I don't usually pay attention to the headings above sections in my bible. In fact, whenever I'm copying a passage for a handout or to post on a blog, I intentionally uncheck the box that would include the headings. The biblical authors didn't even have chapter or verse numbers--much less headings--so I tend to ignore them. But this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) comes at an interesting point in the gospel, and it's worth noting the heading that follows.
In the online, free ESV bible (although not an officially accepted translation in the Episcopal Church thanks to some shenanigans at the last General Convention still a great resource for teachers and preachers and others who want online access to the bible) the heading that begins Matthew 26 is "The Plot to Kill Jesus." Regardless of the heading in your version, the end of Matthew 25 marks a change in the narrative. From here on out, the passion scenes unfold. Before we get to the end of chapter 26, we will have the Last Supper, the betrayal, arrest, and conviction of Jesus, and Peter's denial. That means that Matthew 25 is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his disciples before things start unraveling. And I'm fascinated that Matthew, of all the gospel writers, concludes Jesus' pre-passion ministry with these words.
What is the basis for judgment in this Sunday's gospel lesson? The sheep and the goats are separated based on how they took care of one another. In this depiction of the final judgment, Jesus declares that the ones who have ministered to those in need have done so to him and that the ones who have neglected those in need have likewise neglected him. In other words, the last teaching Jesus gives to his followers before our focus turns to the cross is on taking care of one another. It's not about repentance. It's not about belief. It's not about holding fast to his teachings. It's not about being faithful in the moment of persecution. It's about remembering to visit those who are sick and in prison, of feeding those who are hungry, and of tending to those in need.
One time a minister asked me to summarize the Christian faith in 30 seconds. Caught off-guard, I bounced around through a host of ideas that flooded into my head. Although I didn't use any intelligent-sounding words, my answer was a little bit incarnation, a little bit crucifixion, a little bit resurrection, plus some ethics and eschatology mixed in. In other words, I didn't know what to say. After letting me flounder for a little bit, he put it this way: if you came upon a car accident and the driver in one of the cars was about to die and he asked you what it means to be a Christian, what would you say? Good question. I'm still wrestling with it today.
I have a friend who has spent most of his life working as an evangelist. He has travelled around the world to tell people about Jesus Christ. God has used him to bring the good news to thousands and thousands of people. And then, one day, he was on his way back from an overseas mission, and he read Matthew 25. Everything changed. It's his story--not mine--so I cannot tell it with any authenticity, but, when listening to him tell of the encounter, I heard him say that God showed him that salvation was needed right here in his home town--that he didn't need to travel all the way across the globe to tell people about Jesus. Instead, his work as an evangelist could be as immediate as giving food to those who are hungry and a drink to those who thirst. What does it mean to bring salvation to God's people? Maybe we should take Jesus' depiction of the final judgment seriously.
What do you say to the driver in the car accident--that Jesus died for his sins and that by confessing and believing in him he can go to heaven? Perhaps. I could make a strong argument that that is the most important thing to say in that moment. But Matthew 25 invites me to approach that hypothetical encounter--and all the real-life encounters I have every day--very differently. Maybe the right thing to do is to say that God loves you and so do I, and, because of that, I want to do anything I can to make you comfortable in this moment--to hold your hand, to wipe away your tears, to caress your head, and shush you comfortably into death's sleep.
We are called to share the good news. But what does that look like in the world we live in? Where are we called to carry God's saving love? Is it far away to those who have never heard of Jesus? Or is it down the street where people are hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison?