Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 26, 2023
Matthew 25:31-46 Commentary
These last few weeks of passages have reminded us that asking, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16.30) is not the only question that matters. Growing in our understanding of how belief and faith is translated into daily living is just as important. And the question, “What happens when Jesus returns?” is just as—if not more—helpful in explaining the implications of life with God.
The previous parables called for preparation and attentive living. Now, in his last words of public teaching in the gospel of Matthew, rather than a parable, Jesus speaks a bit more directly to the point. He still uses a familiar image to establish the setting, but this is not merely an imagined scene to imply a message, this is a prophetic revelation.
And here is the stark reality we must come to terms with: our testimony of faith by words will not be what Jesus the Judge reviews. Instead, it is the way we lived with compassion, kindness, and love for others. These will be the proof that we have joined the Jesus Way.
It is consistent for what we have seen from Jesus throughout the gospel—his has been a mission of compassion and mercy, from the Beatitudes to the compassionate-impetus that sent the disciples out on their first mission in chapter 9. Throughout the parables and polemical declaration against the temple leaders we have watched Jesus emphasize that faith and trust in the Heavenly Father and God’s will is expressed through tangible service that allows others to experience the wholeness (shalom) that summarizes God’s intent for the world.
Jesus showed us that loving God is the first and greatest commandment, and that the second is very much like it: loving our neighbours. To keep the second commandment, we must be committed to the first, having our whole selves, mind, body, heart, soul, given over to God’s transforming presence of love. The God who is love enables us to love well.
In our human frailty, when we are able to stop living as though love is a scarce resource we might run out of, we are able to “risk it” on others through acts of mercy—these very works that Jesus lists will be part of the final Judgement. Feeding someone who is hungry, giving a drink to someone who thirsts, making someone feel welcomed, visiting the sick or imprisoned. These, acts of kindness that communicate to someone that they matter and are worthy of love.
In verse 34, Jesus connects it all together. Those who live with love “are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared” for them from before time began. From Genesis the message has been clear: we are blessed to be a blessing. God has blessed us with mercy and when we believe and trust that to be true, we will be more and more merciful like God. We love (God and others) because God first loved us.
Not only that, we will be more and more merciful in the style of Jesus Christ, who did not think too highly of himself, but became a servant who works without regard of recognition or reward. Being loving and kind, compassionate and merciful, can become so much of who we are that we’ll forget we’re doing something extraordinary in our hate-filled world. We’ll ask Jesus, “When did we do these acts of service to you?” because sharing love, being committed to compassion, will be so second-nature that we won’t be thinking of their eternal consequences.
It’s a bit of a shock to the system. The idea that the two greatest commandments can be so thoroughly integrated into our lives that God sees them as one! Jesus describes this as righteousness (verse 46), enlarging yet again our scope from personal morality to social justice. It is fitting for a prophetic revelation, isn’t it?
The alternative is not pretty. Jesus describes it as an “accursed” state in verse 41, one that describes the devil and its minions—agents that have refused to accept the gracious love of God and act with opposite purposes to the will of God. Dale Bruner believes “cursed” connotes “people who have been feeling or at least fighting the love of God for them and the wrath and judgment of God against their deeds.” In other words, denying yourself God’s love is disastrous, a sure-fire way to fail, and a path to disobedience. It is impossible to be a CINO (Christian-In-Name-Only).
Of course, we know that none of us are perfect and we keep failing in our attempts to be faithful and obedient to God’s intent in output and method. But there is a difference in being willing to keep trying because we trust in the love invested in us by God, and trying to make excuses, caveats, or limitations on interpretation that get us off the hook for being loving and kind. That sort of self-deceit will eventually make us ignorant of God’s presence in ourselves and in others to the point that we won’t know when we’ve had a Spirit-led opportunity, forcing us to ask the Lord when we saw him in need and did not respond (verse 44).
Sorting sheep and goats at the end of the day was a common herding practice because the goats needed a bit more protection from the cold than the sheep.
What is the significance of the fact that this is a communal scene? This is not an individual courtroom scene, but a group of “sheep” and “goats” asking the Lord when they unknowingly succeeded or failed.
Likewise, one has to wonder whether all of the debates about who qualifies as the “least of these” (literally, Jesus says, “my brothers”) has perhaps made us lose the plot of Jesus’s message here. Attempts to sort out who deserves it or who we are obligated to give love to goes against the very definition of mercy, which is always undeserved. And, Jesus opens this scene by saying that the nations (i.e., everyone, not just the family of faith) will experience the final judgement; there is no indication that the scope has changed. Through the incarnation, Jesus became human, a brother to all humanity.
Jesus is the judge, defense and prosecution as the King (it is Reign of Christ Sunday, after all) and he presents the case of what’s to come to us. Markedly, this is not the time we make our case—that is what our daily living and commitments were for. The way Jesus describes the final Judgement, our life’s history becomes our character witness in the proceedings, attesting to who we are, what we believe, and what we are about, and key evidence will be how our faith has been alive through works (James 2.15) in the Jesus Way.
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