s067g99 Somerton Park 21/11/99 Sunday 34 Christ the King.
"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Matthew 25:40
The parable of the judgment of the sheep and the goats is the third and final story of judgment in the final public teaching of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Two weeks ago we had the story of the five wise and the five foolish maidens - the standard for Christians - that they are prepared. Last week we had the story of the use made of the talents given to the servants of the king - the standard for those of the Jewish faith. Today we have the story of the sheep and the goats - the standard for those who knew not God nor Jesus in their lives. Here the humanitarian ethic of providing food, drink, welcome, clothing, care and visiting in prison for those in need are elevated to mean that they are done to the Son of Man himself.
This is the importance of the words in reply: "Lord when was it that we saw you hungry ..." and assisted or not. Neither the sheep nor the goats had ever met the Son of Man before, but having met him on judgment day, both groups deny having met him before. They helped or did not help others, but they recognised they had never helped Jesus himself.
I find it interesting that those who did assist their neighbours in need - the sheep - put themselves down. No - they say - you are wrong - you've got us mistaken with someone else who must have helped you. How often those who know not of the good news put themselves down as unworthy? I wonder if this is a reflection on the proclamation of the gospel by the Church. We are still perceived as proclaiming an angry God only concerned to punish wickedness and sin, blissfully ignoring what ordinary people are already doing, and doing simply because they are human beings?
I also see in the reply of those who did not assist their neighbours in need - the goats - their implied rebuke of the Son of Man. Had the Son of Man himself been there and in need, of course they would have helped him. They wouldn't have helped the riff raff of course, but the Son of Man didn't give them a chance to help him.
God in these three parables of judgment goes to some lengths to reassure us that everyone possible is included into the kingdom, for that's the sort of God God is.
All this is, in a sense, preliminary to what I want to say today. I actually want to ask the question prompted by the text for my sermon, and ask: "Who are the members of the Son of Man's family?" "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." You see, if we are talking about the standard of judgment for non - Jews and non - Christians, I think it is worthwhile that we be clear just to whom Jesus is referring. It might be that Jesus is referring only to member of the Church as the members of MY family. In this interpretation, people without faith are rewarded eternally for contributions made to the struggling church.
This saying of Jesus actually is not as unique as might at first be thought. In three sayings which clearly left a lasting impression on each of the three evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke - Jesus talked about receiving the kingdom like a child. (Matthew 18:1-5 || Mark 9:33-37 || Luke 9:46-48) After the disciples were disputing about who was greatest. (Matthew 18:6-7 || Mark 9:42 || Luke 17:1-2) About causing little ones to sin, and the blessing of the children which the disciples sought to stop (Matthew 19:13-15 || Mark 10:13-16 || Luke 18:15-17.)
Now we often assume that Jesus is here saying that we should become like children who "are unselfconscious, receptive and content to be dependent upon others' care and bounty". (I am here very grateful to DE Nineham in his commentary on St Mark p268 for this felicitous phrase, and the interpretation is his also). I suppose this interpretation has some support from the famous interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus, told by John: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (John 3:3)
But it could also mean that we receive the kingdom in the act of receiving a child. So the disciples were jeopardising their own place in the kingdom because they were not receiving the children brought to Jesus. And this ties up with precisely the same sentiment of the parable of the sheep and goats - the standard of judgment for those without faith and outside the old covenant - that they welcome others.
If such is the case, I begin to see that Jesus spent considerably more time bringing the possibility of salvation to non-Christians and non-Jews than I had hitherto surmised. So quotations like "Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me" (Matthew 10.40, Mark 9.37, Luke 9.48 & John 13.20) suddenly come into clearer focus and importance. "Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward" Matthew 10.42
It is in welcoming children that non-Christians and non-Jews in effect receive the kingdom by receiving the Son of Man himself. Again we see the graciousness of God providing every opportunity possible for everyone to enter the kingdom. Every child is an opportunity for another person to receive Christ, even if they never recognise this to be so.
The present spectre of thousands and hundreds of thousands of women and children trekking somewhere in the world, on the news on the television, without food, water, clothing, shelter or medicine, should bring home to us the urgency of the message.
So far from promising those without faith rewards if they support the struggling Church, these words are an encouragement to all with hearts to love, that the Son of Man will accept and bless every act of charity to anyone whatsoever. The members of the family of the Son of Man is all of humanity itself.
Some of you will have noticed the caption on the front page of the most recent incarnation of the pew bulletin: "St Philip's - where those for whom Jesus died are treated with courtesy and respect". It is my hope that this will encourage us to treat others with courtesy and respect and to also realise that this extends to all, for Jesus died for all.
Whatever the words of Jesus in John's gospel about being born above, it is clear that if they are applied to an individual in the sense of an expectation that an individual can (indeed MUST) by some effort on their own part bring this rebirth about, it makes a nonsense of the words "born above" themselves. Whatever it is - it is God's doing. So, too, when I look at the first interpretation about receiving the kingdom like a little child - so that we should become like children who "are unselfconscious, receptive and content to be dependent upon others' care and bounty". If this means that anything adult in me should be repressed, it falters because of the difficulty of me or anyone changing their own personality. My own personality, for all its undoubted faults, was given to me by God, and this is no less true for anyone else as it is for me. So becoming "unselfconscious, receptive and content to be dependent upon others' care and bounty" is actually impossible for any individual to actually achieve. It is as fanciful as Peter Pan who always remained a child. The cross ought to remind us that Jesus was not on about such fantasies. To demand that others do this as a prerequisite to entrance into the kingdom is in fact as helpful as requiring everyone to speak in tongues, or that everyone be chaste and heterosexual oriented. It is in no person's power to achieve any of these things anyway, so how can it be demanded as if it was?
I said at the beginning that this parable is the final public teaching of Jesus in Matthew's telling of Jesus' story. Chapter 26 begins the story of Jesus betrayal, the last supper and the arrest, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. So this Sunday also ends the liturgical year and next Sunday we begin a new year, Year B, with the Advent proclamation of the coming of the heralded messiah as a baby, as a helpless being, just like one of us. The helpless baby, Jesus comes, despite being the Son of Man, to be accepted by us and helped - or rejected and despised - as the religious authorities of his day did.
Jesus came, as all new born children continue to come. Each and every one is an opportunity for us and for all to feed, provide drink, welcome, clothe, care for and visit; and in doing so inherit that blessing the Son of Man will pronounce at the end of time: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
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