This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Heart". See series.
In our lesson from Matthew 25 today, Jesus tells us a parable that is likely to be a bit disturbing to most of us if we really examine our lives in light of it. The setting of the story is the divine throne room at the end of time. There "the Son of Man" (that's Jesus' preferred title for himself when he's describing his ultimate cosmic role) is revealed in all of his "heavenly glory" (that is, in all of the brilliance of who he fully is.) On that day, "all the nations will be gathered before him, and Jesus will separate the people one from the other as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Jesus says "he will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left." Now which side do you think it's better to be found on in the end? It's better to be a simple sheep than a guilty goat.
So how does the Shepherd determine who is a sheep and who is a goat? I've always assumed that it would be a pretty easy distinction, but I'm told by some friends who just got back from a farm in the Dominican Republic that it is actually quite hard to tell which kind of animal you are dealing with on the basis of surface appearances alone. A well-matted sheep and a goat look strikingly similar. So how does the Shepherd tell them apart? He looks at their hearts. He wants to know if the creature has a heart that follows him or a heart that goes its own way. He seeks to discern whether this is a heart that will be at home in his pastures or a heart that will always be butting against the way of his kingdom.
So how does the Shepherd know what the orientation of each person's heart is? He looks to see how someone's heart is oriented toward "the least" people in society. How, for example, does someone treat people in economic need—the poor one in need of food, drink, or clothing? How does someone respond to the person in social need—the stranger or outsider who has little hope unless someone chooses to include them? How does someone care for the person with medical needs—the sick and vulnerable person in need of companionship and comfort? How does someone care for the person with moral need—the criminal failure in need of some undeserved touch?
The clear message of this parable is that God so intimately identifies with the plight of people with needs like this that he says that to care for them is to care for him. When I see you loving them, it is as if you love me, says Jesus. He doesn't tell us why he especially cares for the hurting and the humbled. He doesn't give us an argument for why we should. He doesn't supply us with a needs-assessment filter so that we'll know who is really deserving of our care and who we ought to ignore. Jesus doesn't outline an ideal social welfare system or healthcare policy or prison reform plan—though we'd all be grateful if he saved us the trouble of working this out. Jesus simply says that this is how the heart of God is oriented: he cares for people who can't meet their needs without help, without someone who possesses something they don't, without someone willing to give.
The consistent message of the Bible is that while God's actions are holy and just, his heart is "compassionate and gracious … abounding in love" (Psalm 103:8). Again and again Scripture proclaims that God extends compassionate care to those who may not deserve it but who desperately need it. In this parable, Jesus tells us that God's eternal kingdom is only for people who love that heart, who want to be filled with that heart. Conversely, if your orientation in life is to prefer to have nothing to do with the least, to believe that others don't deserve your help and ought to work out their own solutions, then God says: You will have nothing to do with me.
I don't think any message of Jesus is plainer than this one. So how is it that I can read this parable as many times as I have and still clutch for the channel changer as soon as one of those humanitarian aid advertisements comes on the TV? Why do I so consistently choose the company of familiar friends when I get to the church building rather than looking for that stranger standing alone? When 50% of the people in nursing homes in America receive less than one visit per year (and I drive by such a home every day on my way home from work), why don't I stop on in? I have two acquaintances serving time in prison now for serious moral failures. They've written me repeatedly, confessing their sins. Why is it that I am so slow to write them back? When 9.7 million children under the age of five are still dying each year of completely preventable conditions, why am I not more actively in the fight to do something about this?
In short, as a professed follower of Jesus, why is my heart not more like God's? Why am I often more like the goats in Jesus' parable than the sheep? Why am I not doing more to care for the least of these, Christ's brothers and sisters? And why aren't you? Some of it is pure selfishness, I suppose. Some of it is skepticism about being used by others. But I think there is another reason why our hearts grow more careless than we want them to be—a reason which I came to understand through an encounter I had some years ago.
Hearing the Spirit's murmur
It was one of those cold winter nights that make you glad for a good heavy coat. I was walking home late from town and had gotten lost in my thoughts when something intruded that began to lift me out of my daze. It was a clinking, a scratching, a rustling of something or someone coming up behind me from the other side of the street. I felt a chill go down my back, and mustering up some courage, I glanced across the road to locate the source of the sound. I saw him. There, illumined in the light of a streetlamp, was the unmistakable outline of a large, scraggly, dog.
I don't know just how to describe the feeling, but a strange sense of pleasure flooded over me, and I smiled. Exactly why, I don't know. Perhaps it was relief that it wasn't a mugger. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that I was no longer completely alone. Whatever the case, without thinking, I took a few steps out onto the street, squatted down, and stretched out my hand. The dog stopped dead in its tracks, and with the look of a creature that has been kicked once too often, eyed me nervously for a second or two. Then, very tentatively, the dog moved forward, closer and closer, till its cold wet nose just touched the tips of my fingers.
All of a sudden a new wave of anxiety swept through me. What am I doing, I thought. The dog might bite. It might have fleas. Who knows what kind of diseases this thing has? And there was something else that bothered me—something even worse—a murmur in my heart I couldn't define at that moment.
The dog didn't bite. In fact, it began to lick my hand. And within a few minutes, we'd have made quite a sight to any passer-by, with him lying on his back in the middle of the road, and me scratching his belly, and one of his hind legs pawing the air like he never wanted me to stop. But stop I did, as my arm got tired and my knees began to complain. And with a final slap on his side, I rose, turned around, and began to walk away.
I had gone no more than five steps when it hit me. In a cold flash of panic, I suddenly knew exactly what that murmur of anxiety was that I had struggled to name when the dog first touched my fingertips. It came to me in a flood of despair when, glancing over my shoulder, I saw that the dog was following me.
To stop and pet a dog for a few minutes was one thing. But to have the creature follow me home was more than I could stand. That amount of responsibility I didn't want. That amount of love and time and patience I simply didn't have. I turned and yelled at the dog. I told him to stop following me. I turned and began to jog the last distance home. I began to choke back a lump in my throat, and something inside of me seemed to die.
How much more panic would I have felt if that creature had not been simply a stray dog, but a real live human being? And yet I wonder if that isn't a good part of what prevents me and prevents you from opening our hands and our hearts to the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the lonely, the grieving, and the estranged people who walk the streets of our lives every day.
Isn't that really the problem? It's not that we don't understand the call of the gospel, but that we understand it too well. It's not that we are unaware of who the least among us are, but that there are just so many of them. It's not that we are unable to care in the least, but that by showing even the least care we may open ourselves to caring too much—to a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others from which we cannot walk away without something vital inside of us dying a bit more—something more alive in those moments when we risk caring for someone in need than at any other point in our daily lives; something which gives life depth, and richness, and hope.
How do I begin to care?
But how can I begin to care like that? you might ask. I don't have the time, the money, the patience, or the love to solve the problems of all the stray dogs and hurting people of this world. I've got a family and work to do. I've got responsibilities and commitments. I can't handle the flood of people and problems that would overwhelm me if I opened my heart to all the people for whom God may care.
And you are right. But that's why it's important to pay close attention to what Jesus actually did and actually calls us to do in this parable we've been studying. Jesus did not heal every person he met in those crowded villages, or feed every hungry belly or embrace every lonely soul. But the size of the need did not stop him from extending grace to a few. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus doesn't hold his followers responsible for eliminating all hunger, thirst, homelessness, illness, or crime. But he does call us to be people who respond to the Spirit's murmur within our hearts to reach out our hands and do something.
Many of you are doing a lot of something, I know. Some of you are exhibiting hearts of compassion that would stun the rest of us if we knew the ways you pour out your life's blood to care for the needs of others. But I know my family's heart is not as compassionate as Christ wants it to be. To be honest, we are pretty care-less at times about the way we spend resources that could be used for better purposes. So one of the disciplines we're undertaking this month is to do one thing that is care-full. We're going to the World Vision AIDS Exhibit together, and it feels a bit threatening, frankly. AIDS, as you know, is a very big problem. 15 million children have been orphaned by the disease already. In some African countries, nearly 20% of children are without parents because of this disease. If we open our hearts and let in the story of even one child affected by this disease, we could really disrupt our family's complacency and spending patterns.
It might be very disturbing and disruptive for you to do the same or to open your heart further to some of the other needs that the least of Christ's brothers and sisters have wherever you might meet them. But there's one thing even scarier, isn't there? The only thing more terrifying than responding to that murmur within our hearts that says, "Dare to care more for someone," is learning to ignore that murmur altogether, and, in the process, losing the heart of Jesus himself. How can we begin to care for the least of these, Christ's brothers and sisters? In view of all the ways that God has cared for us, how can we do less than try?
O God of the greatest and least of all people, make us instruments of your peace; where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is hunger, nourishment; where there is loneliness, friendship; where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that we may not seek so much to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in reaching out that we are held; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.