This sermon is part of the sermon series "Doing Good". See series.
Introduction: A hard saying
This morning we come to one of the hard sayings of Jesus. There are quite a few of them, actually. I have a book on my shelf with over 40 of them. Some of them are hard to understand; others are hard to accept; and others are hard to do. This saying in Matthew 25 is all three of these: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." What does that mean? Is it really true? And what are we supposed to do about it? It's such a hard saying that I've never actually preached on it. But it's a saying we must understand, accept, and do, if we want to be his people in the world, and if we want to be sure of our standing before God.
So far in our series we have learned that doing good means following Jesus for the sake of others. Last week we focused on the everyday people in our lives—consequential strangers—and learned that doing good means seeing people as Jesus sees them and finding a way to bless them.
I don't know if you had a chance to try that this week, but yesterday I was working on the message and decided to make a quick coffee run. I hopped in the car and headed to the local Dunkin Donuts. On the way it occurred to me that I should practice what I'm preaching. I should pay for the person behind me in the drive-thru. Now, I'm not really the spontaneous, outgoing type, so this was going to be a stretch for me. But I was determined. I pulled up and placed my order, and sure enough, a car pulled up behind me. I tried to look in the rearview to see who I was going to bless, but with the rain and reflection I couldn't see a thing. That's when it occurred to me that there could be a hungry family of five in that car, or maybe the entire front line of the high school football team! This could really set me back!
I was having some second thoughts as I pulled up to the window to pay—the whole thing felt a little strange—but I handed the cashier my card and said, "I'd like to pay for the car behind me, too." She gave me a funny look, and that's when I realized I had to explain this somehow. I didn't have a handy little card to give her explaining that God is love, so I was going to have to say something. I thought about saying, "Just tell them Jesus paid," but that seemed a bit preachy. In the end I panicked and said, "Just tell them to have a nice day." She rang it up, handed me my coffee and receipt, and as I pulled away I laughed out loud. It was the best feeling! I zipped out of the parking lot so they couldn't follow me, and as I gunned up the road I just could not stop smiling. That's when I realized I hadn't looked at the bill. How much had this good deed set me back? $1.92. Whoever was in that car bought a small coffee. That was it. That was the most fun I've had with $1.92 in a long time. This really could be addicting.
This morning we're going to learn what it means to do good to a very different category of people. As we do that, I'm going to be drawing on Richard Stearn's book The Hole in Our Gospel. Let's turn our attention to this hard saying of Jesus found in Matthew 25:31-36, and see if we can't answer some of the questions it raises.
What's happening here?
First, let's be sure we understand what's happening here. We read in verse 31, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. And 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."
Some commentators will call this a prophecy; others will describe it as a parable. It's actually both. Like a prophecy, it speaks to an actual event that will take place in the future. But like a parable, it uses an imaginative metaphor to describe that event. The event it's describing is the final judgment, at the end of the age. The Bible teaches that when human history has run its course, God will bring all things to an end with the return of his Son. On that day everything in heaven and earth will be set right, including the final judgment of human beings, who will then spend eternity with God or without God, depending on the choices they have made in this life.
Now that's a subject that people don't think about too often. Maybe they don't want to think about it, but the Bible is very clear about this coming time. And the truth is, most people in most cultures throughout human history have believed in some sort of final judgment and afterlife. Polls suggest that about 80 percent of Americans believe there will be a day of reckoning.
The passage tells us that on that day, Jesus will be the Judge. To judge means to "to decide," or "to divide." Jesus will divide the righteous from the unrighteous the way a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. For those of us who know next to nothing about sheep and goats, it turns out that a shepherd literally does this dividing every night when he brings the herds in from the fields. The sheep in this parable represent the righteous, those who enjoy right standing with God and will spend eternity with God in his kingdom. The goats represent those who do not belong to God, and therefore will spend eternity apart from God.
We don't have time to get into a discussion about what hell is, but it's important to understand that "eternal fire" is a figure of speech. Jesus uses it to describe a reality that we can't fully understand, but a reality we don't want anyone to experience. We need to realize that to be separated from God is the worst thing that can happen to a person, because it means being separated from all that is good and true and beautiful.
The disturbing message of this text, the thing that makes this saying so hard, is that Jesus seems to be saying that he will make his determination based on how we respond to "the least of these." That raises all kinds of questions for us, three in particular: Who are "the least of these?" What exactly does Jesus expect of us? And what happens if we fail? Let's go after those three.
Who are the least of these?
Who is Jesus referring to? Turns out that's not such an easy question to answer. The traditional understanding is that "the least of these" simply refers to the poor and needy in the world. That's certainly the simplest reading of the text. It's certainly consistent with Jesus' concern for the poor throughout the gospels. It's how St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa and even Richard Stearns have understood it.
But some commentators have challenged that interpretation and argued that Jesus is referring specifically to his followers who are poor and needy, and in particular, those who are poor and needy because of their loyalty to him. They'll point out that Jesus usually uses the word "brothers" to describe disciples, and that Jesus says, "you have done it unto me," because they are his representatives.
Whichever interpretation you land on (I tend to favor the more traditional understanding) it's clear that Jesus has in mind people who, for one reason or another, are needy and vulnerable. They are the kinds of people we meet in Richard Stearns' book, as he takes us on a tour of the developing world.
First, there are the hungry. Stearns tells us that one of every seven people in the world don't have enough to eat, one out of four children in developing countries are underweight, and that nine million people a year die of hunger or related causes. That hunger leads to all kinds of other problems. When you're hungry, you can't work, you can't go to school, you can't play, your body can't fight disease, and you can't bear and raise healthy children. Every hour of every day is obsessively devoted to searching for sustenance.
There are the thirsty. Imagine waking up every day with no water—for drinking, cooking, or even washing. Imagine spending four or five hours every day going to fetch water for your family, carrying it back in buckets or on top of your head. Then imagine that the water you just brought home to your family was teeming with bacteria, parasites, and waterborne diseases that will make you and your children sick. This is a daily reality for 1.2 billion people in the world.
There are the materially poor. That's who Jesus is referring to when he says, "I needed clothes." The average American lives on about $100 per day. A billion people in the world live on less than $1 per day. But clothes are just the beginning of what they need. I remember visiting a village in Chad, which was little more than a collection of mud huts. A woman invited us in for some tea. Their home was about the size of a large rug. There was a mattress in the corner, a few cooking utensils along the wall, and that was the extent of their possessions. She had a little girl, who was about six years old. As we stood outside her hut, I realized there was nothing for that little girl to do—no toys to play with, no swings or slides, no books to look at, no school to go to. There was nothing for her to do but whack a stick against the ground and watch the dust rise. To be materially poor is to have no options.
And there are the sick. In the U.S. and Europe, two out of every 1,000 children die before their fifth birthday. In Africa, 165 of every 1,000 won't make it to their fifth birthday. Malaria, TB, and AIDS are the big three. If you were to take all the children who have been orphaned because of AIDS and have them hold hands, the chain of children would stretch from New York to L.A. nearly five times.
The hungry, the thirsty, the materially poor, the sick—we haven't even talked about the refugees and the prisoners. These are the kinds of people Jesus is talking about: the most needy and vulnerable people in the world. And of course, they're not just across the border in developing countries; they're right here at home as well, in our cities and suburbs. According to Jesus, it's our response to these people that will determine whether he welcomes us into his kingdom or not.
This leads us to the next question: What does Jesus expect of us? What does it mean to "do good" to the least of these?
What does God expect of us?
God expects us to feel what he feels for the needy and vulnerable. If you're feeling uncomfortable and disturbed by the statistics and images we've been talking about this morning, that's good. We should be uncomfortable, disturbed, and angered. That's how Jesus felt. How many times in the gospels do we read that Jesus was moved with compassion? How many times do we see him stop what he's doing to relieve someone's suffering? How many times is he disturbed by the exploitation or neglect of people created in the image of God? And Jesus still feels that way today!
When Jesus refers to "these brothers and sisters of mine," he is expressing his identification with the needy and vulnerable. Remember, Jesus was homeless at the time of his birth. He began his life as a refugee, chased from his own country by a baby-killing tyrant. He grew up in a working class family, and as an adult he had no place to lay his head. He was rejected by his own people, abandoned by his followers, brutally beaten by sadistic soldiers, executed for crimes he didn't commit, and buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus knows what it means to be needy and vulnerable, so he feels a kinship with them, and he wants us to feel it, too.
But that can be hard for us. First of all, most of us don't rub shoulders with these kinds of folks every day. And when we hear about them on the news or read about them in a book, they seem so distant. Statistics and images don't always sink in.
Richard Stearns suggests that we imagine waking up this morning and reading in the paper that 100 jetliners crashed yesterday, killing over 26,000 people. Imagine the grief and the outrage we would feel! Imagine the outpouring of money and volunteers that would follow such a catastrophe! Imagine the intensity with which governments and agencies would do everything in their power to stop such a thing from happening! Then imagine that it happening again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.
The fact is it ishappening every day in our world. 26,500 children die every day of preventable causes related to poverty. We need to be grieved, disturbed, and angered by that.
But we need to do more than just feel for people. We need to do something to help them. That's the second thing God expects of us: to feel what Jesus feels for the needy and vulnerable, and then to do something about it.
The righteous in this story were commended because they did something—they fed somebody, they gave someone a drink, they welcomed a stranger into their lives, they put clothes on someone's back, they took care of someone who was sick, they visited someone who was locked up. Notice they didn't do everything; they did something. They didn't help everyone; they helped someone. They didn't solve world hunger or rid the world of disease or get all the homeless off the streets. They did what they could, where they were, with what they had. That's what God asks of us.
There's a lot of good being done in the world by and through folks here from Grace Chapel. But if you're like me, you can't hear these words of Jesus and not feel convicted and challenged to do more. And just in case you're not feeling that way yet, let me share with you Richard Stearns' paraphrase of Jesus' words in Matthew 25: "For I was hungry, but you went out to eat, again. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved."
Karen and I have had a couple of conversations recently about what the Lord might be asking us to do in terms of reaching out to people who are hurting and lonely, both overseas and here at home. We don't know where it might lead, but when you begin to feel what Jesus feels for the needy and vulnerable, you want to do something. I don't know what the Lord might ask us to do as a congregation this year, but it begins with awareness.
What if we fail?
Well, there's one more question we haven't answered yet: what happens if we fail? What if we don't do good to the least of these? Well, according to this text, when we turn our backs on the needy and vulnerable, we turn our backs on Christ. We deny him. We reject him. We betray him. Choose whatever word you want, it doesn't make it any less serious. Jesus says that our response to the needy and vulnerable is, in fact, an expression of our response to him. When we turn our backs on them, we turn our backs on him. That's why this is so serious.
Understand that this text is not telling us that we are saved by our good deeds. Jesus is not saying that as long as we are generous to the poor and needy, we'll get into the kingdom. We know from the rest of Scripture that we are saved by virtue of our relationship to Christ, by trusting him to forgive us of our sins and to make us new people. Jesus himself said that "whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life."
This hard saying simply teaches us that true followers of Jesus will feel what Jesus feels and do what Jesus does. If we don't, then we have to ask ourselves if we really have believed. As Stearns puts it, "It's not what you believe that matters. It's what you believe enough to do." Or as James the brother of Jesus puts it, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith, but have no deeds? Can such faith save them?" (James 2:14).
Some years ago, a well-known worship leader and songwriter got the opportunity to visit Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. He presented her with cassettes of his worship music and told her all about the explosion of worship in the church. She seemed unimpressed. In fact, she gave back the cassettes, saying they didn't have any music players, and rarely sang. "What do you do, then?" he asked. "How do you worship?" That's when Mother Theresa's eyes brightened. "Jesus has told us how to love and worship him," she said. Then she quoted these words from Matthew 25: "When you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." "If you really want to love and worship God," she said, "pour out your love on the needy."
We are not saved by caring for the poor and needy; rather, we're saved by turning to Christ in repentance and faith. But caring for the poor and needy is one of the most obvious ways to demonstrate that faith. So when we fail to do that, when we turn our backs on them, we are in fact turning our backs on Christ.
Can we be forgiven for that—for turning our backs on him? Yes, of course—when we come to him in repentance and ask for his forgiveness and the grace to begin again. But when we consistently fail to love what Jesus loves and to do what Jesus does, we call into question our faith in him, and we endanger our own souls.
We could spend a lot more time with this passage. There are more questions to be answered, more practical ideas for doing good we could explore. But I think it's enough for now to let this hard saying have its way with us. To let it disturb, convict, and challenge us.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.