The Difference

Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

It is not very often that the United Methodist Church makes the national news, and usually when we make the news it is always for the wrong reasons.   But earlier this month, one of the churches in our connection made the news for being the church in the best way possible.   Perhaps you saw it cross you Facebook news feed.  The headline that was shared thousands of times was “Malibu Mayor ask Church to stop feeding the homeless.”   The Malibu Methodist Church, a congregation that is almost the exact same size as ours, had been feeding the homeless every Wednesday for months and months.  They were getting between 70-90 people a week.   I really dug this week to find out all I could about what was going on here.   The mayor and town council of Malibu did not officially demand the church stop, but they clearly informally made that request and strongly insinuated that they could act more officially.   The reason why the town leaders wanted the church to stop is because the Malibu United Methodist Church is in a neighborhood.  I looked on google maps, it is close to the beach and the neighborhood consist of some fairly good size houses.   I listened to some of the follow up local news reports, the issue is not that the people are against feeding the homeless the issue is they do not want them fed (and thus walking the streets) of their neighborhood.   Removed far from Malibu, it is easy for us to scoff at the lack of compassion that the civic leaders are showing.  It is hard for us to imagine how anyone can be against giving food to the hungry.   But what about giving water to the thirsty?   In the Southwest United States there is a group of Christians and humanitarians who maintain water stations in the desert.   These water stations provide a life line to migrant workers illegally crossing the border into the United States.  The number one cause of death of illegal migrant workers is dehydration, and these Christians have decided that preventing people from dying of thirst is more important than taking an ideological stance on illegal immigration.    The church in Malibu and the water stations in the desert, are both examples of Christians trying to serve the least of these.   However, chances are that for some of you one of these examples kind of bristled you a little bit.   Serving others the way this morning’s scripture advocates is always going to be a little messy, court a little controversy, and inevitably anger someone.   Despite that the teaching of Jesus is clear, to be faithful disciples we are going to have to wade into the mess and get a little dirty.  Jesus does not mince words in this scripture to be his true disciples we have to love the least of these.  

            In the gospel of Matthew this is the very last parable that Jesus tells.   From a literary standpoint the gospel has building to this parable.   Much like the finale of a firework show has the biggest lights and bangs, Jesus saved the most pointed and convicting story he tells in the gospels for the very end.   In this final parable, Jesus drops all pretense and fully claims his messianic role.  There is no mistake to us or to his original audience, that when Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in all of his glory he is talking about himself.   At first glance this scripture seems fairly straight forward.   It can be easy for us to immediately think that sheep are those who follow Jesus and the goats are those who do not.   After all this fits, because Jesus refers him to self as the good shepherd and shepherd imagery is used in a positive light all throughout the bible.   However, a closer examination of this scripture reveals it is much more challenging than that.

            Verse 32 states “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”   It was a common practice in the fields of ancient Judea to have the sheep and the goats together when they were grazing.   When the herds were out on the range, they were one big flock of sheep and goats mixed together.  It was only when they needed to corral them together that the sheep and the goats would be separated into their own pens.   This means that sheep and the goats in this scripture are part of the same flock.    This point is driven home in verse 44.  The ones who have been separated as the goats are a bit surprised that they are told to depart, and they also refer to Jesus as Lord.  This scripture is not about those who claim to follow Jesus and those who do not.   The subjects of this scripture, the sheep and the goats, all claimed to follow Jesus.   The story of the sheep and the goats are troubling because in the story both groups follow Jesus, but Jesus claimed he only knew one.  The sheep cared for the least of these and the goats did not.  That is the difference.

            Who are the least of these that we are to help?   A lot of arguments have been made for various interpretations.  One interpretation that refuses to go away (and one with a lot of validity), is the least of these are those who have the least.   Jesus calls the least of these his brothers and sisters, because Jesus and God by extension identifies with the poor.  We see this throughout the bible.  We see it loud in clear in the prophets and we see it clearly evident in the ministry of Jesus.   God is on the side of the oppressed, the overlooked, the disadvantaged, and the needy.  The least of these are those who are so hungry they are starving, they are so thirsty they are dying, they are so poor the barely own the cloths on their backs, and they are the ones imprisoned and without hope.   In this scripture Jesus claims these people as his people. 

 The front of the bulletin has a sculpture that takes this understanding and presents it as art.  The sculpture is called Homeless Jesus and is the work of believer Timothy Schmalz.   Schmalz made the statue to remind fellow Christians that serving the least of these among us is the same as serving Jesus.   Two years ago, while on a cross country tour, this statue spent several weeks displayed in Indianapolis.   While it was in our state a woman driving by at night saw the statue, got a glimpse of the wounds, and mistook it for a person.  She called 911 asking that help be sent.   The statute did its job here and inspired a woman into action to care for the least of these.  

The difference between the sheep and the goats is not they heard of Christ.  The difference is how they took the way Christ has impacted their lives and lived out.   The sheep love Jesus by loving others.  They love the least of these, the people that Jesus identifies with.  In his famed and influential commentary, Matthew Henry, writes about these verses and this is what he has in his commentary: “Christ espouses his people’s cause, and interests himself in their interests and reckons himself received, and loved, and owned in him.  If Christ himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve him?  In prison, how frequently would we visit him?”

The difference between the sheep and the goats in this scripture, is action.  It is action done in love.   The sheep served the least of these, because they recognized that by serving them they were serving Christ.   When it comes to serving the least of these there are a couple of things to note from this scripture.   First, did not just specify the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned.  He specified the least of these.   He specified the people who are the most in need, the most oppressed, the most unloved, and the most forgotten.   Loving these people can be messy, because some of them have lived messy lives.   Some of them have are buried under the weight of the consequences of one to many bad decisions, and some of them have calloused hearts because too many people have hurt them and too few people have loved them.   The least of these are the least of these, and these are the people the good shepherd tells us to love.  

The other thing to notice from this scripture when it comes to serving the least of these is that Jesus does not qualify it.   He does not say to only help those who help themselves.  He does not say to only feed the hungry if you can do it by keeping them out of a good neighborhood.  He does not say give the thirsty something to drink as long as they are not an illegal.  He does not say to only clothe the naked who are not refugees.   No what Jesus said was “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Our job is not to judge who is worthy.  Our job is not to qualify who is deserving and who is not.  Our job is to serve the least of these and radically display the very love of Christ that has saved us.  

Considering that does bring up a potentially sticky theological point.   One of the core beliefs of the Christian faith is that salvation is by faith alone.   We are saved by the might acts of Jesus Christ, and those acts were a gift offered to us without price.   However, in this morning’s scripture it seems that Jesus is saying that our actions is what earns us our inheritance in God’s kingdom.  After all the difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did for the least of these, and only the sheep were welcomed in.   We are saved by faith in Christ alone, and not by works.   Serving the least of these does not earn us salvation.   Rather serving the least of theses should be the outward symptom of a changed heart.  When we have experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it must transform us.   It drives us to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, even (and especially!) the least of those neighbors.   If someone claims to know Christ, but they cannot have compassion and love for others then that is clear evidence that they do not know Christ.  South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey sheds light on how this is connected in his book With God in the Crucible.    Storey writes, “Who is the focus of the church? . . .The person we exist to serve?  For Jesus there was no question.  In the kingdom the humble are lifted high and the most vulnerable have pride and place.  This is why you cannot ask Jesus into your heart alone.  He will ask, Can I bring my friends?   You will look at his friends and they will consist of poor and marginalized and oppressed and you will hesitate.  But Jesus is clear:  Only if I can bring my friends.” 

This final parable of Jesus is pointed and convicting because it gives us zero wiggle room.   Following Jesus is not like joining a club where we pay our dues and we get the benefits when they are convenient to us.  Following Jesus means when we offer our heart to Christ, we allow Christ to change our heart so that we can make room for his friends.  All his friends-the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hopeless, and the unloved.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, when the son of man comes in all his glory and sits on his glorious throne, may we be numbered among the sheep.   There is a lot of need, and a lot of least of these in this world,  we do not have to look very fart to find them.   May we love God by loving others.   May we serve those who most need someone to give them a hand up and show them that love is more than a word.   May you find the way that you can feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, provide for the poor, or advocate for the oppressed.   May you find your way to do that, and then may you do it. May you be the difference, so that when that day of the Lord finally comes you may here the king reply, “truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.”