Monday, November 27, 2023

The Sole Criteria


Matthew 25:31-46

Proper 29 / Year A

For the third Sunday in a row our gospel reading is a parable taken from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  Like the parables of the Ten Maidens and the Talents, today’s focuses on a final judgment.  Jesus tells these stories in Jerusalem just days before he will be arrested, tried, and crucified.  Either the disciples are getting smarter or Jesus is getting better at his story-telling, because, unlike so many of his early parables, this one requires no explanation.  It is as straightforward as it can be. 

Jesus is going to judge people on one basis and one basis alone.  He will not count how many times you came to church.  He will not quiz you for creedal orthodoxy.  He will not check to see if you are born again.  All Jesus will do is recall the times you gave him something to eat, to drink, or to wear.  He will recall when you welcomed him into your home, comforted him in sickness, or visited him in prison.  You don’t even have to know it is Jesus you did these things for.  Anytime you do it for anyone you do it for him. 

Notice who is being judged.  It is not the church or Jesus’ followers.  Jesus says “all the nations” will be gathered before the Son of Man and separated into two groups… those who did something for him and those who did not.  “All the nations.”  Any time we read a verse like John 14:6, “No one can come to the Father except through me”, the conversation always gets around to other religions and people of different faiths.  Will they be saved and will they be punished for not believing in Jesus?  Well, according to this parable the sole criteria used to judge every person regardless of faith or race or nationality is this: what did you do to help other people, especially the neediest and most vulnerable people in your society?  Were you generous, caring, and selfless or were you critical, hardened, and indifferent?

One of the things I wonder about this parable is Jesus’ grading scale.  If one time you give one cup of water to a thirsty person is this enough to get you into the sheep pen?  Or, conversely, if one time you fail to give a cup of water, will this get you rounded up with the goats?  Or, what if you do the right thing, but do it for the wrong reason?  Are you a sheep if you give food to the hungry but have disdain for them?  Are you a goat if you do the wrong thing for the right reason?  “Jesus, I didn’t give you $10 that one time because I thought you were going to use it to buy liquor.” 

I don’t know what the grading scale will be, but here is what I experience.  There are times I do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  I do it because I need to do it in order to feel good about me.  And then there are times I do the right thing because I recognize the humanity of the person I am helping.  I see the person as a person and I recognize the person’s need and I see I have an opportunity rather than an obligation to help.  When I recognize the humanity of the other person and respond to it, I sense more acutely the Kingdom of God in my presence. 

The opposite is also true in my experience.  When I fail to recognize the humanity of another person, the world seems darker and more hellish.  C.S. Lewis thought hell is a place where one’s humanity is diminished.  N.T. Wright, the English bishop and theologian, envisions hell as the end of a process where one consistently choses to dehumanize what once was human.

The great challenge in life is to see in other people what God sees in them.  Our challenge is to love the other person as we believe God loves them.  The theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “God is committed to the poor, not because the poor are good—but because God is good.”  Today’s parable reminds us a good God created us to be good to one another.

Ultimately, I believe those judged to be sheep receive their reward not because they reached an arbitrary percentage of helping others, but because during their life they cultivated a disposition to recognize the humanity of other people and to base their interactions on this.  This inclination nurtured in this life continues on to the next.  The goats are those who cultivate the opposite and consistently fail to recognize the humanity of others.  It is an inclination which continues into the life to come and they receive judgment not as punishment but, based on their life’s story, as a recognition heaven and all its ways is not a place they would enjoy.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we proclaim the Kingship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We affirm one day every knee will bow to him and all tongues praise his holy Name.  I tend to side with those who believe in a crowded heaven and an empty hell.  Many theologians hold to the theory of an empty hell because they believe in the end all people will respond to the call of a loving God who desires none should be lost.  We begin to open our hearts to God’s voice here and now and one way we do this is to recognize the humanity of every person we encounter and to respond to their most basic needs.