Matthew 25: 31-46
I go to my doctor every 6 months for a cholesterol checkup. I'm grateful to have high cholesterol because otherwise my current health insurance wouldn't pay for check ups. (unlike those found under the affordable healthcare act which include well-checks).
I like to know how I'm doing - especially when the blood work shows good health. But often I receive warning signs about my possible future.
A year or 2 ago the standards for a human body vitamin D levels were changed. How many of you were told you needed to start taking vitamin D? Me too, only I ended up with too much and was taken off it a year later.
The Harvard School of health echoes my initial question by stating that Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood, and deficiencies can be found in all ethnicities and age groups.“Why are these widespread vitamin D deficiencies of such great concern? Because research conducted over the past decade suggests that vitamin D plays a much broader disease-fighting role than once thought.”
“Being “D-ficient” may increase the risk of a host of chronic diseases,” from heart disease, some cancers, to even the seasonal flu.” (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/)
It is important to take preventive measures and to know where one stands. We need a good health check-up.
So, What does a good health check up have too do with Mt. 25?(2)
First, as always we look at context:
Two parables come before this story about the Son of Man as a KING coming in judgment.
One is about 10 bridesmaids; some of whom weren’t prepared when the bridegroom arrived and the
other is about talents, or money given to invest while the Master was away and only the one who didn’t invest what they were given was punished.
Both are warnings about preparedness and action while someone waits for the return of the master or leader.
Like the health scare stories that ALWAYS seem to be in the news. One commentator points out that in the previous chapter the warnings for those who reject Jesus are more dire than the positive affirmations for Jesus’ followers.(3)
It seems that the all these passages are leading up to today’s story- which is found only in Matthew’s gospel- and is about the final result of choices in life.
Matthew offers us a moment as intimate as those shared by Jesus disciples.--- The spiritual checkup.
Together they tell- even warn us to be prepared.The stories are a “Diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness”(4)
Let’s consider How successful Jesus was with his disciples…
ASK: What were the disciples expecting
What was Jesus trying to warn them of
What trials /were Matthew's community facing (at the end of the 1st century)
What did the disciples end up doing when crisis hit?
So, What did Jesus think of them?
Are we ready to answer what Jesus thinks of us, yet?
I’m not sure the disciples really had time for a good well-ness check. As Jesus traveled to Jerusalem, their life was full of more surprises than his teaching words could prepare them for. And even tho we won’t read the passion narrative as a community until Lent, we know the plot to come is full of twists and turns.
Today’s story is usually taken alone. But it fits better as part of the whole gospel. Especially now that we are finishing with Matthew and about to move onto Mark in Advent.
When we spend time with these words, we can be troubled by the separation of sheep and goats. (ASK? what troubles you - however you hear the metaphors?)
Scholars have debated whether this a warning to all people or to those who fail to welcome Christian missionaries. I am not sure it matters because the traditional understanding is to take this story as a warning - and we DO take it personally. (don’t we?)
But we should look back to verse 37.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’
The righteous are shocked when Jesus commends them using the analogy of the King with Sheep. They don’t get it. even as they are welcomed to “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” they ask, what? how? when did we?
Wouldn’t you think if you were the ones (and often you are) who work at AFAC 5 times a year, bring food for the soup kitchen, donate to disaster relief, buy gift cards for the women at Doorways Safe House, visit prisoners, donate to Heifer project, and generally support all the ministries of the congregation, that you would know it? Don’t you?
Yet, these ‘sheep’ are surprised.
ASK: How is it?
Each group is surprised-not just those who didn't serve others but the ones who did feed, welcome, clothe, and care. They were obviously not doing it for a reward.
Unlike me at the gym- I’m there because I know it's good for me.
Pastor Lindsay Armstrong wrote that “the King is looking for a naturally overflowing love, not calculated efforts designed to project a certain image.”(5)
I feel the discord between a natural overflowing of compassion and training myself to follow all of Jesus’ commands. Surely even if I don’t LOVE going to the gym, if I go often enough, my preparedness will begin to be a way of life, right? Is that really not good enough?
Yet there are other days when the sun is perfect, the breeze just right and I can’t imagine anything BETTER than a long walk which involves a lot of exercise.
This year’s CROP walk was like that. The day so perfect that the good cause and the 5k walk of good exercise had little to do with the overflowing feeling that it was just GOOD to be alive on this earth.
Maybe there is a time when our gratitude really does spill over into compassion as a ‘primary and natural expression of our love of God and our experience of God’s love for us.”(6)
In those cases, we too might be as surprised as these SHEEP to learn that “salvation is something we discover, often when we least expect it.”(7)
Can it be that we recognize at those times when we ARE doing a spiritual check-up that
- we struggle to live ‘right’ within the dualism the NT expresses/ a world full of both good and evil
- that the Jesus Way is a way of ethics, not good feeling and we always have something new to learn about putting the ‘least of these’ first.
- AND that of all the things Jesus said and did and LIVED, - LOVE was HIS primary command and LOVE his primary example.(8)
Yet we are only aware of all this in those moments where we EXAMINE our Spiritual Journey and look at the path of our lives. (like the ancient nighttime spiritual practice called Examin)
And we do occasionally (& somewhat surprisingly) have moments where compassion IS our first response, without the nagging thought of ‘I SHOULD do this’.
Rather than agonize over our resemblance to sheep or goats, we might realize that “each of us is both
unbeliever and believer,
both commanded to care and in need of care,
both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness,
both under judgment for our failures to pursue justice and we are saved by grace.
we are - all of us - both sheep and goats.”
as Prof. Mark Douglas said.(9)
And we stand both in need and able to care.
We are in need of blessing, already blessed and we are able to be blessings to others.*
I trust as you celebrate with feast or with compassionate outreach this week, you will hold these images of sheep and goats before you, tenderly loving both categories with which we share kin-ship.
2. see wellness check concept Lindsay P. Armstrong Feasting On The Word homiletical (Louis:WJK,2011)333
3. Armstrong 335
4. Armstrong 335
5. Armstrong 337
6. slightly adapted Armstrong 337
7. Armstrong 337
8 Eugene Boring NIB VIII Matthew (Louis:WJK,1995)655
9 Mark Douglas Feasting on the Word - Theological (Louis:WJK,2011)336
*with a nod to The Rev. Dr. Jeff Carter