Sunday, November 20, 2011
Hospitable Sheep: Matthew 25:31-46
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2011
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer
As a preacher of peace and justice I have always liked Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats. It gave me a chance to stick it to those people who didn’t care about the prisoner, the hungry, the poor, and the stranger. It’s a good parable to shove in the face of those evangelical types who think that right beliefs get you into heaven. You can show them how the final test for heaven, at least in this parable, has to do with whether or not you cared for the poor. In the end those unconcerned about “the least of these” will have hell to pay. That reading of the parable has given me some amount of self-satisfaction. But, is that the right way to read this parable?
Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is the last of three parable of three concerning the End Time in Matthew 25. In the parable of the ten bridesmaids we checked our preparedness for the coming of Christ. In the parable of the talents we examined how we use the cash of the kingdom while the master is away. In the parable of the sheep and goats we come before the final judgment of Christ, the king.
As the parable goes, when the Son of Humanity comes in glory, with all those glittery, flittery angels, he will take a seat on his golden throne to reign over his kingdom. All the nations of the earth, all tribes and tongues, races and religions will be rounded up like animals in a herd. Yeeehaw! The Shepherd king will separate the sheep from the goats, as the saying goes. That’s necessary because if they stayed together they might have kids (get it? kids?). Their offspring would eat metal cans and grow steel wool! Or they might grow little goatees!
The blessed sheep are placed on the king’s right hand, the righteous hand (Yeah, right handers!), and the damned goats are placed on his left hand, the evil hand (Boo, left handers!). Just kidding! Then the king says to those on his right side, “Come, sheepy dudes and wooly sistahs, join my partaaaay!” No. He says (in a deep religious tone with British accent), “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Why? Because you said the “Sinners’ Prayer”? Because you checked off all the right things on that official laundry list of orthodox beliefs? No. Because when I was hungry, you fed me (maybe some tacos from Taco Bell); when I was thirsty, you offered me a Dr. Pepper, I mean a drink; when I was a stranger, you…. Good morning, Sir. I haven’t seen you at our church before. Welcome. We would love for you to join us at our meal after the service today….you welcomed me. I was naked and you bought me some duds, some threads, translation: some clothes. When I had the cramps, you came over and gave me some Pepto. When I was up the river at the big house making personalized license plates, you dropped in for a spell. “Spell,” license plates,” get it? Translation: you visited me in prison.
Then all the sheepy dudes spoke in unison, “Bu-u-u-u-ut, Lord when did we offer you a taco, or a Dr. Pepper, or shake your hand, or buy you some threads, or bring you some Pepto, or say “Hi” at the hoosegow? (That was from my Gnarly Dude Revised Unstandardized Version.) And the king said, “This is the gospel truth. Just as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
Then, the Shepherd king will say to those goats on the lousy left (with words censored for young ears), “Darn you, get the heck out of here and hop on the devil’s grill. For you gave me no taco, or Dr. Pepper, didn’t shake my hand, bring me any duds, offer me a sip of Alka Selzer, or visit me in the slammer. And the oblivious goats came back, “Bu-u-u-t Lord, when did all of this go down? Please excuse the goatish expression, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of you.” Then, the Shepherd king will say, “Here’s the God’s honest truth. Just as you didn’t do a dad-blamed thing for my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do it for me. Off to the barbeque pit you go. But, my groovy sheep they’re gonna be…”grazin’ in the grass. It’s a gas. Baby, can you dig it?”
What is this parable all about? Well, some have interpreted this parable as being about social ethics. As one with a passion for peace and justice, I have leaned toward this interpretation. In this interpretation of the parable all the nations (panta ta ethne) represent the whole world, including the Gentiles, Israel, and the church. The least of these represent the poor and vulnerable of the world. We are all those who will be divided into sheep and goats. The world will be judged by whether or not we had compassion on the world’s poor. Did we feed the hungry, provide for the impoverished, care for the sick, visit the prisoner? That’s the litmus test we will have to pass, not what we believed. Acts of compassion are what make the grade.
If I were to build a sermon on the foundation of this interpretation, I could easily point my long finger of prophetic justice at passive pew warmers, goats in sheep’s clothing, and castigate them for their lack of engagement in the critical social issues of the day. Maybe I would entitle the sermon A Parable to Get Your Goat. At the end of the sermon I could scold some of you for not being involved in Bridging Cultures, Canby Center, Peace and Justice Support Network (which I proudly led), Bread for the World, or Amnesty International. And some sheepy peace and justice lovers among us would probably clap their tiny little hooves. Yea-a-a-h for us! Sorry flock, but that’s not going to be my sermon.
There are a number of problems with this approach to the parable. First, there’s the problem of that little phrase the least of these my brothers (and sisters). It would appear that this phrase is describing disciples of Jesus. Then, all the nations would represent the Gentiles, the world, possibly including Israel. All the nations represent all of those outside the Christian community. If that is the case, then the parable would be about the world’s response to disciples of Jesus as missionaries to the nations.
What reinforces this interpretation is its context within the whole Gospel of Matthew, and particularly the parallels between Matthew 10 and Matthew 25. Matthew 25should probably be interpreted in light of Matthew 10, as a story visualizing Jesus words about his disciples’ mission. You see, Matthew 10 is about mission and evangelism. I can just see some evangelical sheep ears perking up. Matthew 10 is about Jesus’ mission mandate for the twelve disciples to take the good news to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sends them out without money or payment for their work, no change of clothes (Pee-you!), no bag for food, as sheep in the midst of…not goats, but ravenous wolves. These poor disciples will need to depend upon the hospitality of the people they encounter in their missionary travels. Matthew states that the End will not come until the gospel is proclaimed to all nations. Then, Matthew concludes with the Great Commission sending Jesus’ followers, that’s us folks, to evangelize all the nations.
Now, here are a few of the parallels that would justify interpreting Matthew 25 in light of Matthew 10: 1) In both texts Jesus speaks of his identification with the disciples: Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me/ Whoever welcomes a prophet receives a prophet’s reward/In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me 2) In both passages water is to be shared with the disciples: whoever gives a cup of cold water/when did we see you thirsty? 3) And the one who shares will not lose their reward; 4) In both Matthew 25 and Matthew 10 the vulnerability of the disciples is emphasized. They are called these little ones/ the least of these my brethren. The twelve disciples have no money for food or drink. They are strangers among the people, facing the possibility of prison and persecution for their missionary work.
So, in the light of Matthew 25’s context within the whole of the Gospel, and most particularly Matthew 10, the parable’s judgment has to do with whether or not the world welcomes the messenger and the message the disciples bring, like the jailer who showed hospitality to Paul and Silas by washing their wounds and inviting them over for a meal (Acts 16:30-34) Does the world welcome the missionary disciples and the good news they bring? That is the basis of the last judgment.
If I created a sermon around this interpretation, it might make some passive, quiet, introverted sheep tuck their tails and run. I could entitle my sermon Evangelizing the World! I could point my long evangelical finger at the goats among us, shake it, and ask why you are not sharing your faith with their friends and neighbors? Hey, the disciples had to witness without money, food, or drink, and faced persecution and prison. More personally speaking, I had to go door to door and share with people the Four Spiritual Laws. I had to ask strangers, “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven. Are you a sheep or a goat, man!” So, why shouldn’t you have to evangelize the world? Wake up, people, the souls of the world hang in the balance. Their eternal destiny depends upon their hearing and responding to the missionary message from you. At the end of the sermon I could make you wiggle in your wool as I asked if you help provide for the needs of our missionaries or, better yet, ask if you are being an evangelist and missionary for Christ within our pagan world. The evangelical sheep in our flock would probably clap their tiny, little hooves and cheer, “Ha-a-a-llelujah, brother!” But, that sermon just might make others of you grow a goatee! Sorry, flock, I’m not going to preach that sermon.
There’s one little problem with this last interpretation. Jesus sent his disciples out saying, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, don’t go to the nations! Then, why would Jesus tell a parable about how all the nations will be judged by whether or not they welcomed his missionary disciples? Did he just universalize his earlier words to apply to the whole world? Mmmm. Maybe.
How about this. Matthew, the writer of the Gospel, universalized Jesus words to include the whole world. Is that possible? Maybe. He seems to have done that type of thing throughout his Gospel, as do the other Gospel writers, that is, they shaped Jesus words for his own particular audience. Consider this possibility; under the influence (of the Spirit of the Risen Christ), Matthew added his own twist to the earthly Jesus’ words about the disciples’ mission to Israel by making it more universal in his shaping of Jesus’ parable.
Well, whether or not Matthew added his own twist to Jesus’ parable, I am going to add my own twist. More than that, I’m going to flip this parable around backwards. If this parable is about hospitality practiced or not practiced by the world toward Jesus’ missionary disciples, then I want to flip it around and have us consider how we welcome or don’t welcome the stranger among us. However we interpret this parable, welcoming and caring for the stranger in your midst is central to its message. I’ll leave any question related to judgment and upon what basis to God, but I do want us to consider the utter significance of hospitality.
Welcoming the stranger was a significant part of the culture and faith of God’s people. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three heavenly visitors who showed up at their tent? These angelic visitors were openly welcomed in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, the sharing of a communion meal, as it were. The book of Hebrews talks about this story as welcoming angels unaware. Lord, when did we see you hungry?
In contrast to Abraham’s hospitality to angels, when heavenly visitors came to Sodom the people did not show hospitality. Like Abraham, Lot and his family showed hospitality to the angels with the bread and cup of communion. But, like some prisoners or soldiers at war the men of Sodom wanted to gang rape the strangers in a form of domination. This is not a story about homosexuality, any more than Lot’s counter offer of his daughters to abuse is about heterosexuality! This story is about hospitality shown and not shown to strangers. Lord, when did see you as a stranger and not welcome you?
The widow of Zarephath welcomed the stranger in the prophet Elijah. She offered him her last grains and a few drops of oil to make bread, which she planned to share with her son and then die. The widow and her son received the reward of an endless supply of bread and oil from the prophet. How holy and compelling was her desire to show hospitality! Whoever receives a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.
Two disciples walking on the dusty road to Emmaus meet a stranger. They talk to him about Jesus and all that happened to him over the past days. The sun starts to go down and paints the hills purple. As the two near their village the stranger keeps on walking ahead. The two disciples tell the stranger it’s getting too late for him to go home alone, so they invite him to an evening meal at their home. As they break the bread their eyes are opened and they recognize it is the Lord. Lord, when did we see you a stranger and welcome you?
A visitor comes to Christ, the King Church for the first time. She doesn’t have a last name that anyone would recognize or a demeanor that would invite anyone close. Her Goodwill dress and weathered face tell a story. It’s the season of Advent, when Christians welcome Christ among us. The church has a lot of drop-in visitors during the season. She’s just another anonymous face. Like many visitors, she’s a stranger.
The lonely-looking woman sits next to a young, hip-looking couple on her left side that’s involved in the local food pantry and the church’s peace committee. They quickly glance over at her with questioning eyes. She fumbles with the bulletin, looks for which hymnal to sing from, and scratches her head while trying to figure out where in the world to find the Bible passage. The evangelical man in a gray suit on her right slips her a Bible tract and goes on singing. Oddly enough, the people on both sides of this stranger, the peace couple and the evangelical, have never themselves broken bread together. They might as well be strangers.
Everyone around her is singing with such longing in their voices: O come, O come Immanuel. After the service she walks out the front door without a greeting, a welcome, or a handshake. Even though she looks homeless and pregnant, no one questions if she has a place to stay or if she’s had anything to eat. She cradles the bulge of her stomach as she walks out under the gray afternoon sky and the red and gold leaves. Her name is….Mary. Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you?
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.