Faith in Real Life Blog: “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places”
Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian CHurch
November 22, 2023
Matthew 25: 31-46
31 ‘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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
In this series of ‘end time’ parables, Matthew repeatedly wants us to focus upon doing the work of the Lord. Often it seems that he is trying to frighten us into loving. Keep working even when the Master is gone or you will be cut up into pieces and where there will be ‘gnashing of teeth (The Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave). Be ready or you will miss the party and I will refuse you (Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids). Use the gifts I have given you or they will be taken from you (Parable of the Talents) and finally today’s passage. The Son of Man will divide all people into sheep and goats. Sheep ‘inherit the kingdom’; goats will go away into eternal punishment. It is a little like an angry parent yelling: “Share your toys or else. “ I will take them from you and send you to your room”.
Most of us have said “or else’ to enforce obedience. Sometimes it is punitive and sometimes it warns of natural consequences. It takes a long time for us (and our children) to know the difference. If we are bullying out of our need for obedience, it will work sometimes and sometimes for a long time. But if the work of the Lord is loving, it is usually a bad idea to use bullying methods to teach regard. But that is exactly how these passages sound. Do right or you are going to hell.
But what if these same ‘punishments’ are warnings of natural consequences. Failure to figure out ‘the work of the Lord’ leads to isolation, adversarial thinking and a constant need to prove who is ‘right’. When that happens we are separated from God. At least in my experience, it is seductively easy to engage in ‘us or them’ thinking. Are the attacks of Hammas justified? Do the Israelis have the right to retaliate? Those are the wrong questions. They only lead to more conflict. Logic, argument and force will not carry the day. The ‘winner’ will create an ‘underdog’ and unless you totally annihilate them, they will come back to bite you. Violence begets violence. We all know this but what choice is there when someone is coming to kill you. The Romans remained oppressive and in power. People were, and are, still treated badly. The idea that love and reconciliation will ultimately prevail seems naive. That is not how the world works.
Even so. the ‘right questions’ become: How can we find a third way? “How can we be present to the pain of the world?” These are questions that apply to all parts of our lives, world conflict, national conflict and our interpersonal conflicts. Asking these questions will lead to anguish, uncertainty and helplessness. That is the hard lesson of the cross. But no matter how poorly we live such choices, it is the path that Jesus taught. Jesus did not change the world as expected. Jesus said we are the salt of the earth and the leaven in the bread. Salt and leaven are small parts of a recipe. But without them, food loses its flavor and the bread is flat. We are called to hold on to such a faith. The failure to do so leads to a never ending circle of violence—where there is much ‘gnashing of teeth.’ Therein lies the promise of following Jesus’ more excellent way and the consequence of failing to do so.
What has struck me most in this passage is that in the first century, people sought a Messiah that would break into the world and make everything right. The desire for a Royal King as the Messiah is what Palm Sunday is about. People wanted relief. That was the Messiah’s job. If he didn’t bring relief, he wasn’t the Messiah—and that is what his crucifixion was about. Disappointment kills. But even the believers of this new way—the promise that God is with us (which is what the Incarnation is about) yearned for a Second Coming when Jesus would clean up the mess he didn’t fix the first time.
Finally, the righteous are vindicated, the unrighteous go to hell. This is certainly true—BUT NOT THE WAY WE EXPECTED. Looking for God to fix things misses the point of Jesus. He came as a baby, he was misunderstood, was unfairly accused and ultimately was killed. Our resurrection faith is that it was his presence that mattered. In the final judgment, the same thing is true. Neither the sheep nor the goats understood what Jesus was talking about. They were looking for God in the wrong places.
When Jesus came, he redirected us from looking up there to looking right here. Jesus is present where two or three are gathered in His name. Jesus is present in every act of mindfulness and regard. We find God when we look in the face of another and care for them. That includes people we don’t like and it includes people who remain our enemies. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what happens after you die. Live your life mindful of the people around you. That is where you will find God. That is the final judgment. Such a realization will point you to a life well lived. It will allow you to discover unexpected connections and unexpected joy. Sometimes it will be difficult, if not impossible. But we believe the presence of God is the joy of our lives and that joy is to be found when we look across the table.
This passage is not about a ‘to do list’ to make sure you get into heaven, it is a list of examples of mindfulness. It is a list of ordinary encounters with the needs of others. We will find God in our caring about such needs. We will be separated from God if we do not. In real life none of us can truly know what is loving. We don’t know how much to give on the street. We don’t know which important cause deserves our attention and resources. In our families we don’t know when to set a boundary and when to cross it. There is not a quantitative ‘right’ way to live. But we are promised that moving in the direction of loving and regard is where we will find God. Paradoxically, we can only take the risks of loving in an uncertain world when we believe God is with us—even when we don’t know what we are doing.
Our God is about the Holiness of the ordinary. And that is extraordinary.
Look for the face of God in every person you meet. That is where you will find the second, third and hundredth coming of the Lord. Let it be so.