Thursday, August 20, 2015

Sometimes I'm a slow learner. I can focus on the trees and overlook the forest. Jesus' description of the Judgment of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-48 is an illustration. Like many Bible scholars I've read, in my past sermons and lessons on this passage I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about a variety of themes it suggests: where this judgment fits on a dispensational prophecy time-line for future events; whether it will be a distinct judgment from the Judgment of Israel, the Judgment Seat of Christ, and the Great White Throne Judgment; whether it is mostly about how Gentile nations treat the Jewish people in the present age or in the future Tribulation Period; and what it teaches about the nature of hell. While all of those are certainly interesting and not unimportant topics, I'm not convinced that they are NOT what Jesus' message was about. All of those topics easily become a distraction from the BIG IDEA Jesus was teaching, that is, that GOD WILL JUDGE US BASED ON HOW WE TREATED THE POOR AND NEEDY. Obviously Jesus was not teaching salvation by works as if we get into his kingdom by feeding the hungry, etc. The sheep and goats are separated for what they are -- their nature. The Shepherd knows His sheep -- those who have repented, believed, and who hear His voice and follow Him (John 10). And they are sentenced (rewarded or punished) for what they did in response to human suffering. Their caring for the poor and needy revealed the reality of their faith. The distinguishing characteristic of genuine Christians is LOVE (John 13:35; 1 John 3:14; 4:7-12) and love must respond to need (1 John 3:17). While it’s endearing to see that the sheep are unaware of their righteousness, it’s terrifying to see that the goats are unaware of their true identity (they thought they were sheep--even called Jesus, "Lord"). That is a sobering warning that we must be careful not to be self-deceived about our true identity. How can you tell if you are a self-effacing sheep or a self-deceived goat? Jesus' answer in this text is that you can tell by whether or not you care for the poor and needy. How could Jesus make it any more clear? Caring for the poor and needy reveals who is a sheep and who is a goat. Jesus will not judge people for the knowledge they amassed, the status they achieved, the financial prosperity they accumulated, the earthly honors they received, the frequency of their church attendance, the leadership positions they held in the church, or even how well they knew the Bible. They will be judged on the HELP THEY GAVE TO THOSE IN NEED. It’s what Jesus’ genuine followers do – they love people and they respond generously to people in need. They don’t respond to people because the world grants them status or rank or because treating them well might gain some benefit in return. They see people in need – hungry, thirsty, homeless, inadequately clothed, sick, or in prison – and they LOVE THEM, OPEN THEIR HEART AND HANDS TO THEM – they SACRIFICE TO HELP THEM even if it’s inconvenient or costly. The sheep's good works were simple (no special talent or abilities needed to feed the hungry, etc.), directed toward "the least of these" (rather than those highly valued by the culture), and uncalculating (they had no expectation of returns, rewards, or reimbursements). That's just what love does. A striking lesson in Jesus' message is that He so identifies with the poor and needy that anything good done for them is done for Him and will be rewarded as such. The sheep inherit the kingdom God prepared for them since the creation of the world. The goats are banished into punishment not prepared for them but for the devil and his angels. Now I can no longer hide behind the interpretive rabbit trails which in the past kept me from seeing the real point of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25: God will judge us based on how we cared for the poor and needy. Whether or not I recognize Jesus in the homeless man on the street, the neglected dementia-tainted lady in the nursing home, or the uninviting, abandoned felon in the county jail, love should move me to respond to their need. God will judge us based on how we respond to the poor and needy. Here's the video of the complete sermon delivered at Calvary Church:

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