Matthew 25:31-4631 "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."
If this passage scares you, it does not mean that you are a bad Christian or lack faith, it means simply that you are human. Any judgment passage, especially one that, on its face, seems so incredibly connected to what we do or do not do in this life, should inspire some fear. I honestly do not know what an appropriate or honest reaction to this text would be, if not something like fear or terror. And while our first response to this passage is to begin a bit of moral calculus, adding up how much we have given to charitable causes, how much we have given to the church over the years, or how many hours we have spent caring for others, I actually do not think that this the best place to enter today’s story. It does not seem to me that the intent of this passage is to inspire us to create yet another checklist, so that we may be certain of our place amongst the sheep, if you will. It could just be the case that, in turning this passage into some sort of goal we must accomplish lest we be cast away from God’s presence forever, we have taken hold of the wrong terror, entirely.
And saying that certainly implies that there is a right fear by which we may be grasped, and I would be the first to admit that those two words, “right” and “fear” do not necessarily belong together, but please hear me out a bit. What is most interesting in the passage, I think, is the utter surprise, what could call it down right shock, with which the sheep respond to Christ’s words. “Lord, when did we. . .” they respond. As if suggesting that Jesus might have gotten his rosters mixed up. These people simply have no recollection of doing the things that Jesus has described. They, it seems, have to take Christ’s words as the only evidence that they have in fact done what has been described. They have no confidence in their own goodness, you see. In no way do they march up to the judgment seat with any sense of entitlement or expectation. The goats, on the other hand, seem a bit more certain that they have done what is required. Yes, they too receive a shock, but it is the shock of those whose are getting less than what they think they deserve. They are confident of their own righteousness, full of expectation that they will be rewarded and applauded for their lives of virtues, and make no mistake, they probably did lead these virtuous lives. So really, then, what separates these two groups, for it is not some sort of conscious effort, some sort of intentional become a sheep-type program. There is just too much surprise for that to be the case. Neither party, you see, ends up getting what they believe they deserve.
And it is this utter shock, this complete surprise that might just ask the most important question of us. For what does it mean that the most important work we do is not something we are able to recognize on our own? What might it mean that the very evidence of our salvation might, in point of fact, be hidden from our view? Hidden so deeply, in fact, that we have no recollection whatsoever of actually having done it? What might it mean that Christ the King, the Lord of history, is himself hidden, that the one whose strong and faithful Word created the cosmos comes not to us in eternal glory, but in the rust and pollution of this old world? Yes indeed, he is hidden deep beneath the suffering of the hungry, the lonely and the ailing. And even the way he redeems us, redeems the whole world, will be hidden under the brutality and betrayal of the cross. Yes, it will be hidden not only because of human violence, but hidden because all the disciples will, in that terrible moment, run away in an epic fit of self-preservation. For us, then, what might it mean to stand suspended between heaven and hell with no recollection of whether we have done anything pleasing in the eyes of God? These are startling, yes, perhaps even terrifying questions, but here I think we have found the, shall we say, right terror of the text. Why, one might ask, would God choose to do this to us, chose to work on us, work through us, in this way?
The answer, I think, lies something in the fact that God cares for you, cares for the whole of creation as it actually is. We see this all over the place in Jesus’ ministry: he loved and cared for actual sinners: prostitutes, tax collectors, the weak and the marginalized, the strong and the privileged. Christ loved actual people, not abstract versions of those people, though this does not preclude a call to repentance. Christ loved and cared for those simply because, as the incarnate God, this love is what he does, who he is. And I think this question of honesty is what is most at stake. The baptismal call is precisely a call to this sort of honest love, but it can only grow out of having been loved first in this way by the Christ who seats you at his right hand simply because that is what he does. We can only really begin to love this way we our projects of virtue and goodness have been shattered by Christ who not only will judge us, but as one of my seminary professors put it, was judged for us. It is only when our own efforts to be good, when we realize our own checklists do not mean all that much, only when we realize that our neighbors are not objects upon whom we can work out our own righteousness, yes, it only when our illusions about ourselves are broken wide open by God’s grace, yes, it is only then that our neighbors, the least within and without us, become genuine, become fellow beloved children of God to whom we are called to care, and by whom we too are cared for. It is at the cross that we can lay down the burden of our spiritual checklists and see that we have already been resurrected by the Christ whose merciful judgment, whose gracious gift is final and absolute.
And when that happens, when that grace cracks us open, as it will again here at the table, we begin to see that which has been hidden in our quests for self-righteousness: the actual and genuine needs of our neighbors, and there is such incredible joy in that. For when Christ enters into our midst, when he saves us by his mercy as he has again this morning, he creates within us the freedom to live for the actual needs of others, not the needs that we wished they had, nor the needs that we believe, if only they were a bit more like us, they would have. All that is done, now. Instead, what stand before us now is our neighbor, be they friend, family or enemy, asking for a bit of food, a shot at a living wage, a bit of attention, a warm cup of coffee or maybe just a listening ear. And the incredible thing about the faith that you have been given is this: you are freed to love without reservation, without agenda, without manipulation. You are free to love as honestly as you are loved, and enter more deeply into your humanity and into the humanity of others, however imperfectly and partially this happens. And make no mistake, dear people of God, none of this will feel significant to you. It will probably feel quite the opposite, but that, too, is a gift. Just ask the sheep. In Jesus’ name, amen.