(watch here: https://youtu.be/yaxEvTC9GCE)
[Jesus said,] 31‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “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.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about a wealthy man who was riding in the back of his limousine one afternoon when he saw two pathetic-looking men by the side of the road, eating grass. He ordered his driver to stop and got out to investigate. He asked the men, “Why are you eating grass?” “We don’t have no money for food,” the first man replied. “Then you must come with me to my house,” insisted the wealthy man. “But, sir, I got a wife and three kids here,” said the man. “Bring ‘em along!” replied the lawyer. The second man exclaimed, “I got a wife and six kids!” “Well, bring them as well!” the wealthy man proclaimed as he headed back to his limo. They all climbed into the car, and once underway, one of the men expresses, “Sir, you are too kind. Thank you for taking all of us with you.” The wealthy man replied, “I’m most happy to do it. You’ll love my place. The grass is almost a foot tall!”
Probably not what Jesus envisioned in helping out a hungry neighbor! We laugh but isn’t that typical of those who have who want to give to those who don’t have? They’re completely unaware of the needs of those who are without. That wealthy man probably thought the two men and their families actually enjoyed eating grass. He probably thought he was doing them a favor by inviting them to his place. Perhaps you’ve caught in the news lately about people who are giving large donations of unwearable clothing and nonedible food to flood relief here in Nebraska. People who have who want to give can be quite inconsiderate in their giving. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and think they’re simply unaware rather than cruel. Maybe some of them are behaving cruelly but I don’t like to dwell in people’s unkindness towards each other. I know it can be a cruel world out there but that doesn’t mean I have to think about it. Instead I can focus on figuring out ways to bring kindness into the world with my own actions. Which is at the heart of Jesus’ parable anyways. Jesus wants us to consider how we are preparing for his imminent return. Are we helping our neighbor or hurting them? Are we living selfishly or selflessly? All throughout his ministry, Jesus was determined to get us to reconsider how we are treating our neighbor. Life isn’t a selfish pursuit of personal glory or fame or riches, at least not according to Jesus. Jesus knew that all selfish pursuits end up in deep emptiness and despair. It is only when we pursue things for the good of others that we realize true joy and contentment. Relationships and how we interact with others instead of ourselves are the key to lasting happiness. Yes, we must maintain healthy relationships with ourselves but only insofar as enabling us to selflessly give to others. We must treat ourselves well so that we can go out and treat others well. We’re not to treat ourselves well only to turn around and treat others poorly. God is terribly disappointed in those who use their blessings to harm others. Just look at how disappointed He was with all his chosen ones throughout Scripture who used their blessings to harm others. It never went well for them. God eventually withheld his blessings and those who behaved selfishly suffered greatly. God is deeply grieved by anyone who fails to look out for the needs of the neighbor. Why else do you think Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loved us? He wants us to get outside of ourselves, to stop being so prideful and selfish. Remember what he said was the greatest commandment before we are to love our neighbors? To love God above all else! Again, to think and behave beyond our own personal needs. The relationships with those outside of ourselves are of utmost importance.
Jesus uses some interesting imagery in his parable. He compares the righteous ones, those who help the hungry and thirsty, stranger and naked, sick and imprisoned, to sheep who sit at his right hand. The unrighteous ones, those who didn’t help the suffering neighbor, to goats who sit at his left hand. Not necessarily a couple animals I would compare to the righteous and unrighteous. But his comparison caused me to wonder why he chose such animals to illustrate his lesson. I like what Adam Clarke said in his commentary: “Sheep, which have ever been considered as the emblems of mildness, simplicity, patience and usefulness, represent here the genuine disciples of Christ. Goats, which are naturally quarrelsome, lascivious, and excessively ill-scented, were considered the symbols of riotous, profane, and impure men.” So what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is their selflessness. The goats are only out for themselves but the sheep eagerly follow wherever the shepherd leads them. They are in relationship with someone outside of themselves while the goats simply can’t get beyond themselves. Pride and vanity has overtaken them. God does not reward selfishness. God understands we must each take care of our own basic, bodily needs but with a purpose: to be able to share God’s love with those around us.
Jesus’ parable is reinforced by several passages elsewhere in Scripture. In Hebrews, we hear, “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints (others), as you still do.” (6:10) God knows when we are serving each other. Indeed, God is revealed to us when we serve others. A look of gratitude, a kind word, a soft touch…God is most poignantly revealed to us in such gestures. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (5:13) Sin is what traps us in ourselves and Jesus frees us from our bondage to sin. We don’t have to fixate on ourselves! We are freed to love each other and experience true joy and happiness. Peter writes in his first letter, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (4:10) Each of us has been blessed with gifts but again with a purpose: to be put to use in serving others. Don’t ignore your gifts and certainly don’t use them to hurt others! In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (12:9-13) Paul clearly took Jesus’ teaching and emphasized the importance of loving our neighbor.
Of course, our Lutheran heritage causes us to wince at anything that suggests works-righteousness. Loving the neighbor isn’t going to earn our way into heaven. But it sure will give us a glimpse of the joy that awaits us in heaven. There is great joy to be found in loving and serving the neighbor. And remember, Jesus himself came as a servant as we hear in Mark when he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (10:45) Jesus commanded us to love and serve our neighbor but he also lived out the commandment himself. If we want to call ourselves his faithful disciples, we ought to live it out too. We must heed his words as heard in John: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (12:26)
In our pilgrimage through Lent, we await Jesus’ return to the cross. More importantly, we await his return from the grave. We rejoice in his triumph over death and sin. He will return and he will separate those who lived selflessly from those who lived selfishly. Let us seek to live selflessly for our neighbor as we await his return. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.