Whenever I read this Gospel text, I am reminded of the song, “What if She’s an Angel?” The verses describe events when someone could have responded to the need of another, such as raising money for a sick child or overhearing a domestic argument, but instead did nothing. The chorus of the song goes, “Maybe she’s an angel, sent here from heaven. Makin’ certain that we’re doing our best to take the time to help one another. Brother are you gonna pass that test?” Quite frankly, although the song is catchy, whenever I hear it on the radio, I move to quickly change the channel. Maybe it’s because of the uncertainty it stirs up. Maybe it’s because I am uncomfortable with the idea that the Christian life is a test, and that it is up to me to pass. It makes me think, despite my best intentions, if we really are judged based on what we do, like this song suggests, I’m not so sure I would pass the final test.
In the same way, this Gospel text is one that has reasons to make us squirm. After all, in it we meet a God of judgment who is separating all the nations gathered before him like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Goats on the left. Sheep on the right. The sheep are determined as those among the righteous but the goats are not.
Clearly, we all want to end up on the right. We want to be included among the righteous and those who are blessed with God’s favor when that final judgment comes. So as part of the competitive, driven culture that we are, we get our notepads out and start to make a list of what we need to do to guarantee our spot. Step one: Feed those who appear hungry. Step two: Give those who are thirsty something to drink. Step three: Welcome strangers. And the list goes on.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If this is our approach, sooner or later we will find ourselves in a trap, trying to determine those who are the least among us and doing everything we can to meet their needs, while at the same time never being certain that we are doing enough. Then we may wonder, “How do we know if we are doing enough, if we will indeed be included as among the righteous? Did we give food and water, shelter and clothing to all those we saw who were in need? Did we befriend and serve others as though they were Christ himself?” Eventually we will end up like a gerbil on an exercise wheel- spinning and spinning but never really getting anywhere.
The truth is, if this is how our eternal life is decided, we are all doomed. We will never be able to do enough to guarantee our salvation. Try as we might, we can’t make it on our own.
This is where the story gets us, because to all those gathered before him, Jesus’ words come as a surprise. Those determined as righteous are just as surprised at God’s verdict as those who have been determined as unrighteous. “But Lord,” they wonder aloud, “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty? When did we clothe you or visit you in prison?”
Jesus answered, “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. Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
By this response, it seems that the problem with those who were determined as unrighteous, the goats if you will, was not that they did not do enough. It was that they did not do anything at all. Of course, sometimes it is hard to decide just what, or how much to do. But frankly, more often the opposite is true. In our culture where achievement and power are prized, although we know there are needs to be met, unless we intentionally set aside time to meet them, often they get lost in the shuffle in our race to the top.
It is here that Jesus’ words meet us. He reminds us that we are not in this for ourselves. What strikes me the most is that Jesus says, “Just as you did to one of the least of these in my family, you did it to me.” Here he is, with all the nations gathered before him, telling those who think they are closest to Jesus that his family is all-inclusive. The point Jesus is getting at is not just that we are to love and serve the least among us. While that is necessary and good, it is not the whole story. The point is that we are all a part of the family of God. We are all made in God’s image. And we all belong to the body of Christ, gathered together by the Good Shepherd.
When we were in Guatemala two weeks ago on our mission trip, we had the opportunity to experience this truth first hand. One of the things about San Lucas that impressed me the most was that it is a land of many stark contrasts. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and yet there are heaps of garbage lying around because they do not have a waste removal system. Lake Atitlan is large and beautiful, yet it is 98 percent polluted. And while most of the people in San Lucas live in poverty, across the lake from this small village are huge lake homes, owned by celebrities and people from around the world who come there for vacation. Perhaps most ironically, the coffee grown there is some of the best in the world, yet they cannot even afford to drink the coffee they produce themselves.
While at first glance the Mayan people may appear to be among the least, they are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Their smiles light up their faces and they live in a very communal nature. It was a privilege to be welcomed into their town, church, and daily lives. We learned more from them than we could ever have given. And though we came from two very different worlds, we were united by the One True God. As we worshipped together one Sunday morning, the reality sunk in that we truly were united in and through Christ. Though we worshipped in different languages and lived very different lives, we were members of the same family, joined together by the One who shed his blood for us all.
Through our experiences in Guatemala, we were reminded of what is most important in life, and we realized more fully all that God has given us. Similarly, in this text, more than reminding us that it is important how we treat one another, Jesus is telling us that what is most important is to whom we belong. And he is reminding us that the gift of salvation God gives to us is for all people. God has gathered all the nations before him. His love and salvation sees and knows no boundaries. We are all a part of his family, and in it there are no distinctions between race, gender, or class.
Just a little bit later in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear this again. In the Great Commission, Jesus sends his disciples into the world with the authority given to him by his father. He tells them “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This also reminds us that the message of God’s love in word and deed is meant to be shared with others regardless of who they are or where they live.
For we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But we believe that our righteousness is based on Christ’s own righteousness. When God looks at us, rather than seeing us as the sinners that we are, he sees Christ. And when he sees Christ, he sees his Son, whom he dearly loves, and with whom he is well-pleased. God sent his Son into the world to set us free from sin, death, and the power of the devil so that in him we may truly live. He did this entirely out of love, and offers this gift of grace to all of us freely and without condition. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Jesus is not telling us to do more, serve more, give more, or volunteer more. While these things are important, they are not the basis of our salvation and they do not determine our worth. We are saved by faith, not works, and faith comes in and through Jesus Christ, by his Holy Spirit.
At first glance, in this text, it seems that we do meet a God of judgment, who separates the sheep from the goats. But in fact, through this gift of grace in Christ Jesus, the Judge is also the Reconciler. It is this God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ into the world. And it is this God who welcomes us all into his family, free of condition, and who has done everything necessary to secure our salvation. Indeed, the final judgment has come and the verdict is in. Those who are in Christ are among the righteous. And on this basis we can be sure: we are in. Amen.