- Parish House
Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost – Matthew 25:31-46
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and many of us recently tried to produce the perfect meal, I thought I’d begin today with an embarrassing little story from my own kitchen. Or more specifically, about a side dish gone horribly wrong.
I had decided to make a something called “autumn mash.” You know how they say never to make a recipe for the first time when you’re having people over? Yeah, I ignored that advice and decided to try it for the first time on Thanksgiving. I found the recipe on a paleo blog, and thought it would be good to offer a low-carb, healthier side to nourish my family and our guests. And the picture of it was beautiful – a bright orange dish that looked like autumn itself. Everything was going great. I roasted garlic the night before, which turned out perfectly. On the day of, I had my oldest child helping me, peeling parsnips and carrots and chopping cauliflower. My heart was full watching him learn how to cook healthy food and grow in independence. We cooked the veggies in ghee and broth with the garlic, and once they were tender, we used an immersion blender to make that beautiful orange mash. We sat down at the table, said our prayer, and started in on the feast. Everyone praised various dishes, as you do. But no one said anything about the mash. I tasted it. It was awful. Pretty, but awful. So much for all my good intentions.
This embarrassing little story is clearly about an edible problem, not an ethical one. But let’s look at it from the perspective of the moral life, because it might just open up something crucial for us in today’s Gospel.
Let’s frame the issue this way: did I act ethically on Thanksgiving? My intentions were good and noble. But I got the actual action very wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing. And a reverse scenario is also possible. I could have not given a fig about showing any kindness or love for my family and friends through what I put on the table, and, again not knowing what I was doing, I could have accidentally stumbled on the world’s most delicious and nourishing side dish. That would be a lack of right intention, but a good action. Do you see the problem? We can try to get both our motivations and our actions right, but we don’t always know what we’re doing. And no matter how hard we try, it seems that we never have completely pure hearts aligned with perfect works. It’s just not humanly possible.
Which brings us to an often-overlooked detail in the story of the sheep and the goats. The parable is about the final judgment, when Christ comes in glory and gathers the whole world before his throne. He will separate all people into just two categories, the blessed sheep at his right hand and the accursed goats at his left. He will praise the sheep for the times they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned, all of which they did to Christ himself. To which they will reply, “Um, excuse us, but when did we do these things to you?” In other words, they didn’t fully know what they were doing. And Jesus will explain it to 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.” He will then announce the reverse to the goats at his left hand, noting all the times they did not do such acts of mercy to him. And they will be equally confused. “When was it that we didn’t do these things to you?” They will be as clueless as the righteous, but somehow they will have gotten something very wrong.
So here’s the problem. Is Jesus suddenly preaching punishment to folks who didn’t even know they were missing the mark? That seems like an abrupt change of message to the rest of the gospel. Serve the unpleasant autumn mash, and you’re out. That just doesn’t fit with what we know of the good news.
I think we need to undo centuries of interpretation and any childhood conditioning we may have received about this parable, often heard as scary. It’s far too easy, and too popular, to assume this story means something like this: the busy do gooders will get into heaven, and those who don’t do enough good works will go to the flames of eternal punishment. This interpretation just flies in the face of the gospel of grace. And to make it more complicated, we’ve already established that we can’t know for sure all the time what is right and good. Even the people in the parable didn’t know. So what do we do with the judgment?
Let’s start with John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God sent God’s son not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Not to judge, but to save. God has loved the world since its creation. God has been with us, and simply asks that it be a two-way relationship on our part. All we are required to respond with is faith. We are thus saved by grace through faith. Note here that we are not saved through all our good works. Take the prodigal son. He was was offered his father’s mercy, freely given, not earned. Like him, the only thing truly in our power, and thus the only thing absolutely asked of us, is faith in response to God’s invitation.
That’s all well and good, but you’d be right if you protest that the judgment part of the story has not yet been resolved. What about those stinging words from Jesus to the goats: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I didn’t know what to do with that, so I turned to Robert Capon of course, who offers something compelling. He points out that at the beginning of the story, Christ gathers all the nations before his throne. We have heard this theme before. Christ is all in all, Christ fills all in all, and now Christ draws all to himself. In other words, there is nothing outside of Christ. Even, Capon argues, the devil and his angels and the goats, the ones who never respond to God’s invitational call. Somehow Christ is still King and Lord of it all. This comes up against the limits of what we can know and understand about the workings of God. But it leaves us some scripturally grounded room to trust that Jesus didn’t suddenly change the gospel of grace.
If your head is spinning a bit, so is mine. That, my friends, is the beauty of theology. So let’s linger for a moment in a lovely idea that resides in the midst of all this talk of righteousness and punishment in the parable. Consider the pattern of mercy for which the righteous are praised. There are five primary movements of mercy: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. If we let go of these movements as our ticket into heaven, something pretty wonderful opens up. When we stop using the poor, the sick, the friendless and needy as objects to be used along our path to salvation, we can start responding with hearts just a bit more pure and a bit more loving.
This pattern of mercy may not be a requirement for salvation in the old sense, but it’s about the best idea I’ve heard for how to live our lives. Is there anything more beautiful or life-giving than patterning your life on mercy? Is there anything more beautiful than the mercy of Christ, who embodied these practices in perfect fullness? We are the recipients of his mercy, and we have the ability to respond in kind. Who knows how our hearts will be opened. [At the 10:30 service] Who knows how the hearts of Anna Kate and Vivian will be opened, as they begin their life in Christ in their baptism today? Like us, they may not get it right all the time, and we won’t always know what we’re doing. We might just feed the hungry unpleasant autumn mash. But we can rest assured that it is our faith, not our perfection, that saves us.