Half a Gospel
I recently read a book by Clyde Edgerton. Edgerton is an Air Force veteran and former fighter pilot, now novelist and creative writing professor. An interesting combination! In his book Walking Across Egypt, Edgerton invites us into the life of Mattie Rigsbee, an older woman, recently widowed. She has adult children, but much to her consternation, no grandchildren. Mattie is humble and down-to-earth, practical, no pretenses. In this story, Mattie hears the scripture on “the least of these” in church, and it rolls through her mind and changes her life.
The passage that inspired Mattie is our scripture for today. It is from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-45, and this is Jesus talking:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Mattie hears this passage, and she takes it seriously. During this same time, she strikes a friendship with the local dogcatcher and learns that his nephew Wesley is in jail for stealing a car. “Mattie thought about that Wesley boy and how she used to visit her husband’s cousin in jail. Jesus said to do that. It was clear in the Scriptures. And that kind of visiting made sense for some balance in the world.” Mattie goes on to develop a relationship with Wesley, acting as a kind of mother and grandmother to him. Her neighbors and family, even her church friends, though, thought she was acting foolishly, even dangerously, but she knew she was doing the right thing. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, but she acted with clarity and certainty.
Have you ever made a decision, based on Jesus’ commands, that changed your life? That perhaps made your life more difficult, but still better?
This passage in Matthew is a hard and even surprising, confusing word. Why? That’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because many of us have been told that we “just” need to accept Jesus into our hearts, and we can go to heaven, but there is no mention of that here, where Jesus is identifying the righteous and unrighteous at the end of time. And so I have some questions for us to consider. These questions might make us a little uncomfortable. They make me a little uncomfortable! But, here we go:
What does it mean to love Jesus? Is “just” going to heaven the goal? Is “just” agreeing with the doctrine of “accepting Christ” the sum of all that God has revealed to us? If we say “yes” to Jesus without living a changed life, without doing what Jesus commands, have we really said “yes”?
It’s true that in scripture, including the New Testament books of Acts and Romans, we hear, “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We hear in the Gospel of John that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. But, we also hear in today’s passage, and earlier in Matthew, that there is more to the story. Matthew 7:21 says, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”
And here in our passage today, Jesus very directly says that only those who care for the least will inherit the kingdom. Did you notice, there’s no mention of what the “sheep” and the “goats” believed? All the nations, all people, are there, and the ones Jesus calls “righteous” are the ones who cared for those in need. In fact, they learn that by doing so, they were serving Christ himself. Not just serving in the name of Christ, not even doing for Christ. They were doing it to Christ, to Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said, “I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I needed clothes. I was sick. I was in prison.” Jesus said, when you took care of them, you were actually taking care of me.
Now, we know that mere actions, just following the rules or requirements, are clearly not all the Bible tells us to do. But are we wrong when we say that we are saved when we accept Jesus? Of course not. So what do we do with this? Which is it? Is it works, or is it belief?
I believe that saying just one or the other is not necessarily wrong, but it is incomplete. Just as taking one passage out of context is incomplete, just as hearing only some of Jesus’ words is only part of his message, saying it is just works or just belief is an incomplete Gospel. It is just half the Gospel.
Our passage today is no doubt challenging. Do we also feel that it is frightening? Intimidating? Preposterous? Unrealistic? How literally are we supposed take this command? Well, Jesus said it, and so we certainly must take it seriously. What does taking it seriously mean for each of us, and for St. Luke? Where are our hearts? Where does this command lead us?
Just before this passage, Jesus has told his disciples parables, parables that are prompted by their question about how they will know that the end of the age and Jesus’ return are coming. Next Jesus tells them many signs that his return is imminent, before going on to share parables that convey the importance of being prepared for his return. “It is like the ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Five were wise, but five were foolish…It is like a man who was leaving on a trip and called his servants…and gave each of them some coins…two invested wisely, but one hoarded what he had been given.” After giving these warnings about living responsibly to be ready for his return, Jesus comes back to the actual arrival he was describing.
Now note that everyone in this story is surprised. Everyone except Jesus, that is. The righteous are surprised, the unrighteous are surprised, we the readers are surprised. I suspect that readers throughout the ages have been surprised. Nothing is said here of grace, of justification, or of the forgiveness of sins. What counts here is whether or not one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of “extra credit;” they are the decisive criterion of judgement presupposed in all of the prior chapters that deal with how to interpret the Law, the requirements for the faithful. Jesus has taught that self-giving care for others is the heart of the revealed will of God, and it is the key to its interpretation.
The fundamental principle of this scene is that when people respond to human need or fail to respond, they are in fact responding to Christ or failing to do so. Those who responded did so entirely on the basis of the needs of the least of these and are surprised that there was a deeper dimension to their acts of human compassion, just as those who have lived their lives neglecting the needs of others are surprised to learn they had refused to serve the living Christ. This scene encourages us, and it warns us, that what will count in the judgement is deeds of love and mercy performed for the needy. The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid “the least of these.”
Now, I want to point out that it’s easy to get hung up on sheep and goats. It’s easy to think there’s something inherently bad about goats, that sheep are somehow superior. I’m a sheep and you’re a goat. I wonder if that person is a sheep or a goat. Why else would Jesus have used them as the examples, right? If goats aren’t really bad, why use them this way in the story? There’s no real indication in the story, however, that there is anything inherently bad about goats. In fact, a quick bit of biblical and historical research shows that goats were quite valuable in that day, they were as common as sheep, and sometimes they were even the required animal for certain sacrifices.
So why use them? Well, perhaps using “sheep” and “goats” is just a way to make a distinction between the two groups. Have you ever been to a petting zoo or to a farm? You’ve probably at least seen sheep and goats in pictures or in movies. You don’t have to be around them for very long to realize that even though sheep and goats have similar uses as farm animals, and they look similar in some ways, they are still very easy to distinguish from one another.
Perhaps there’s an even deeper meaning to Jesus’ metaphor than we expect. Maybe the difference between the righteous and unrighteous is just as obvious as the difference between sheep and goats. We all, all of us, all people around the world, we have many similarities, but God knows our hearts, and he sees our concern for others and deeds done through our love of him. Perhaps our hearts are just as obvious to God as the difference between sheep and goats.
There is another point to this scripture that is important to point out. It may be tempting to think that this last teaching of Jesus is “only” a parable, that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. However, I don’t think we can get off that easily. While Jesus indicates that the sheep and goats are a metaphor, he does not give any indication that his pictures of righteousness are metaphors. This last teaching in Matthew 25 does not begin as the parables often begin, “For it is as if”…or “it is like.” Jesus says, this is how it will be. This is how it will be when the Son of Man comes in glory. Jesus is sharing a picture of how it will be when the righteous ones and the unrighteous stand before the throne of glory. He says that when he “comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him,” all the nations, all people, will be gathered before him, and he will separate them. The ones who are righteous will be placed on his right, and the ones who are unrighteous will be placed on his left. And what defines the righteous and the unrighteous? Whether or not they cared for the least of these.
No, this story is not a metaphor, but Jesus is filling in the metaphors of the parables that have come just before. This is what it looks like to stay awake. This is what it means to bring extra lamp oil for the long nights of waiting. The oil has become food and drink, clothing and hospitality. This is what it means to invest your talents. Invest in those who have nothing to eat or drink, those who are naked and sick, those who are strangers or imprisoned—those who will probably not pay you back in any worldly sense.
How can we reconcile this with our understanding that believing in Jesus is salvation? We need to remember that there is a fuller story, a more complete message. Half-truths are not the same thing as half-lies, but they can still be harmful. And Half a Gospel is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. We must be living in a way that shows that Jesus really is our Lord.
We are all on a journey as disciples. None of are perfect, but as John Wesley believed, we should all be going on to perfection. We continue to grow, we continue to strive, we continue to be more and more committed disciples. This year, as most of you know, we at St. Luke are focusing on our journey from membership to discipleship. It is our theme, our major emphasis. And so we are engaging in a year-long emphasis on what it means to become fully committed disciples, to journey from membership to discipleship.
Pastor Mark has been sharing some wonderful and challenging sermons on discipleship, and last Sunday he concluded his series, Supernatural Heroes. In his message, he said that we must have compassion for all people, that we must be committed to God first and then to all people.
He said that commitment plus passion equals compassion. And he said that too many of us are hoarders. We hoard God’s gifts to us, we hoard God’s love, and we hoard the Spirit. Have you even been called a spiritual hoarder? Did you hear when he said that? Have you reflected on it? Have you felt challenged? Compelled? Have you thought, Whew! Good thing he’s talking about someone else!
You know, as I grow spiritually, I learn more and more the truth of Matthew 16:25: All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I considered myself to be a Christian, but I believed I could pick and choose which parts of the message I wanted to follow. I didn’t want to give up some things, I was afraid to let go of some things. It wasn’t until I hit a wall in life that I learned that not only is clinging to some things not necessary, it doesn’t work. I have learned to truly let go, to truly strive to honor God in all aspects of my life, and now I can testify that I’m free. I didn’t say I was perfect! But I am free. I live with joy and peace, even when things are difficult. And I serve with joy and peace, serving in ways that I could not have imagined before. And it’s hard to even remember what I was afraid of. The whole Gospel really is the better way, and my life is a testament to that.
Do you actually know anyone who is hungry, or thirsty, or who needs clothes, or who is a stranger, or who is sick, or who is in prison? We should be encouraged that Jesus has already done what he calls his followers to do. He has fed the hungry. He has welcomed tax collectors, sinners, and other strangers to his meals. We could go verse by verse through this Gospel and find one clue after another pointing to Jesus’ vision of righteousness and kingdom living.
His first teaching overlaps his last teaching. Judgement day intersects the present hour. We live in a double-exposed photograph in which the last day and the present day are part of the same picture. When and where will the reign of God come? It is happening all the time, and righteousness is happening all the time, and Jesus is with us all the time. Jesus is clear about the timing of the last judgement: The Gospel will first be proclaimed to all the nations, and no one knows when the end will come. Though we do not know the time, we do know what Jesus expects us to do
Our passage today is Jesus’ last teaching in Matthew, and it is the culmination of his teachings. The righteous ones do not simply show up at the end of time; they are living the kingdom life now. The righteous ones are shocked to be blessed, wondering when they have ever seen Jesus…Those who failed to do these things are equally shocked; if they had seen Jesus they would surely have given him something to eat.
The righteous simply cared for the needs around them. They merely did what was right. They knew nothing of any potential reward or punishment. Likewise, the unrighteous are judged harshly, not due to any lack of faith, but as a result of their moral failure. The doctrine of justification, of salvation by grace through faith in no way negates the necessity of good works. Grace is given freely without regard to merit, but obedience to the law of love is still demanded of the faithful.
You know, these things Jesus tells us to share, food, water, clothing, hospitality, companionship, they are not only the most necessary elements for life; they are the most readily available gifts we have to give. The lesson of the sheep and the goats is good news because it asks each to share precisely what each one of us has. That is the true center of this passage. Whether it is food or water, a compassionate ear or an open heart, everyone has something to share. We should feel enlivened by this passage, for it calls us to serve in ways firmly within our grasp. This passage actually provides relief. Relief from the pressure to have all of the answers before being able to act.
I carry around with me plenty of unsettled theological questions, but it is in the moment of the kind of service Jesus describes that I feel God closest and my faith most unwavering. Tired and frustrated? Go visit a hospital or nursing home. Feeling grumpy? Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Think life is unfair? Go spend time with someone who is lonely. There is no better way to not just get a sense of perspective, but to actually experience the presence of Christ, to have the joy of knowing that Jesus’ message is true.
In the end, works and belief are not opposed to each other. It’s not either-or. We may stumble a bit because the sheep and goats story shows the Son of Man issuing judgment only according to the works of the people that are gathered, but we must remember that this is not the whole story. And while we are correctly taught that we are not judged according to our own works or our own merit but according to the work that Jesus did on our behalf, that, too, is not the whole story.
In the end, we may have to live with, or perhaps better ,live in, this tension. Is that uncomfortable? Perhaps. But this passage gives us an important reminder that what we do matters. God’s grace and love are given freely, and there is nothing that we do to earn them, but that does not mean that we can forget to care for the least. In fact, the story insists that our care for the least is care for Christ himself. If we do not care for Christ, then how can we expect him to judge in our favor? Action and belief become so intertwined that we, the faithful, can move through life simply and wonderfully as those changed by the transformative Spirit and Word, changed into those who feed, share drink, welcome in, and clothe, as those who care for the marginalized, for the least of these. This is when we are truly ready to inherit the kingdom.
In our passage today, we are actually seeing a multileveled approach to Christ-centered living. On the first level, we as Jesus’ followers are to obey his commandment to love God and neighbor, in effect summing up the heart of the law. On a second level, disciples are called to imitate the vision of Jesus, who dined with “sinners,” extending his divine forgiveness even before they realized they needed it. When we do this, we see others as God sees them, and we invite them into redemptive relationship and the fellowship of grace. On a third level, Jesus’ followers are to perceive “the other” as though he or she were Christ himself. It is impossible for genuine followers of Jesus to neglect the downtrodden if they see in them the very image of Christ!
“He doesn’t look like Jesus,” Mattie thought, the first time she saw Wesley walking across the prison yard.
Christ-centered living transforms our actions, it transforms our sight, and it transforms our perspectives. Thinking of it in the context of the Lord’s return brings this vision for living into even sharper focus. It gives it significance and priority.
So perhaps we have resolved what seemed to be perplexing problems with this passage.
Salvation is a necessary part of receiving grace through faith, and Jesus has not declared salvation to be dependent on our works alone. But now we are faced with another difficult question: If the fruit of authentic faith is loving works, why don’t authentic believers respond lovingly? Why do believers fail to see the face of Christ in the faces of the needy? Why don’t we remember that our mission is to extend God’s love to those who need it most?
Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Our light should not be hidden under a bushel, and our talent should not be buried in the ground. To have our lamp filled and lit, to multiply the resources entrusted to us by the master, to be numbered among the sheep rather than the goats, it involves continuing Jesus’ work by extending his love to the forgotten corners of the world.
Jesus has defined righteousness for his followers in all ages. Righteousness is more than believing the right things. It involves embracing the way of the kingdom, which infuses the world with divine love and extends healing grace to all. Jesus defines living faith as faithful living, and he invites believers to participate in the Prayer of the Lord that God’s kingdom come and that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is not a nebulous, abstract, “God, you do it, we’re waiting on you” kind of prayer. It is an invitation and a command to all disciples to be about making it happen.
Now, some may be troubled by the violent end the unrighteous receive in this passage. How can this be the God of love and grace and forgiveness? It is important for us to understand that God does not change from being all loving and gracious to becoming vindictive and violent at the end of time. God’s divine love remains constant, and God does not actively dole out cruel punishment. However, we either participate in the gracious, unearned love of God, or we participate in the things that are not of God. We either show our love for God by caring for those most in need, or we contribute to their desperate situations. And in doing so, we choose the violent end for ourselves. Love and graciousness are freely given by God, but the price tag is to go and do likewise.
“When will Jesus come again?” It’s a question that, just like Jesus’ disciples, we are tempted to ask. But it is the wrong question. Jesus is already here. We see him in the least among us. We see Jesus in the child going to bed hungry. We see Jesus in the stranger who is of a different ethnic group. We see Jesus in the prisoner. These sisters and brothers are not metaphors, and neither is Jesus.
Do we see others as Jesus? Do we even see others? Do we look into their eyes and see a person? Do we see Christ? Maybe not yet, but we can if we open our eyes. If we understand that in so doing, we are seeing Christ. If we remember that the gift of love stands at the core. Love for all, care for all, especially those in need, especially for those in most dire need, especially for the marginalized, for the least and the lost, even for our enemies. This command for all disciples stands at the core.
Being righteous involves believing and doing. Jesus didn’t give us half a gospel. Jesus gave us the full Gospel. The two halves go hand-in-hand. We don’t really love if we don’t do; doing without love is empty. When we care for the least of these, when we see others as children of God, when we see them as Christ, we are doing it for Jesus. We are doing it to Jesus. And we are participating in bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth.