Serving the least (Feb. 15, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Matthew 25:31-46

“Is this going to be on the final exam?” students often ask. The questioner may be a perfectionist who wants to get every answer right. On the other hand, the person asking this question may be a marginal student trying to figure out what will be the minimum amount of material that must be studied in order to get a passing grade.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us what will be on the final exam. The final exam in this passage is the return of the Son of Man, with Jesus as the eschatological judge and when the world as we know it will come to an end. The early church called it the parousia, the return of the resurrected Jesus. Many Christians today refer to it as judgment day. Does knowing what will be on this truly final exam make it any easier to get a passing grade?

Matthew 25:31-36: Heaven is for helpers   Matthew’s description of the end of history is an apocalyptic drama that paints a scene that could be taken right out of contemporary science fiction. The glorious Son of Man, here to be understood as the final judge of the world (cf. Daniel 7:13-14), will be seated on his heavenly throne accompanied by all the angels. The nations (i.e., all humanity) will be gathered before that heavenly throne, Jesus says.

The judge separates the people into two groups: the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Those on the right hear the reassuring words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The test that the sheep passed is described very specifically. They helped Jesus when they fed hungry people or gave the thirsty a drink. They helped Jesus when they showed hospitality to strangers, provided clothes for the naked, cared for the sick and visited those in prison.

The sheep are amazed and incredulous. They were not aware that Jesus was the one they were helping. The judge explains, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus is present in the needy, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner.

Matthew 25:41-46: Cut off from God   Jesus uses apocalyptic language in this passage to describe what it means to be cut off from God. Jesus tells us what the fateful sentence pronounced on the goats at the judge’s left will be: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Those who are called goats have failed the final exam by not helping the very same kind of persons the sheep people had helped.

And just like those called sheep, the goats had no idea they were ignoring Jesus when they neglected the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the sick and the prisoners.

Artists, writers and not a few preachers have focused on the graphic details of eternal punishment. But all speculations about the levels of hell or the temperature of the fires of hell or who will suffer eternal damnation in hell miss Jesus’ point. Jesus’ main point here is about human ethical responsibility in this world, not the fate of individuals in the world to come.

The Bible doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know about heaven or hell. It does tell us, especially in the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels, that what we human beings do in our own lifetime has eternal consequences. If we expect to inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world — and who does not expect that? — our lives ought to show that we treated each needy person as if she or he were Jesus himself.

As Reformed Christians, we know that we cannot earn our way into heaven. Only God’s grace prepares us for eternity. But God’s grace also transforms us into faithful servants who strive to honor God by treating every member of God’s human family with love and respect.

As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow not only in our own country but around the world, Christians need to keep asking this question: “Where is Jesus?”

For discussion: What is your typical response when you see a person holding a sign saying, “Homeless, need help”? Whose responsibility is it to help the needy? Every individual’s? The church’s? The government’s? Charitable organizations? All of the above?