Unto the Least of These – May 17, 2020
May 17, 2020
We’re still thinking of the events of Holy Week, as we go through this time of quarantine. We’re thinking of the things that happened between Palm Sunday, and Good Friday. We’re thinking about the time between when people were shouting Jesus’ praises, and when he was executed. As I said, a lot happened that week, which we usually don’t get to talk about. So, I hope this has been helpful for you this year.
Last week, we read from Matthew 24, and we heard Jesus making predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem. We called that part of Matthew’s Gospel the “Little Apocalypse.” If you haven’t listened to that sermon yet, it might be helpful to do so in light of what I’m going to be saying today. You can go back and view it on our website, epch.us. Just click the big blue button on the Home Page that says, “See On-Line Worship Videos.”
Again, in that chapter, Jesus was giving his disciples some pretty ominous words about the future. And we know that part of what he said actually happened, when the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem some forty years later. And part of what he said had implications for his coming kingdom, sometime in the future. I have to think that all of that had to be somewhat disturbing to those men as they were hearing him talk. Think about it. They just wanted a new king in Israel! And Jesus was giving them a lot more than they had “bargained for!”
But he wasn’t finished yet. Jesus takes this “answer” further. And remember, this is all being told to his disciples privately. They came to him on the Mount of Olives, and they asked him, what will happen and what will be the sign of his coming? And all of chapter 24, and now chapter 25 is his answer. There’s no break here. There’s no statement by Matthew, like, “The next day, Jesus was in the Temple teaching…” No, this goes right on. This is all one long answer.
So then, after all the dark and mysterious descriptions about the future – distant and not so distant, he begins chapter 25. And here he gives his disciples two parables. Now I want you to notice that these are not like the “Kingdom Parables” of Luke 14 and 15. There we find parables like “The Good Samaritan,” and “The Prodigal Son.” Those are parables about compassion and forgiveness and how to live a “godly life.” How to be part of the Kingdom. No, these two parables are about “being watchful.” “Being ready” for the coming kingdom. And that’s what Jesus had just warned them all to be. He said “Be watchful.”
In the first parable he says to them, “The kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom.” He told them that some of them were wise and prepared, and had brought extra oil for their lamps, while others had not. And he tells them about the remorse they had for not “being ready when the bridegroom had come.” It’s kind of an odd story to us, but the disciples understood it. Again, it was a lesson about being prepared, being watchful and ready.
Then Jesus tells them a parable that we have come to know as “The Parable of the Talents.” You can go back and read these if you need to. In that parable, the master goes away, and he trusts his servants with portions of his property. To one he gave five “talents,” to another two talents, and to another just one. I think that’s a more familiar parable to us. We often use that parable at stewardship time, and we see it as an inspiration to be good stewards for God’s kingdom. And that’s a good message. But in the context here, Jesus is making it a parable about being watchful for the coming of God’s kingdom. He’s saying that the master will return, and in the meantime, we need to be focused on, and working for his kingdom. And if not, he is saying here, there are ominous consequences.
I hope you see this progression. It’s all about being prepared for his coming kingdom. It’s not about predicting when it will happen, it’s about being ready. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. And that’s the lead-in to our story for today. Be watchful, be prepared for his coming, and while you are waiting, be about the master’s business. “Because when he comes…” Jesus says. And that’s all the intro to this passage we read today.
This is the story of the sheep and the goats. It’s called “The Judgement of the Nations.” That’s the paragraph heading in my Bible. But is it talking about “The Nations?” Or is it “the People of the nations?” I mean, who knows, maybe “nations” will be “judged” on this basis. And I hope to live in a nation that cares for “the least of these.” But I think this is a “parable” about all of us!
Jesus has brought the disciples through this thinking. There will these dark days, we don’t know when. But we should be watchful. And we should be about God’s business. And what is God’s business? What is the criteria by which we are judged to have been about God’s business? Here it is. It’s about caring for, it’s about ministering “unto the least of these.”
If you think about it, Jesus has already shown that in his ministry. He has “hung out” with the outcast of society, the pariahs, those nobody loved, those who the people had been taught not to love. (And they were taught who not to love!) He had even “hung out with” and even “dined with” sinners and tax collectors! Yeah, the tax collectors always had their own category of sinfulness! But Jesus reached out, even to them. And he had been criticized for all of this. But that’s what he was all about. The last shall be first, the least shall be greatest. “Whoever would be great among you must be slave of all.” That was how he always described his kingdom!
And he had done all that! He had lived all that. Now he is telling them that’s how the nations shall be judged. “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we do all these things?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
Now, does anybody feel a sense of conviction there? (Maybe even a touch of guilt?) How are you doing with this? Think about it. Who are “the least of these” in our world? The outcast? The brokenhearted? The marginalized? Take a moment and think about who they might be – specifically. And then think, do we have a heart for them? Or are our hearts “walled off?” Are they closed to the idea that these are people Jesus would love if he were here in person again? Do we think that, possibly, he would call us to love them, too? I think that’s a very important “calling” that Jesus gives to each of us!
There’s been a lot of talk lately about what this world is going to look like after covid-19. What do you think? Will it be a better world? Will people really care more for others? Are we really “all in this together,” as all the signs and wonderful sounding TV commercials keep telling us?
How will that look for us, as God’s people? Will we be people who care for others, who reach out to those nobody else reaches out to? Will we be people who love as Jesus loved? We have a lot of time to think about all that in these strange days. And I think that’s a good thing to think about! Do we minister “unto the lease of these?”
Well, that’s not the end. And I hesitate to say this last part, because I hate to end a sermon on a “downer.” But Jesus did. You see, this is not the story of “The Goats and the Sheep.” It’s the story of “The Sheep and the Goats.” That means the story doesn’t end on a positive note. It doesn’t end with praise for those who did these things “unto the least of these.” It ends with the judgement on those people who did not. That should give us pause to think.
I don’t think we should let the amazing Grace of God make us forget the reasons we need the amazing Grace of God. Let me say that again. I don’t think we should let the amazing Grace of God make us forget the reasons we need the amazing Grace of God. Because the reality is, we do fail. We do fall short of what God calls us to do. We are the goats sometimes! But we should remember that, not to beat ourselves up, don’t get me wrong! And, we should remember that, not as an excuse “not to bother at all!” And too many people do that! We need to remember that, to remember our need for the amazing Grace of God, and let that motivate us, and encourage us, to strive harder to be the people that the amazing Grace of God frees us to be!
So, as we encounter, or read about, or see stories on the news about, those who might be thought of as “the least of these,” let us have the courage to think that doing “unto the least of these,” is the same as “doing unto Jesus. See if that thought changes anything for us in the coming weeks!
Eternal God, your love is deep and powerful, and it calls us to do things and make choices that are beyond ourselves. Help us to have the courage and strength to reach out, and to love as you have shown us in Jesus. May we see you in “the least of these,” and may they see your love in us. For we pray in your name, Amen.