November 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, Matthew 25:31-46 – Love, The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
In October I began a short sermon series on faith, hope, and love, the three theological virtues named by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Today we will consider what he called the greatest of the theological virtues, love. What a perfect day to think about love, the day we celebrate Christ the King, the Sunday before we begin our Advent preparation for Christmas. Today’s Gospel lesson, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, is a perfect lesson not only for the day we celebrate Christ the King, but also for the subject of Christian love.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the last parable in the Gospel of Matthew, the final formal teaching of Jesus offered to his followers before he moves on his way to the cross. The position of the parable in the Gospel highlights its importance. The parable begins with a majestic picture of the triumphant Jesus reigning in glory as king and judge at the end of time. Can you appreciate the drama of Matthew’s writing, the profound significance of placing this parable immediately before these words: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified’” (Matthew 26:1-2). The King of glory, the final judge of all humanity is about to be judged unjustly by human beings and die the death of a criminal. Could the contrast of the ways of God and the ways of the world be made more clearly? All this tells me that this parable of the last judgment is one that deserves our focused attention.
Christ the King judges “all the nations,” which simply means everyone. The metaphor used is that of a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Apparently in some areas of the world it is a common practice for a shepherd to have a mixed flock of sheep and goats, all out to pasture together during the day. At the end of the day the two kinds of animal had to be separated from one another because the goats needed shelter from the cold of night and the sheep didn’t need to be sheltered. Just as a shepherd knows the sheep from the goats, the judge in the parable knows the righteous from the unrighteous. He invites the righteous into eternal life and he condemns the unrighteous to eternal punishment.
A morality tale in which good people are rewarded and bad people are punished is not unique or surprising. But this parable is both. How? The characters themselves reveal the shocking part – Christ’s identification with “the least of these”. When the Son of Man invites the righteous to “inherit the kingdom,” he tells them why: “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.” And the righteous are startled. When did they offer the Lord all these acts of mercy? “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.” Just so with the unrighteous. They don’t understand how they had failed to serve the Lord. “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.”
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats teaches that at the end of the day every human being will be judged by God on the basis of whether or not he or she showed compassion and mercy to those in need. Did we practice the love of neighbor which is the heart of the law as Jesus has taught us? Did we do something to help others? An understanding behind this teaching is that it is only right – it is simple justice – for those who are able to do so to give care to people in need through acts of mercy. To share what we have for the welfare of others isn’t an “extra” in Christian life; it is absolutely central. The self-giving, other-including love of God which has been made known to us in Jesus is to be the pattern of our lives as disciples of Christ.
In my first sermon in this series, when we looked at faith, I mentioned that the past can be a great help to our lives of faith – a recollection of our own past and the times when we have been touched by God and felt God’s love as well as the witness of the faithful lives of countless Christians who have preceded us and whose faith may inspire ours. In my second sermon I remarked that hope orients us to the future, especially to the final coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice and life. Today’s parable is about the future, future judgment by God. We must be careful, as we take to heart the teaching of this parable, not to replace our hope for the future coming of Christ with fear. We must remember that the Christ who will be our judge is merciful, full of compassion and love himself, and aware of our temptations and weaknesses and neediness. The King of Glory is the King of Love.
I believe that the best use of this parable’s reminder of future judgment is to help us do the right thing now. Love is about now, and it reflects both our faith and our hope. If we trust the teaching of Jesus, which is a summary of the teaching given in the Hebrew Bible: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself,” if we trust this teaching, we will show mercy to our neighbors. And if we hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, which is a kingdom of love and justice and life, we will live now in ways that promote love and justice and life. That is how we will live while we wait for God. And if we live this way, we will be ready for the judgment of Christ.
As a final word for today on the subject of love, I will take the liberty of passing by the season of Advent for a moment to quote the words of a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti, “Love Came Down at Christmas.”
“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead, love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token; love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.”
In the holy name of Jesus Christ the King of Love. Amen.