Lectionary readings late in the season after Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, especially in Year A, make a lot of Protestants uncomfortable. We read speech after speech in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus tells of the necessity to be ready and produce good fruit for the kingdom. If a servant neglects his duties and abuses fellow servants; if lamp lighters are unprepared to welcome the groom; if servants fail to live up to their potential for expanding their master’s kingdom; and if people from every nation fail to care for the marginalized, they are cast out.
It’s good and necessary to struggle with these words of Jesus, especially as they carry forth a prominent theme of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation: God graciously welcomes all people into relationship. But people are free to reject and rebel against that grace, chiefly by refusing to love God and neighbor.
In the climax of Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the nations as sheep and goats. All people are gathered before the Human One and are separated one by one (not as whole nations!) according to the Great Shepherd’s judgment. Jesus goes on to say that his judgment will be based on one criterion: did you love Jesus in the person of your neighbor on the margins? Did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the foreigner, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner? Recognizing Jesus in that person doesn’t seem to be important. Instead, we only need to recognize our neighbor as a creature who is intrinsically worthy of care and love. Serving Jesus through corporate worship while ignoring our responsibility to our neighbor simply won’t do.
Vital and active congregations, just as vital and active individuals and nations, are involved in the day-to-day lives of their neighbors, helping where they can and simply being a compassionate presence that undertakes God’s work with our hands.
St. Basil the Great (329-379) famously preached on Luke 12:18: “Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear moldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need.”
Jesus insists that what we have received is to be held in stewardship for God and neighbor, not solely for ourselves. God provides the model as the good shepherd who gathers scattered sheep, rescues them from all threats, and provides reliable food and drink (Ezekiel 34:11-16).
At the ELCA Systems Academy training in early October, psychologist Walter Howard Smith argued that one of the principle causes of congregations shrinking and dying is that they are in cutoff relationships with the communities that once reciprocally nourished and were nourished by them. The congregations provided good news for all, training for discipleship and aid for those on the margins. The community valued these efforts while supporting and participating in the congregation. But, as the congregations’ foci moved inward to prioritizing worship services (and, if we’re honest, emphasizing one style of worship as “correct” and others as somehow suspect or faulty) instead of forming disciples and caring for its neighbors, those communities lost interest in supporting and/or attending the church.
This is how congregations stop being sheep and start acting as goats. Vital and active congregations, just as vital and active individuals and nations, are involved in the day-to-day lives of their neighbors, helping where they can and simply being a compassionate presence that undertakes God’s work with our hands.
The good news this week is that all the parables of Matthew 24 and 25 assume an initial inclusion. The servants, wedding party members and, indeed, all the nations have been included in the community of their God, master and savior, even when they didn’t know it. God’s love and gracious inclusion is the first movement toward humans. The psalmist reasons that since we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his flock, let us not harden our hearts when God tells us to love and serve our neighbors (Psalm 95:7-8). Jesus commands his followers to have open hearts and open hands to all our neighbors.