Son of man, i.e. Jesus Christ, returns, there will be a period of judgment. The judgment will be not only of Christians but of all people. We’re told that all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (v. 32).
As we read on it becomes evident that “sheep” is a metaphor for those who know and have lived for Christ and “goats” is those who haven’t. The sheep are placed at his right hand, the goats at his left—again, “right hand” standing as a metaphor for blessing; “left” for condemnation. And these two groups are separated from one another and will receive vastly different judgments.
First the sheep are addressed by the Son of Man who is referred to as King—an identification that is also provided in the passage from Daniel. We learn from Daniel that this King is going to rule for he is given “authority, glory and sovereign power;” and “all nations and peoples of every language” will worship him” (Dan. 7:14). The fact that they worship him tells us that this Son of Man, this King, is also God. Otherwise the nations would be guilty of idolatry—of worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. And idolatry is consistently condemned in Scripture.
The sheep in Matthew 25 are referred to as “blessed” of his Father. In other words, they are the recipients of the Father’s good favor. Last week as we studied John 10, we saw this same intimate connection between the Father, Jesus, and Jesus’ sheep as Jesus stated “14I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” In Matthew 25, part of the nature of the sheep’s blessing is that they are invited to Come and take their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them. And the reason for this invitation, we’re told, is because when the King—the Son of Man, Jesus—was hungry, they fed him; when he was thirsty, they gave him drink; when he was a stranger, they welcomed him; when he needed clothes, they clothed him; when he was sick, they looked after him him; when he was in prison, they visited him.
The response of “the righteous”—or those who are morally upright—is interesting but, when you think about it, not surprising: “the righteous” don’t understand. They cannot recall a time when they saw the King hungry and fed him, or thirsty and gave him a drink. Surely if the King had been to their home for a meal—or begging on the streets!—they would have remembered that! Plus, given that they do know him as he addresses them, they no doubt wonder when they would have welcomed him as a stranger—someone they didn’t know—or provided him with clothing when he was in need of clothes. Again, to have done any of these things would surely have been memorable. And, when was the King sick for them to visit? What is more, when was the King ever in prison??
Have you ever given money to homeless people you saw asking for money? If you have, chances are you would never recognize them if you bumped into them again in a different context. But if you had seen the President of the United States—or some other state or national leader—begging for money, that would be an unforgettable experience.
So these righteous ones are understandably puzzled when the King of all creation tells them that when he was in need—when he was hungry— thirsty—a stranger—in need of clothes—sick—in prison—they took care of him. So they rightly ask him when could they possibly have done these things for him? They have no recollection of ever having done any of these things for the King. They have no recollection of ever having done any of these things for Jesus.
The remarkable answer is that as they treated the least of Jesus’ disciples—his brothers and sisters—so they have treated him.
Now the first thing we need to ask is: Is this passage teaching, contrary to what we have been taught, that salvation is by works, not grace? At first blush it certainly seems to be, doesn’t it? After inviting the righteous into the kingdom, the passage seems to indicate that the reason for the invitation is because of their good works—for I was hungry…thirsty…a stranger…in need of clothing…sick…in prison. But we have to keep two things in mind. One is that because God has given us all of Scripture, we need to read individual passages in light of the whole. And all of Scripture is consistent in teaching that salvation is by grace through faith, lest any one should boast (paraphrase of Eph. 2:8–9). But, secondly, even in this passage in Matthew 25, we are told in verse 34 that the inheritance and kingdom of the righteous has been prepared for them since the creation of the world. In other words it was prepared even before any of them lived, so their inheritance isn’t one they have earned but one they have been graciously given by the King—the Son of Man—Jesus Christ. This is consistent with Ephesians 1:4 where Paul similarly reminds the Ephesians that they were chosen in Christ “before the creation of the world” to “be holy and blameless in his sight” and again in Ephesians 2:10 where he states “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
The centrality of God’s grace is something even Mark Twain understood as he observed: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” So, too, Martin Luther, that great Reformer of the 16th century, came to understand that our good works are not a means of earning us salvation but they’re an expression of our gratitude to God for the salvation he has provided for us in Jesus Christ, his Son.
But if the righteous earning their salvation isn’t what is intended in our passage, how ought we understand it? This passage is consistent with what Paul states in Ephesians, namely that our salvation in Christ should lead to a life that looks like that of Jesus Christ. The life of the sheep should reflect the life of the Good Shepherd they follow. Or, to put it another way, the salvation of our lives should lead to a Christ-like lifestyle. To what end does Paul say we were chosen before the creation of the world? To be holy and blameless before him; We are God’s handiwork and the works we were created to do were prepared in advance of our creation for us to do. Our earthly lives were intended by God to be holy and blameless. Our earthly lives were intended to do the good works God prepared for us to do even before we were born.
Matthew 25 is in fact underscoring a teaching stated earlier in Matthew 7:17–20:
17 …every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
In other words, our profession of faith in Christ should be accompanied by good fruit—by a desire and attempt to live our lives as Jesus lived. This is what James similarly reminds us of in chapter 2:14–18 of his letter:
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
It’s a “both/and” relationship, isn’t it? If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd—or, more to the point, if we say we are followers or disciples or sheep of Jesus Christ—then our lives should reflect that relationship. If our lives don’t reflect that relationship then perhaps we need to reconsider how well—or even whether—we know Jesus in the first place.
The flip side of showing kindness to others as a means of showing kindness to Jesus is that not caring for the needs of others is presented in Matthew as equivalent to not caring for Jesus. After addressing the sheep, those on his right, the king turns to the goats, those on his left, those who are cursed. Instead of an invitation to come and receive their inheritance and enter his kingdom, they are told to depart from the King into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And the reason given is the mirror opposite of that given to the righteous. Those on the left gave the King nothing to eat when he was hungry; nothing to drink when he was thirsty; they didn’t invite him in when he was a stranger; they didn’t clothe him when he was in need of clothes; they didn’t look after him when he was sick and in prison.
Now those on the left have a similar response to those on the right: When?? When did we neglect you in these ways?? When did we even see you hungry—or thirsty—or a stranger—or needing clothes—or sick—or in prison—and not help you? Again, an encounter with the King would be unforgettable, wouldn’t it??? But here, again, the King is identifying with those subjects of his who have been in need: “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” And the poignant closing is: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This passage in Matthew is a sobering one, isn’t it? Our problem is, in part, that human nature that has not yet been fully redeemed can too often be content with a minimalist view of morals and human obligation. We can be drawn to certain rules because those rules then become a kind of yardstick by which we can measure ourselves. So we make up our lists:
Have I stolen from anyone? Nope. Check that off.
Have I lied to anyone—at least a big lie? Nope. Check that off.
Have I beat anyone up? Nope. Check that off.
Have I taken advantage of anyone? Nope. Check that off.
I confess that one of the comedians I enjoy—despite his at times edgy and off-color humor—is Chris Rock. As a rich and highly successful African American, he is well aware that he has become a kind of role model for young African American men. Rock tells of the time a young black man came up to him and said: “You know, I’m doing great! I haven’t taken any drugs or beat up my girlfriend or stolen any cars or robbed any bank. I’m so proud of myself!” In other words this man was identifying ways in which the media has stereotyped young African American males and acknowledging that he had taken part in none of these bad behaviors. However Rock—rightly—took this young man to the task, stating: “There is nothing commendable in any of the things you’ve listed. No one should be doing those things!” Rock gets it, doesn’t he? True virtue and moral living is far more than not doing the things none of us is supposed to do in the first place.
To use Scriptural language, the goal for our lives isn’t just about avoiding sins of commission—think of some of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20: 13 “You shall not murder. 14 “You shall not commit adultery. 15 “You shall not steal. 16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” No, God’s goal for our lives is also about not committing sins of omission or of not doing what God expects us to do. The goats on the King’s left didn’t do what we are supposed to do. They didn’t feed the hungry. They didn’t give drink to the thirsty. They didn’t welcome the stranger. They didn’t clothe those in need. They didn’t care for the sick. They didn’t visit those in prison.
It isn’t enough that we not break the law—though it’s certainly important that we not do so. But God expects more of us. He expects us to love him with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:37–39). The bar is high, isn’t it, for who among us has ever loved God with all of our being? Who among us has ever loved our neighbor as ourselves? If this is what it means to be a follower of Jesus—to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd—a sibling of the Son of Man—a subject of the King, then what hope do we have? We may as well pack it up now and go home.
Well, fortunately, loving God and our neighbor needn’t be as cumbersome as we think. First, it reminds us of how much we need Christ and that we should turn to him at all times for his help—only we who know we are sick, are in need of a Physician (Lk. 5:31). But, second, it reminds us of how much we need each other and should turn to each other at all times for help. If I had to reduce this teaching to a sound bite, it would be: Take care of those God has placed in your life. Take care of your family. Take care of your friends. Take care of those you worship with in church. Take care of one another. We’re not being asked to save the world here. We’re being asked to provide someone in need with food. To give a drink to someone who is thirsty. To provide someone clothes who is in need of some. To help take care of someone who is sick. To viisit someone who is in prison—or perhaps home-bound.
Many of you may remember the popularity of a movement from the 1990’s that encouraged young people in youth groups to wear wristbands with the initials “WWJD” standing for “What Would Jesus Do?” I confess that I never really understood this movement. I would over-apply it and ask: “Hmmm. Chocolate ice cream or vanilla? I’m pretty sure I have no idea what Jesus would do in this situation!” Similarly, when we hear an exhortation that we should try to be like Jesus, it’s easy to become stuck or paralyzed if we try to apply this to every situation in our lives. We aren’t told and therefore simply cannot know what his favorite foods or pastimes or music or hobbies or work was so there’s no point in trying to figure these out.
I was more helped when I came across a definition of shalom in a book by a scholar named Neil Plantinga entitled Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Now we often hear—and perhaps even use—“shalom,” which means “peace”— as a greeting between believers. Who doesn’t want to wish peace upon others? But as Plantinga reflects on this OT Hebrew word and what it actually means, he suggests that in God’s grand plan for his creation, shalom is “the way that things ought to be.” Something about this definition clicked with me in a way that “WWJD” never did. Isn’t this definition more in keeping with what we prayed this morning, as we do every week, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will—his shalom—is ever being done in heaven but we here on earth have to pray for the strength to help bring it about. We can’t do this on our own.
I remember soon after reading Plantinga, being in a hurry while driving to work but, seeing someone trying to cross the busy street I was driving on, stopping to let her get across. This tiny gesture felt like “shalom”—like the way that things ought to be. Another day as I was walking down a corridor, I bent over to pick up some litter someone had dropped. As soon as I threw it away, I was startled to hear a voice say “Good for you!” No, it wasn’t God; it was a colleague who had been walking a bit behind me. Still, ridiculous as this example may be, this, too, felt like a tiny contribution towards shalom—towards making the world the way it’s intended to be. Obviously these are examples on a micro scale. But in Plantinga’s reflections he goes on to state:
Evil is what’s wrong with the world, and it includes trouble in nature as well as in human nature. It includes disease as well as theft, birth defects as well as character defects. We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be (51).
And Plantinga adds that even those who aren’t Christians want shalom—they, too, want freedom and justice, truth and beauty—even if they don’t recognize it as such (112).
I think that this morning’s passage expresses Plantinga’s understanding of shalom. The sheep are those who did what they could to bring about shalom. To make the world the way God intends it to be. The goats are those who didn’t. By not caring for the those in need, they were guilty of spoiling shalom. They were guilty of deviating from the way God wants things to be.
If we remember that believers are one in Christ, we can be certain that at least one thing Jesus absolutely wants us to do is to take care of each other. And not only to take care of each other but especially to take care of those among us who may have greater needs than others. This is what is intended by the “least of brothers and sisters” statement. They aren’t “least” in being less important; they are “least” in that they are not as able to care for themselves as others are.
We don’t like being “the least” do we? We’d rather be “the most”! I know I don’t like being “the least” and for most of my life I have experienced relatively good health. I have been quite capable of taking care of myself, thank-you-very-much. But in August of 2005 I was diagnosed with cancer. I was fortunate in that it was caught very early. I was fortunate in that it only required treatment by means of radiation rather than chemotherapy. But though radiation doesn’t hurt—it feels like having an x-ray taken—one thing that radiation does is to make you very tired. Around the sixth week of treatment, I had to ask friends if they could drive me to the hospital because I was feeling so fatigued. And this wasn’t easy for me to do. Just before that time, my church secretary at the time—a woman I previously hadn’t thought to be very friendly—called to ask me if I would like meals delivered to my home every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tears filled my eyes as I weakly answered “yes.” And for the next two weeks, between 5:00 and 6:00 PM, people from my church, most of whom I didn’t know, brought me a meal and always enough food for two or three days. I was tired and Christian brothers and sisters gave me rides to the hospital. I was hungry and my church family fed me.
Do you see the simplicity of what it means to live for Christ? It isn’t about saving or even changing the entire world. But it is about doing all we can to change the tiny corner of the world God has placed us in; it’s about making our tiny sliver of this great grand world reflect the way God intended it to be. To live for Christ is to be a servant in the most basic sense of the word— providing food, drink, clothing; welcoming the stranger; visiting those in prison. It’s about providing fellowship and companionship for one other—especially for those who need it most.
We are so fortunate here at Linebrook Church. We may be small in number but we are strong in service. Last week during Announcements I mentioned that we could really use a volunteer to vacuum the church each week. By the time Ron and I left for home, three different people had offered to vacuum the church. Vacuuming the church, making it a welcoming and clean place for both regular and visiting attenders is an example of shalom—of making things the way God intended them to be.
While participating in fellowship after the service during “Lemonade at the Leslie House” another person asked if anyone was going to keep the nursery clean so our children will have a clean place to play—and if not, she was willing to do so. That’s an example of shalom—of making things the way God intended them to be.
When I sent out a list of requests on the Linebrook Church e-mail distribution this past week, expressing other current needs, a third person indicated her willingness to oversee “Lemonade at Leslie House” so we can spend time getting to know each other better after the service each week. This, too, is example of shalom—of making things the way God intended them to be.
We’ve had two recent good reports from doctors for two of our sisters, Sue Lindsay and Denise Melanson. Both asked that thanks be expressed for prayers and other kindnesses. This, too, is example of shalom—of making things the way God intended them to be.
There’s a wonderful line from a song in Les Miserables—“to love another person is to see the face of God.” And I believe this is true. But I think the opposite is also true, when we are loved by other people—when we are cared for by others—we also see the face of God. For God is Spirit but he uses embodied spirits as well—ultimately Jesus Christ who was both God and human—to express that divine love to each other.
Brothers and sisters, let us be those who seek to reflect the love of our Good Shepherd, the Son of Man, our just and merciful King, as together we care for one another and, in so doing, care for him. Let us pray.