November 27, 2023

Three Big Surprises: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler on his last Sunday as Vicar of St Mary's

Matthew 25:31-46

This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist on Canon Simon Butler’s last Sunday as Vicar of St Mary’s. The service also contained the baptism of a child, Isabella.

I was driving somewhere one night, turned off the motorway, and came to the traffic lights at the bottom. As I was waiting there at the red light, I spotted a woman running up the street, towards my car. She knocked at the window  and said to me, “I need some money. Can you give me some money?” As it happened, I had some money in my pocket. But I don’t know this woman, I don’t know what her need is. Am is supposed to give money to everyone who asks me for it? So I said, “I’m sorry, no.” And I saw her face fall. I saw her disappointment, and I saw what also looked like disgust, and she turned away and walked off slowly. The light turned green and I drove on.

But I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. I’ve never forgotten it. I will never forget the look of desperation and then disappointment, and the look of disgust. And I now regret that I did not say yes.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is the last parable in the Gospel of Matthew. Not only that, it is really the last public teaching of Jesus. It ends the last block of teaching before the Passion Story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection take centre stage. So you can see this parable as a summing up of the whole teaching ministry of Jesus. It’s also, perhaps, the most shocking parable of all.

This parable has three big surprises in it. Each one of them has the potential for turning our life and faith upside down.

Here’s the first surprise. According to this parable, on the Day of Judgment, when we all stand before the Lord Jesus on his throne, when everyone is gathered together and our eternal destiny is going to be determined, we are going to be saved – or not saved – depending on whether we helped those in the most desperate need. This parable doesn’t say anything about confessing our sins. It doesn’t say anything about repenting. It doesn’t say anything about asking for forgiveness. It doesn’t say ‘believe in Jesus’. It doesn’t say, as our baptism service does, make a profession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord. It says, we are saved based on whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, tended the sick, welcomed the stranger, visited the prisoner.

Now that’s not what many of us have been taught, it’s not what I have been preaching to you in the past twelve years in church. Many of us have been taught that we are saved by believing in Jesus. The most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,  so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. What could be more clear? We are saved by believing in Jesus. And yet this parable says nothing about believing in Jesus. It says we are saved by taking care of those who are in the most desperate need.

And this isn’t the only parable that says that. This isn’t the only place where Jesus says we are saved by our acts of compassion. For instance in Luke’s Gospel, a lawyer comes up to Jesus and says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him, “Well, what does the law say? How do you interpret it?” And the lawyer says, “Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself.” And Jesus says, “That’s right. Do this and you will live.” We’re saved by love. The lawyer, not quite satisfied yet (he is a lawyer after all), says, “well but what about love? Can you define this for me?” And then Jesus tells another parable about a Samaritan. Now a Samaritan is a member of another religion. From a Jewish perspective, a Samaritan is a person who believes the wrong things. And yet, it is the Samaritan who takes care of, who courageously and generously meets the needs of a wounded stranger. And Jesus says it is this man who has acted out love. We’re saved by love. And that same point seems to be being made again by this parable of the sheep and the goats. We’re saved by acts of love towards those in the most desperate need.

So that’s surprise number one.  Surprise number two is this: those people we find it so difficult to love, so inconvenient to love – you know, the poor, the desperate, the sick, the prisoner, the strangers – those people are Jesus. When we take care of them we are taking care of Jesus. When we love them, we are loving Jesus. When we serve them we are serving Jesus. This parable is bringing together faith and love. The Gospel of John says, we’re saved by believing in Jesus. But what does believing in Jesus mean? This parable is telling us what believing in Jesus means. It means that we are loyal to Jesus and to be loyal to Jesus means to do what Jesus would do. And to do what Jesus would do means that we would take care of the needs of those who are in the most desperate of circumstances. When you look at the Gospel of Matthew, when you look at Jesus’ teachings there, you’ll find that Jesus is a little bit wary sometimes of our professions of faith. In the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 7, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter God’s reign.” It’s not enough to use my name. You’ll show whether you’re on the right side or not by your fruit. A good tree produces good fruit.

Faith and love: there’s no gap between them. They’re one. When we take care of others that are in desperate need, that is our loyalty to Jesus.

So that’s big surprise number two. Then comes big surprise number three – at it literally is a surprise. The sheep and the goats – when they’re told that they did or did not serve Jesus, help Jesus, feed Jesus, give him water, tend to his wounds, visit him in prison, welcome him as a stranger – they’re all surprised. They all say “when did we do this?” or “when did we not do this?” The point is those who are taking care of those who are in the most desperate need, they’re doing this not in order to be saved. They’re doing this because that’s who they are. They’re loving because they want to love. The point here is that God judges us precisely at those moments when we’re not thinking about rewards or punishments. God is judging us based on who we really are and what’s really motivating us. And only God knows that, so only God can judge. We can’t judge. We don’t decide who’s in and who’s out, because we don’t know. It’s all going to be a surprise anyway. The only one who has the capacity to judge us rightly is Jesus Christ on his throne as the King.  We can’t do that.

A pastor gets into a lift with a businessman and nun. The man asked, “are you going up or are you going down?” And he said, “I’m going up.” And quick as a flash the nun said, “Only God decides that.” She’s right. Only God decides if we’re going up or going down. And it’s going to be a surprise, because only God knows us. Even we don’t know us.

And that means we need to let go of all of our boasting and all of our arrogance. We need to let go of all our of spiritual pretensions and thinking we’re better than others or thinking we’re more spiritual than others. We’ve got to let go of that and simply live in humility and love.

Over the past twelve years, I’ve seen much of this humility and love in action. Most of it isn’t seen in churches like ours. People don’t make a fuss about it, they are very reluctant to be seen to be doing good, even though they get on with it. Very often those people are the ones we see as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’, who others might be wary of. So one public example will stand for many. When, this week, we hosted the funeral of young Rico Andrews here, shot outside Gaitskell Court last month, we were expecting a lot of people. But when among the mourners about twenty or thirty of them arrived on motorbikes, quad bikes, and scooters, tearing up the streets, doing wheelies, driving on the payments and generally acting in ways that could easily be frightening, and when all this was done in cloud of cannabis smoke that filled the churchyard, my team of welcomers here just got on with the job of serving those who were grieving. There was no judgment, not cross words, perhaps the occasional request to look out for others, which was met with compliance and respect. People allowed this place and this churchyard to be available. They served and didn’t judge. They allowed people to express their grief and anger. They acted in humility and love. They set aside their own preferences and allowed people to be themselves.

You see when we help those who are desperate need, we’re not saving them. They’re saving us. They’re saving us from our indifference. They’re saving us from our self-sufficiency. They’re saving us from our isolation. They’re saving us from our comfort. They’re saving us from our greed. They’re saving us from our fear.

We may put a large note in the collection every week. We may give generous donations online to our favourite charities. We may vote for a party that promises to improve our welfare system. We may support this church in expanding its work to those in need. But it may be that what most reveals who we really are is when there’s a knock at the door at night and it’s that young man who was tearing up the roads on his quad bike last Wednesday needing our help. Or it’s a stranger who approaches our car window with desperation in her face needing a little bit of money and we either say yes or we say no.

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