Love changes everything
The Sunday of Christ the King (20 November)
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
‘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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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.” 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.” 44Then 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?” 45Then 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.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
When he was three years old, Mingkuri remembered his manners. He was standing at the farm, chewing with relish on a piece of kangaroo tail, as we men discussed some issue to do with the grapes. As I glanced at Mingkuri he started. “Oh... Andrew,” he said. “Would you like something to eat?,” and offered me the thoroughly gnawed tail. I thanked him, and said I was fine!
On that day, Mingkuri stepped among the sheep. Whatever extra good he does in the world is a bonus. “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.” Is it this simple? If we do it to just one of these? There is no listing of a threshold beyond that. No three a week for five years. Just one.
But then, of course, I read these words. “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.” If it means there was just one person I did not help, then I am lost. If it means I refused to help even just one single person, then the God of Grace is stunningly generous to us. Only helping one single person keeps me among the sheep.
My friend Tony tells me that this is the supreme parable. It is the climax of this Gospel, rightly chosen for Christ the King. Not one jot or tittle of the law will disappear, but what counts for us, is not what we have believed, and said, and proclaimed. What counts about our life is what we have done. This earns us nothing, of course; it is all gift. What we have not done will be crucial. Not to care for even only one person is a matter of the greatest inhumanity. Tony speaks a truth to me.
In The Last Battle, CS Lewis imagined the animals coming before Aslan on that last day. Some could look him in the face, even although fearfully. Others could not. They could not face The Good. There is a truth here. What sort of human would we be, if we could not bear to look at Jesus, the Human One?
There is just the little matter, that on these readings, those Nazi monsters who murdered Jews by day, and doted on family and children by night, might even be listed among the sheep! When we realise this, our dis-ease with eternal punishment tends not to be so prominent.
In the end; perhaps I should say, at the end, the categories we use for justice and rightness seem to lose their usefulness. It’s like Newtonian physics, which are so accurate, and so binding and determining, when it comes balancing my bike around a corner, or even carrying potatoes in one bag and cornflakes in the other, as I leave the supermarket. At speeds close to light, apparently, and in quantum level calculations, Newtonian physics loses its usefulness. As I understand it, using Newtonian physics in such situations means we will be wrong in our calculations.
If we go in the direction of this idea, maybe we can see that the parable does not talk about the mechanics of a last day. There may not even be a last day. It talks about what is ultimately important in our existence now. While we are clearly in the realm of Newtonian physics, what really matters there?
This fits with the location of the reading in Matthew’s gospel. Bill Loader writes this week
This [Sunday] is the climax of the Church's year. It is also the climax of Jesus' teaching ministry in Matthew. Ancient writers were very conscious of the importance of such a position within a narrative. Here we can expect matters of central significance for Matthew and this is what we find...
Matthew is not saying: pretend Jesus is in people and that will enable you to love them. Rather the sheep loved people because of who they were as people. The notion that in doing so they were also loving Jesus came to them as a surprise. The loving was real, not a means to enhance their relationship with Jesus....
Love is what is ultimately important. Do we love? Do we really love, or do we keep score?
Stoffregen quotes Richard Jensen’s Preaching Matthew's Gospel.
The righteous are surprised. They don't know their deeds. They haven't kept score. Their left hand doesn't seem to know what their right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3)....
The righteous were righteous because of their deeds and they didn't know it. They didn't know their own righteousness.... The righteousness of the sheep was precisely an alien righteousness. They didn't even know they possessed it!...
Note that in the story the opposite is also true. The unrighteous ones know their deeds. They have kept score.... The unrighteous are quite confident about their righteousness. It is always so with humanly crafted righteousness. Those who measure their righteousness on human scales are in for a shock at the day of judgment. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven..." (Matthew 7:21)....
We are called to do lots of good works. We are also called not to keep score. When we keep score of our deeds we want to credit our love of neighbor to our heavenly bank account. Loving our neighbor is not the problem. Keeping score of our good deeds of neighbor-love is the problem. The truly righteous don't keep score. Their left hand doesn't know what their right hand is doing. Such as these will stand before the Sovereign one day clothed in Christ's righteousness alone. [pp. 220-222]
In church on Sunday, or at the cricket, we will be a motley bunch. There’ll be folk like my grandma who always worried, a little bit, that grandpa might not make it into heaven. And some of us will worry that perhaps we will not be among the sheep. After hearing my exegesis, some will be relieved, and some will be furious. Some of us will understand the metaphor that says the whole thing of judgement is outside our Newtonian paradigm, but still be puzzled and even deeply concerned about what happens “at the end.” Does “the last day” mean anything? The parable probes uncomfortably close into our fears about dying, and what may follow.
Love is the answer.
I can best illustrate this with a reluctant personal testimony. It’s reluctant because it may sound like I’m “blowing my own bags.” But as I have turned the experience over in my mind, it has become very clear to me that love has been the answer.
It began as I was listening to someone who was hugely distressed with another person. I must have suggested that maybe the other person was not quite as bad as my friend was suggesting. The friend cried, “But it’s alright for you. You love everybody!”
My pastoral sensitivity, always on the thin side, deserted me with a schnoort of laughter. I can truly say I do not love everybody! I frequently struggle with my tendency to write people off.
Despite my tendencies to judge and write off, I have consistently tried not to be like this. I have sought to respect people. I have tried to empower them, and build them up. I have looked for the positive in them. I try to be generous with time and help. I have attempted to protect people when it was necessary. If you know me personally, you know the notion that I love everybody is, well, rather hilariious!
All of these things rapidly become difficult when I attempt them, especially if I have been focussed on trying to achieve something else at the time. I’m as egocentric as anyone else, often worse. But the demand for love seems to be at the heart of the gospel. I have not seen any other way to be faithful to the way of Jesus, except through the attempt to love people. And so, I have tried.
Two things have happened.
The attempt to love has changed me. I don’t think it’s just practice. I know that something in me has been changed profoundly. I experience people differently. Despite all my frustration and lack of patience, some of the loving is no longer a duty. It is simply how I am. I don’t even think about it. That somehow leaves me a whole lot happier, and more comfortable with myself. And it was a surprise to realise this.
Secondly, death has lost a lot of its sting. My amygdala kicks in with just as much survival instinct as anyone’s when a car pulls in front of my bike, but something else has happened. The fear of Matthew 25, of being a goat, of what will happen to me when I get old, of whether I will have a job; all those markers of our fear for life, have begun to soften and blur. My big issue this Sunday, is no longer judgement, and where I will stand! It is how to communicate that, whatever the parable means, we have nothing to fear from God.
Don’t misunderstand me. I fret, and I struggle. I drive my wife crazy with my self focus, and my ability to drop out into my own little world. But love changes everything. It’s a cliché that has a stunning reality underneath.
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!