Nov. 22nd, 2020 — homily on Matthew 24:31-46 by Pastor Galen Zook
Not Enough Good Works?
There are many jokes about people arriving at the Pearly Gates and being met by St. Peter, who asks them a series of questions to determine whether or not they are fit to enter into heaven.
One such story is of a woman who had a nightmare that she arrived at the Pearly Gates, only to see the person in front of her being turned away.
As the person walked in her direction, she noticed that it was Mother Teresa. Shocked and surprised to see that Mother Teresa had been turned away at the Pearly Gates, she asked, “What happened?” Mother Teresa wore a forlorn expression on her face as she replied, “They told me that I should have done more good works!”
Sheep and Goats
Now, we know that none of us will get into heaven based upon the number of good works that we’ve done, or even whether or not our good works outweigh the bad things that we’ve done, even though at first glance, Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25:31-46 might seem to suggest that this is the case.
In this parable, when Jesus comes in glory and is seated on his throne, all of the nations of the world are gathered before him. Jesus separates the people, putting some on his left (the bad side), and some on his right (the good side), based upon whether or not they fed Jesus when he was hungry, or welcomed him when he was a stranger, took care of him when he was sick, or visited him when he was in prison.
Neither group seems to recall having fed, clothed, visited, or welcomed Jesus, but Jesus tells them, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
The ones on his right — the sheep — who fed, clothed, visited, and welcomed the least of these are told that they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them “from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34), whereas those on his left — the goats — who did not feed, clothe, visit, or welcome the least of these, are sent away, “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Christ Among Us
Now to some of us, this parable might feel rather like the nightmarish story I shared at the beginning of this sermon — especially when we compare ourselves with saintly people like Mother Teresa. We might wonder, how do we know if we’ve properly fed, clothed, or welcomed the members of Christ’s family? How do we know if we’ve properly taken care of the “least of these”? Would we be among the sheep or the goats in Jesus’s parable?
Well, like the previous parables that we’ve studied in Matthew 25, this parable too is most likely intended to provide a picture of how we are to live in the here and now, as await that future time when Christ returns in his glory and brings God’s reign in its fullness. And, rather than a point-by-point allegory, where every single detail of the story corresponds to something in our day and age, Jesus’s story was most likely intended to evoke a feeling or emotion, and to make a few simple key points.
One of the main points that we take away from this parable is that we serve Jesus through serving others — particularly those who are in need, who Jesus calls the “least of these,” and those who are members of Christ’s family.
You see, Jesus knew that when he ascended up into heaven, his followers would be tempted to fight amongst themselves. Like the mean sheep in Ezekiel 34:21 who pushed the weaker animals out of the way so that they could have all of the food for themselves, Jesus’s followers would be tempted to lust after power, to try to fill the leadership vacuum that would be left because Jesus was no longer living among them.
But Jesus wanted his disciples — and us today! — to know that he is indeed among us, that even though we may not see him here in the flesh, he is very much present in our brothers and sisters in Christ, in the homeless people we meet on the streets, in the prisoners, in those who are sick and dying, and in those who do not have enough food to eat.
And so, rather than push one another out of the way, rather than stepping on top of one another in order to get what we want, Jesus wants us to look out for and care for the weakest, the poorest, and the most vulnerable among us. Because when we look out for the least of these, we serve Christ himself.
Ultimately, we know that our entrance into heaven will not be because of our good works, but because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and through accepting the free gift of salvation that Jesus offers to all.
It’s up to us whether we choose to accept or reject that free gift. But if and when we accept that free gift of salvation, we enter into a relationship with Jesus, — a relationship that is further matured and developed as we serve one another, and as we serve the poor, the marginalized, the strangers, and the least of these.
If we truly love Jesus, then we will love those who are in need. If we truly want to follow Jesus, then we will follow Him to the hurting, the lost, the poor, and the needy.
If we truly want to know Jesus, we will get to know Him by serving the least of these, and by serving one another.
Our Rabbi Ascends to Heaven
The story goes that in a small Jewish town in Russia, there was a rabbi who disappeared each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted disciples boasted that during those hours their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God.
A stranger moved into the town, and he was skeptical about all this, so he decided to check things out. He hid and watched as the rabbi got up one Friday morning, said his prayers, and then dressed in peasant clothes. The stranger followed as the rabbi grabbed an axe, went off into the woods, and cut some firewood, which he then hauled to a shack on the outskirts of the village, where an old woman and her sick son lived. The rabbi left the firewood with them, enough to last them for a week, and then snuck back home.
Having observed the rabbi’s actions, the newcomer stayed on in the village and became his disciple. And from then on, whenever he heard one of the villagers say, “On Friday mornings, our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer would quietly add, “If not higher.”
Not a How-To-Manual
Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25 is not primarily a comprehensive how-to-manual about how to get into heaven when we die, but rather a description of how his followers will live in the meantime, and how we find and serve Jesus even when we can’t see him.
If we want to know Jesus, we will get to know him through serving the least of these.
Shane Claiborne is a Christian activist who was one of the founding members of The Simple Way, a Christian community in Philadelphia whose mission is: “To love God. To love people. To follow Jesus.” Shane has taken the gospel beyond the streets of Philadelphia to the slums of Calcutta and the war zones of Iraq. In his book The Irresistible Revolution, which had an incredible impact on my life when I read it as a young adult, Shane Claiborne describes how he saw God in the homeless people that he served. He said,
I saw one woman in a crowd as she struggled to get a meal from one of the late-night food vans. When we asked her if the meals were really worth the fight, she said: “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for another homeless lady—an elderly woman around the corner who can’t fight for a meal.”
I saw a street kid get 20 bucks panhandling outside of a store and then immediately run inside to share it with all of his friends. We saw a homeless man lay a pack of cigarettes in the offering plate because it was all he had. I met a blind street musician who was viciously abused by some young guys who would mock her, curse her, and one night even sprayed Lysol in her eyes as a practical joke. As we held her that night, one of us said, “There are a lot of bad folks in the world, aren’t there?”
And she said: “Oh, but there are a lot of good ones too. And the bad ones make you, the good ones, seem even sweeter.”
We met a little 7-year-old girl who was homeless, and we asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She paused pensively and then replied, “I want to own a grocery store.” We asked her why, and she said, “So I can give out food to all the hungry people.”
Mother Teresa used to say, “In the poor we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”
And Shane Claiborne closes by saying, “Now I knew what she meant.”
If we want to know Jesus, if we truly want to know him, if we want to develop a relationship with Christ, we will get to know Him as we serve others. It’s not about keeping track, or about keeping score. It’s not about making sure that our good deeds outweigh the bad things that we’ve done. It’s falling at the feet of Jesus, and saying, “Here am I Lord, send me.” Send me to the poor, the lost, the hurting, the broken. Send me to do your will. I’m here. Use me as you choose.
When we submit ourselves to the King, when we lay our lives on the altar, and allow him to use how however he chooses, when we follow him to the hurting, the lost, and the broken, that’s when we will truly meet Jesus.