Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 26, 2017
“The Five Ws”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us as the basis for the sermon is today’s assigned Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 25.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
When I stop and think about it, I have already had a number of jobs in my 50 years of life. I have washed dishes and mown grass for money, I was a radio DJ, I worked for a pharmaceutical company, and now I am a pastor. One of the jobs that I had for about 2 years was as a sports writer for our hometown newspaper. I wrote an opinion column called “As I See ‘Em” and I covered all the local high school sporting events. Of course, anyone who has ever written for a paper or even read a paper knows about the “Five Ws”: the who, what, where, when, and why of a story usually captured in the story’s lead sentence.
Locating the five Ws of today’s Gospel lesson is easy, but it is the answers themselves to those questions that are a whole lot tougher. Today is the last Sunday of the church year, a day which traditionally focuses upon the final judgment, again not something that is easy to write or even talk about.
We have before us today an awesome scene in which the masses of humanity from all generations are brought before the majestic throne of God, where their hearts and lives are laid bare for judgment. We are told that a clear separation is made between those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous – a fairly scary topic. Jesus the Judge praises the caring acts of the righteous (vv. 34-36). Then they will ask him, in effect, “When did we ever do such things?” And Jesus will reply, “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (vv. 37-40).
Now, before we go any further in trying to understand what this passage says, we must be clear about what it does not say. We can’t isolate Matthew 25 from the rest of the Bible, but we interpret it in light of what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches. And the rest of the Bible makes it abundantly clear that our salvation and eternal life is a free gift that is not earned by our good deeds or acts of mercy. We don’t get to heaven by feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or welcoming the stranger or caring for the sick; “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works – so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Notice that in Matthew 25 the separation of the sheep and the goats takes place before any deeds are even mentioned! Why? Because the separation is based upon who they are, not on what they had done. The people on Christ’s right hand are placed there because they are sheep, because they are righteous. The people on the left hand are placed there because they are goats, because they are unrighteous. And Scripture makes it very clear that the people who are righteous are so because God has made them righteous by the blood of the Lamb, not by their works.
And so, let’s again consider the five Ws and think about the who, what, and why regarding Christ’s calling to us. Who are the “least of these my brothers”? What are we to do for them? And why are we to do it for them?
First of all, who are the “least of these”? They are the needy and hurting of the world, those who are suffering and considered insignificant by society. Often times they are the ones the world would just as soon dispense of: the unwanted fetus, the battered child, the poverty-stricken family, the homeless addict. Thanksgiving just rolled past and we comfort ourselves with the assumption that everyone had plenty, but that is just not the case. The “least of our brothers” are all around, not just in rundown parts of the Tampa. It’s not just a Bradenton problem or a Newtown problem. It’s right here even in affluent Sarasota too.
But our next question calls for action. It is the question of what. What are we as Christians to do for them? In a cartoon I saw once, Garfield the cat, seated in a comfortable chair, sees his friend Odie the dog at the window peering in eagerly. Garfield says to himself, “Poor Odie. Locked outside in the cold. I just can’t bear to see him like this. I gotta do something!” At that point Garfield gets up from his chair and closes the curtain.
We can laugh, but not too loudly, because that behavior is so much like us. As we live in comfort and abundance, throwing away the table scraps from our meals, once in awhile the reality of the needy and starving world outside our borders breaks in to our lives. We view on our big-screen TVs those skeletal creatures in the Third World which look like the living dead but are really human beings just like us. They seem so distant and unreal. So, we pull the curtains or turn off the TV so that we don’t have to think about it. That may make us feel comfortable again, but it doesn’t change the reality that they are hungry and starving and dying.
So what are we to do? Jesus says: “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you do it to me. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.” Some great organizations for accomplishing this commission of our Lord include LCMS World Relief, LWML, Habitat for Humanity, and Feed My Starving Children to name only a few. They go to those areas of the world in crisis conditions to provide care and relief to people. Maybe we cannot go like they do, but we can support them through our prayers and through our gifts.
The final question to be answered today is why. We’ve already seen that such acts of mercy do not earn us salvation. So why should we seek to show mercy? Of course the most significant answer is because God has shown mercy to us. When we were in the poverty of our sin, Jesus Christ entered into our condition for us. As Paul writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Because of Christ’s sacrificial death, we have our debt of sin cancelled. And we are made rich – rich with the righteousness of Christ credited to us. That righteousness makes us sheep, not goats! That righteousness makes us acceptable to God today and on the final day of judgment. But that righteousness is now also expressed to others as we share Christ’s love with them in deeds of compassion.
A story is told that during World War II a beautiful cathedral in Europe was so severely bombed that about the only thing left standing in its midst was a statue of Jesus. But this statue did sustain some damage, because the hands of Jesus had been broken off in the destruction. Not true. The statue is real, but it happened in California, not Europe and vandals broke off the hands, not a bomb. Regardless, the inscription of the statue now reads “ He Has No Hands But Us.” May we go forth as His caring and helping hands in a hurting world of suffering and hunger to bring the badly needed answer of Jesus to all people in every place.