Text: Matthew 25:35-40
(The King will say), I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will then answer him, “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, “I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
The least important
Do you remember the scavenger hunts that were held in back in the days when you were a member of a youth group? At the beginning of the hunt you’re given a list of things you have to accumulate. All kinds of things might be on the list. Maybe an empty drink can, the name on the foundation stone of the church, the number plate of Mr Schwartz’s truck. The first group back with all the items and information wins. But before you get the prize, the leader checks off each item to make sure you have got everything you say you have.
Is that the way it’s going to be on the final Day of Judgment? The King, Jesus says, will be seated on the throne of glory and will gather all the nations before him. Then, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
“Let’s see… yes, you once gave food to a hungry person. Check.
There was the time you gave a drink of water to the thirsty child. Check.
Visited a jail? Check.
Called on someone who was sick? Check.”
Is Jesus suggesting that you can make it into heaven by giving food to one hungry person?
Or do someone a kind deed and say,
“There! That’s my good deed for the day; my ticket to eternity with the sheep!”
It wouldn’t take too much effort to put this kind of emphasis on Jesus’ parable about the Last Judgement and come to the conclusion that it just takes a few charitable deeds to get into heaven.
Of course it works the other way too. We read this and realise that there is no way that we have been kind enough and generous enough to with Jesus’ approval and his invitation to “come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world”. The parable leaves us with this feeling of failure, guilt, and shame that we have ignored so many people who have been crying out for our help but for some reason we were too busy, too preoccupied, too prejudiced to help. What chance have we got of escaping God’s judgement? To put it bluntly, about as much chance as a snowball in hell.
Of course guilt can be a great motivator as well. We would rather be doing something else but the feeling of guilt prompts us to do more for the least important. We know that doing something out of guilt ends up a chore; we do it not because we like to but because we have to. There is no joy. There is no generous spirit. We are like the child who does a chore grudgingly because he knows that if he doesn’t he will get into trouble and he won’t get any pocket money.
So if Jesus isn’t telling us that a few good deeds will get us past the pearly gates and isn’t using guilt as a motivator to care for others, what is he getting at?
The parable is asking whether we have seen Jesus in the face of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.
The message of this parable is that Christ is mysteriously present to us in those who need our help. When we see the loving face of Jesus in the faces of the needy and disadvantaged then we will want to respond with love and meet that person’s need. It follows that when we don’t see Jesus in the face of others, we will not want to reach out in love to that person, in fact, we could be quite harsh, judgemental and critical.
The parable calls us to show compassion and spring into action for the least important just as Christ has had compassion on us who can be considered the least important because of our sin and rebellion against God.
We worship a God who is entangled in the suffering of humanity, in our sufferings and in the suffering of people everywhere. In fact, we worship a God who chooses not to untangle all the knots and problems of our world from the safety of heaven, but invites us all to be partners with him, to join our love to his love, and reach out to the suffering people in our world. This means reaching out to our sick friends,
making a meal for a grieving family,
welcoming the stranger here at church,
visiting people we know who are depressed, doubting God’s love and need words of reassurance and hope,
being understanding and supportive of the members of our families,
showing genuine love for our friends.
We are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of these people and minister to them in the same way Christ has ministered to us in our times of need.
But Jesus’ parable goes even further than this. Remember he is talking about the least important.
People whom others regard as insignificant.
People who are easily forgotten.
People who are out of sight so out of mind.
This parable is about how our faith in Jesus and our worship ought to penetrate and be interwoven with the ordinary everyday things of our lives. Religion isn’t something just for certain times of the week but it infiltrates every moment of every day. The love of Christ makes us eager to do something for the least important people of this world.
Here is a story of which there are a number of versions. Conrad, the old cobbler, dreamed one night that Jesus would come to be his guest. He was up as the sun was rising and set about decorating his little shop with bright flowers and greenery. He set the table with milk and honey and bread, and waited.
While he was waiting, a beggar walked down the street came barefoot in the driving rain. Conrad called him in and gave him a pair of shoes. An old woman came bent from the weight of a heavy burden. He lifted the load off her back and shared his food with her. And finally, just before the day was about to fade away into darkness, a little child came. Her eyes were wet with tears. Conrad gave her a glass of milk, and led her back to her mother. But the divine guest never came. Conrad was disappointed. The evening as he dozed in front of the fireplace he heard a soft voice say,
“Lift up your heart, for I have kept my word.
Three times I came to your friendly door;
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was the beggar with the bruised feet;
I was the woman you gave to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street!”
This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.”
We don’t have to look too far to find the people whom Jesus called the least.
Half the world’s population, nearly three billion people, live on less than $3 a day
the over one billion people who don’t have access to affordable and safe water;
over 800 million people do not get enough food;
More than 840 million adults, of whom 538 million are women, are illiterate.
The least that Jesus is talking about are the hundred of thousands of children who die every year from preventable diseases;
the 30 million people who have lost their homes because of conflict and natural disasters.
These Jesus calls these people least important – these people are important to God but for us it is easy to see them as the least important.
These are the people we can easily ignore because of their religion or race or life styles.
They are people we can easily forget because they are far from our own shores and we can’t begin to imagine their suffering because we have nothing like it here in Australia.
These are the people that cause us to look the other way.
But at the same time, these are the people whom Jesus claims to be among. Or better, it is in the face of these people that we see Jesus. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.”
This brings me to the point of Jesus’ parable. He knows as well as we do that our sinfulness, selfishness, and lack of concern for others get in the way of caring for the least important. He told this story to focus not on what we should be doing but on something far more profound and basic. He wants us to ask ourselves, “What is my real heart relationship to this Lord who has redeemed and loved me from before the foundation of the world?”
He wants us to realise and appreciate the impact that Jesus has on us and the way we live our lives. Through confessing our guilt and receiving that rich, free and almost overpowering forgiveness our lives and hearts and our priorities are turned upside down.
When we are naked he clothes us in his own righteousness.
When we are in prison, condemned, shamed and guilty, he visits us and releases us.
When we are hungry and starving, God feeds us with the body and blood of his Son.
And what he does for us is what we then begin to do for others, our hands become his hands, our feet his feet, our hearts his heart, our love his love, and the least important become the most important in our eyes.