Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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For the Least of These

Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit upon his throne, and all the nations will be gathered before him.  And he will separate them, as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.”

 This image was familiar to Jesus’ listeners.  Even if they weren’t shepherds, they were at least familiar with how it was done.  Not always, but normally sheep and goats were herded together.  A wealthy person might have enough money to employ both a shepherd and a goatherd, but most people would just herd them together, at least during the day.

 You see, at night, they were separated.  The reason is sheep preferred to sleep out in the open air, but goats preferred to be indoors or in a cave or some other enclosed space at night.  Or at least that’s what they thought.  I don’t have much experience with sheep or goats.  

 They were also separated by value.  Sheep were more valuable than goats, because they produce wool.  And there were also the associations with each animal.  Sheep were thought to be “good luck” animals.  Goats were associated with trouble.  And you already know that if you’ve ever been in a petting zoo with goats.  I do have that much experience with them.  

 So they were herded together and separated at the end of the day.  The implication is that both are found in the Church, both appear to be part of the Kingdom of God in this life.  And they will be separated from each other at the end of the day, that is, the judgment.  

  We hear that, and we are probably quick to think, “Yeah, I know some goats in the Church!  They’ll get what’s coming to ‘em.  Just you wait!”  But I think the better thing to say to ourselves is, “Which am I?  Am I a sheep or a goat?”  As Jesus said, we’re quick to see the speck of dust in our neighbor’s eye and slow to see the log in our own.

 On what basis are we separated?  We are separated on the basis of how we love, most especially how we love the “least of these.”  What do we do for those who are unable to repay our kindness?  

 Jesus puts the sheep on the right, the place of honor, and he says to them, “Come and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.  For I was hungry, and you fed me. 

Thirsty, and you gave me water.  A stranger, and you welcomed me in.  Naked, and you clothed me.  Sick, and you cared for me.  In prison, and you visited me.”   

 “Huh.  What do you mean, Jesus?  When did we any of that for you?”

 And he says, “When you did it for the least of these, you were doing it for me.”

 Here is a great paradox.  What did Paul say in Ephesians tell us about the location of Jesus?  He is raised from the dead and seated in the place of honor at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly realms, far above any ruler, authority, or power.  And what does Jesus say for his whereabouts?  He tells us that he is there in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick stranger in prison.  

 Which is it Jesus?  Where are you?  Are you up there in the heavenly realms, or are you down here in the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick stranger in prison?  The answer, of course, is yes.  Jesus is on the throne, and Jesus is in the least of these.  

 Two questions:  First, are the least of these just fellow Christians in need or are they anyone in need?  

 On one hand, in verse 40, Jesus says “the least of these brothers.”  We add sisters to that.  That might imply Jesus is only talking about “brothers in Christ.”  But in verse 45, in the Greek, there is no “brothers.”  Some translations add it in verse 45 to make it look balanced, but it’s not there in the Greek.  This might imply that Jesus is talking about the “least” in the most generic sense.  

 The word “brothers,” ADELPHOI in Greek, is often used to talk about followers of Jesus, but not always so.  And we see other places in Matthew’s Gospel where the word “brothers” does not refer only to followers of Jesus.  

 And Jesus makes it very clear in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” that our neighbor, whom we are to love, is anyone in need.  So I would come down on the side that Jesus is talking about all people, not just fellow Christians.  

 Second question:  Does this contradict our belief in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone?  Just a month ago, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  That was a key belief of the Reformers.  The Church had lost its way and had begun to teach salvation by our good works rather than by

God’s grace.  Were they wrong?  Is Jesus telling us here that we are saved by the good works we do for the least of these?

 I don’t think so.  I think the problem is that we are so inclined to think in terms of either/or.  Either we’re saved by works or by faith.  But the Hebrew way of thinking was much comfortable with the tension of both/and.  We are saved by grace through faith and we see faith in our good works.

 In the Epistle of James, chapter two, he writes, “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?  Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?  So you see, faith by itself, isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.  Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”  You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.  How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

 In Matthew 23, Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Scribes for observing the most minute details of the Law while they ignored the most important matters.  When Jesus was asked what the most important part of the Law was, he answered, “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The rest of the Law and prophets hang from these things.”  AGAPE love, self-denying love that serves neighbor is the key to the whole Law.  And in Matthew 20, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and give his life for them.”  So Jesus is telling us that our faith needs to be expressed through loving others, and most especially, through loving those who are unable to respond to our kindness.

 I don’t think any of us should be comfortable hearing these words.  None of us should just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, I’m all good.”  Because the needs of humanity are so great.  There are many people in our world and in our community who need to receive the love of God.  There are many who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, cold, sick, or in prison.

 And none of us has an excuse.  None of the things Jesus describes are impossible for us or even especially difficult.  Jesus didn’t tell us to build a hospital or something else that would be impossible for almost everyone.  We all have the ability to feed people, clothe them, shelter them, and visit them.  

 And we all have the responsibility.  Jesus is telling us to do this.  He didn’t say “Donate to a charity that feeds people or gives them clean drinking water.”  He didn’t say, “Vote for politicians who will expand social welfare services.”  He told us to do these things.  So there is no “easy way out.”  We are each responsible for showing AGAPE love. 

 One last question before we finish today:  Why does this mean so much to God?  Well, is there anything that means as much to a parent as when someone does good for his or her children?  Likewise, the surest way to please God is to love his children.  

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