© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Have you seen the meme that depicts a ladle of soup being poured into a bowl held by outstretched arms? The picture is accompanied by the words, “Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized. He cares about how you treat people.” It’s been popular on social media this week, and I can’t tell if that’s because we’re getting close to Thanksgiving or because my friends who are socially-conscious Episcopalians want to wave this Sunday’s gospel lesson in the faces of their more scripturally-conscious counterparts from other traditions. Well, today I want to start this sermon by saying something controversial, which I hope I will be able to clear up by the time I’m finished. While it’s true that Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized, it’s also true that he doesn’t care how you treat people. What do I mean by that?
Today’s gospel lesson isn’t about caring for the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It’s about judgment. “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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” In this passage, Jesus isn’t evaluating candidates for the Rotary Four-Way Test award or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s sitting in ultimate judgment of all the nations, and he’s separating one from another as easily as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. We can’t rightly understand what he’s telling us about how we’re supposed to treat each other until we hear what he’s saying about judgment.
For two long chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus has been on a tear about judgment. One day soon, he declares, everything will change. The Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give out its light. Suffering will befall all people, including the beloved children of God. And that day of judgment is coming when no one expects it—like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom who arrives at midnight, like a master who returns and demands an accounting from his servants. When it came to judgment, back in Jesus’ day, everyone wanted to know the same thing we still want to know today—when will God finally come and set all things right? When will God at last separate the wicked from the righteous, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares? And today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ answer to that persistent question, and his answer caught everyone by surprise.
As Jesus begins this description of judgment, at first everything sounds just as we would expect it to. The Son of Man is to be seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by angels. He is to gather all the nations and separate them once and for all. So far that sounds right. What else would we expect from God’s ultimate judgment besides a clear and decisive vindication for God’s people and a rejection of God’s enemies? No problem there. But, when Jesus begins to describe the criteria for that judgment, everything that the world has always expected gets turned on its head.
Jesus explains that those who are gathered at his right hand will be the ones who gave him food when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty. They were the ones who welcomed him when he was a stranger and clothed him when he was naked. They were the ones who took care of him when he was sick and visited him when he was in prison. Even the righteous themselves are surprised to hear what the King is saying. After learning that they are to be welcomed into God’s eternal habitations, they respond in utter disbelief. “When was it that we saw you in need and helped you?” they ask. And Jesus delivers to them and to us the crucial teaching of this passage: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”
The surprising truth of God’s judgment is that God’s ultimate ordering of the universe manifests itself not in broad strokes that divide humanity along national, ethnic, or macroscopic lines, but according to the microscopic minutiae of everyday life. For all of salvation history, God’s people had understood that one day God would separate them from their enemies, but now Jesus was inviting them to see that, when God sets the world in its ultimate order, the distinction between those who belong at God’s right hand and those who are to be cast into eternal punishment is clearest when we look at how we have lived each day. The way we care for others or ignore the needs of those around us is, in fact, the clearest indication of whether we belong to God.
But don’t mistake the sign for the thing that it is pointing to. Jesus does not simply reward those who gave food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who ministered to the sick and visited those in prison. He welcomes to his right hand those who did those things to him—those who cared for Jesus, their Lord and Savior, by caring for the least of the members of his family. How they cared for those in need is a sign—an indication—of their deeper identity, their fundamental belonging to God. And it is that identity, that allegiance, that belonging that distinguishes those at the right hand and those at the left.
Neither the righteous nor the unrighteous recognized the significance of what they were doing or neglecting to do. But Jesus, the Son of Man, recognized it within them. If the point of this passage was that only those who care for the needy will receive a heavenly reward, we would all be in serious trouble. Sure, we’re mostly kind and generous and, at times, even selfless. But what about that one time when we don’t give $20 to the panhandler on the street? What about the extra jacket hanging in our closet? What about the sick and imprisoned whom we have never even thought about visiting? What if one of them is Jesus? What happens if we fail him when it really counts?
Thanks be to God that God’s judgment does not work like that. The question for us is not how many poor and needy individuals we will help in this lifetime, nor is it how many Bible verses we will commit to memory. The question is whether we will give ourselves over completely to the one who cares for the poor and the needy, who rescues the lost and the broken, who embraces the outcast and the unloved. The question for us is whether we will belong to God and thus allow the way of Jesus to transform our lives.
You cannot get to heaven by feeding or clothing or otherwise caring for those in need. You get there by belonging to God in Jesus Christ. But you cannot belong to God in Jesus without feeding and clothing and caring for those in need. Those are the indispensable characteristics of the divine life. Those are the clearest descriptions of what a life that belongs to God looks like. When the Son of Man comes and sits upon his throne in judgment, he will not ask you what Bible verses you have memorized or how many times you cared for those in need. He won’t have to ask. Those are not the criteria for God’s judgment. They are the fruit of the lives of the people who belong to God.