The Text: Matthew 25: 34-40
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; 35for 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,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And 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.”
What are we to think about how life goes on after the death of someone we love? What’s ultimately important?
There’s a story in the Gospel of Matthew, which imagines a king, at the end of time, standing out next to the shearing shed, drafting sheep. I reckon Brian probably did this a few times!
Only the king is not drafting the wethers out from the ewes, down at the sheep yards at Hillview, he’s drafting the sheep out from the goats. Someone is pushing the mob down the race, and the king is on the drafting gate sending the sheep to the right and the goats to the left.
And then, as the story goes... the King says to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world 35for 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,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Now there’s a little joke going on here, because these words came as a bit of a surprise to some of the sheep, because they thought they might be heading for the other place. It says, “Then the righteous will answer him...” they’re trying not to sound too surprised, here... “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”
And the king says “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.” When you did justice and helped someone in need... you helped me.
Now if you use the imagery of “heaven and hell” when you think about death, and the meaning of life, then this reading says just one thing. It says... Brian is on the way to heaven. I can tell you that, because Brian gave me something to drink when I was thirsty; and more than once, and he gave lots of other people a drink, too.
Brian and Betty came to stay with us a couple of times at Hilltop, when I was a kid, and they came for meals occasionally, too. I remember the two of them embracing and smooching in our kitchen. As a kid, you look at that sort of thing a lot differently when it’s not your parents doing it. Betty, you and Brian gave me a vision of relationship and marriage that affected me quite profoundly, and I thank you.
As a lonely new student to Adelaide, I would visit you occasionally. You always made me welcome. When I rolled up, sweaty on my pushbike in Kadina, you made me welcome; Brian didn’t even blink. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. And so God says to Brian, “Come... inherit the kingdom prepared for you...” .... Truly...
If we leave the language of the Bible for a moment, what Jesus was saying is this:
What counts about life is not how rich you are.
What counts about life is not how successful you are.
And what counts about life is not whether you are in the right religion, or say the right words, or believe the right things.
This was pretty radical stuff, for him to say. You see, there’s also a savage joke in the story of the sheep and the goats. It’s not just the sheep who were a bit surprised about where they ended up. The people Jesus was talking to when he told the story, all understood who was in with the goats. In with the goats were a whole lot of the rich people, and the priests, and the religious folk who did say all the right religious words and believe in the right things. But words count for nothing.
What counts about life is not whether you are in the right religion, or say the right words, or believe the right things.
What does count about life, in the eyes of God, is whether you think you are the most important person in the world, and it all revolves around you...
or whether you are kind and generous,
and step outside of yourself,
and love other people... when there is nothing in it for you.
Giving a thirsty person a drink of water when they need it, is more profound than having all the riches in the world. Being generous and sacrificial beats keeping up with the Jones’s. Trying to do what is right, even when it costs you... is life saving.
So how do those of us whom Brian has left behind live?
We are going to live with sadness, and disappointment, and regrets about things we’d like to have said and done... or wish we hadn’t. There’s no avoiding this.
But there is something else. We can live life as it’s meant to be lived. This means that we face our griefs, and our joys, in a way that is healthy and freeing, and builds us up as people.
It’s like the difference between swimming a hundred metres race in bathers, or trying to swim it in an overcoat and boots. We can approach life the right way, or we can approach it all weighed down.
When we make people welcome; when we help people who are in a mess; when we help people get started again even though they don’t deserve it; when we are kind; when we are generous... all of these things, and the things like them are what the old translations of the bible called merciful. They’re what we now call compassion. They’re what the New Testament calls the way of Jesus. It’s the direct opposite of living as though we are number one, and putting ourselves first.
Let me read a couple of lines from Matthew again. These are the most profound things any human being can do. They are the things which make us human. “...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, 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.”
Being compassionate and merciful and generous, is what sets us free from all the crap in life, and win over it. It’s what changes us. It is what points us toward heaven, if you like. It helps in the healing of our grief. It means we are sheep, instead of living like a goat.
And we don’t have to wait until we die; it’s something we can have now, and begin to live now. It’s the kind of living where we already begin to meet the Divine Presence we call God. We can discover the universe is ultimately good, and that our grief and suffering does not have the last word in life. I pray that you continue to discover this. Amen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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