Broad Brook Congregational Church
Reign of Christ Sunday
November 23, 2014
Judging the Nation(s)?
What is the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew saying in v. 32? “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:32).” Well that depends on which scholar you choose. The Greek phrase the author uses is panta ta ethne and its literal translation is “all the nations.” However, elsewhere in the gospel Matthew’s writer translates it as meaning Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews.
Why does it matter? If we take it to mean “The Gentiles will be gathered,” the passage would be empty of meaning for contemporary ethics and good works. If it is translated as referring to all peoples, then we run smack into the argument over justification. Are we justified by God’s free gift of grace or through righteous deeds? Grace is a gift from God freely given. We cannot earn it; only accept or reject it in freedom. If we accept it, God calls us to participate in the unfolding of the reign of God. Once again we are free to do so or not. I see that as freedom that comes with responsibility. God trusts us enough to gives us the freedom to choose but also trusts us to recognize the responsibility that follows in accepting God’s grace. Despite our bravado in claiming self-sufficiency, we live in community and that is the responsibility factor—we are not totally on our own. The freedom factor is our choosing whether or not we want to participate in that community. We are free to choose to do nothing.
That is exactly what the goats did: NOTHING. That is the heart of the matter. What we do matters. The goats chose to do nothing to help those in need; chose not to participate in community. Here we come up against another uncomfortable word—judgment. Jesus certainly preached on the issue of our not judging others and our exclusion of those we judged to be sinners or outcasts. How could God, who loves us unconditionally, judge us harshly? Our actions have consequences. Parents who loves their child unconditionally, must also address the wrong decisions that child makes. The judgment given out by the parents is done in love with the intent that the child learns from it and chooses more wisely in the future. Our loving God, through the Holy Spirit, is our spiritual parent, who guides us and addresses the consequences of our actions. The judgment comes in the form of the still small voice of God saying you are going in the wrong direction—turn around and get back on the right path for there is much to be done in participating in the unfolding of the reign of God. We human beings are amazing creatures who are not primarily rebellious, but we experience varying degrees of brokenness. God loves us and restores us to wholeness. Scott J. Higgins writes that the final judgment will be about the restoration of all things and not fire, brimstone and the destruction of humanity. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: ”Matthew gives me a pain. Life is never as clear cut as he makes it out to be; I cannot sort things out the way he does. However, Matthew gets my attention, and as often happens when I try to make law out of gospel, it seems to suggest that God’s judgment will takes us all by surprise, sheep and goats alike. We can study the exam file all we want, but God only knows what will be on the final (from her sermon “Knowing Glances,” in the Preaching Life.”).”
Having touched briefly on the troublesome aspects of the story of sheep and goats, let’s move to the heart of the matter. Hospitality is the core message of this story—the core value. It is easy to practice hospitality with our family and friends. What is more challenging is being extravagantly hospitable to the strangers. While hospitality was more important in Jesus’ and Matthews culture than our own, it seems to me that it should be made a priority in today’s culture. In our “its all about me attitude that is so prevalent, a healthy dose of today’s story would help remind us what it means to live in community. Extravagant hospitality is a core practice of our faith in the United Church of Christ where no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Are our eyes and hearts open to seeing the sacred in our everyday lives and more importantly the sacred within our neighbors and strangers?
The least of these, the little ones, the marginalized and voiceless are the people that matter to God and Jesus is pointedly clear on that fact in his story. In line with that, what also matters to God is how we behave when we think God is not around. God calls us to be in relationship with all children of God who we encounter in our everyday lives—to treat others with respect and dignity regardless of who they are or where they are on life’s journey. It is not always easy to offer extravagant hospitality to the stranger. But it is amazing what can happen when we stop judging and open our hearts to let God’s love flow out in community with each other.