In the End
“In the End”
A Sermon on Matthew 25:31-40
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
July 14, 2019 – 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
‘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. 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; 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, 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.” 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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.”
We were all so excited – we were finally going to the temple in Jerusalem! You see, I was traveling all over the country with my friends, and I hadn’t been to the temple since I was a little boy. We had to get through the city first, though. We waded through beggars, lepers, and all kinds of riffraff. Finally, we entered the temple gates! It was outstanding! The columns were carved with vines and flowers, there were gold fixtures, and the priests were wearing the finest robes. Obviously, this was the holiest place we could be! I felt inspired and uplifted and joyful all at the same time. It was the most worshipful experience I had ever had! And then, we got really lucky – my friend, Jesus, started to preach!
My name’s Simon, by the way. Friends call me Peter.
Jesus gave a stellar sermon where he really told off some of those high and mighty Pharisees. The day was a great success, but eventually we had to leave. As we left, my friends and I were pointing out the walls and columns, the perfection of it all…but then Jesus said the strangest thing. He said “You see all these? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he was already moving on to the next thing. Jesus did that a lot, back in those days. So, I waited until that night when we were on the Mount of Olives. And my friends and I – Jesus called us disciples – came to him privately to ask some questions. We knew the world was changing, that the end was near – but did that beautiful temple really have to be destroyed? Couldn’t Jesus just be crowned king and get rid of the Romans an easier way? We asked him to tell us more about the end of days.
Jesus began to teach us. I gotta be honest, I understood less than half of it. He kept going on and on with these parables about lamps and fig trees and buried treasure. I didn’t know what any of that meant - what did it have to do with God vanquishing all of our enemies? Who would win, in the end?
I guess we kinda glazed over, because then Jesus stopped. He sighed, sat down, and looked us in the eye. Then he said:
“Here’s the end of the story. The point is not what happens to the temple or the important people. The point is how you treat the people who need the most help. At the end, I won’t ask who built the best temple. What I will ask is who fed me when I was hungry and who cared for me in prison and who cared for me when I was sick and who befriended me when I was a stranger. And do you know the best way to care for me? It’s by taking care of people who need it most – the unimportant, the forgotten, my children whom no one loves.
Whatever you do for the least person around you, you do for me. That’s the thing that matters most in the end.”
I followed him Jesus back into the city after that, still thinking about that beautiful temple and how good it made me feel to worship there. But when we entered Jerusalem this time, I didn’t look up at the temple walls. Instead, I looked at all those beggars and lepers and riffraff around the city, and looked them in the eye…. wondering if I might see the eyes of my friend Jesus. I was still so confused. It was hard, sometimes, to understand exactly what Jesus wanted me to do. But as I looked in the eyes of all those people, I found myself slipping them figs and olives from my pack, hoping they might not be so hungry tomorrow. And as I shared my food, I began to feel a flicker of that same worship and joy I had experienced in the temple.
This year at Vacation Bible School, Peter visited us, along with Zacchaeus, Martha, and an unnamed servant. And we learned – or remembered – several things. We learned that God has given to us abundantly! We learned that the earth grows good food and our bodies need to eat and be healthy in order to thrive. We learned that there are many people in the world who lack access to healthy food and clean water, and we learned ways to share and help – such as working with farms, food pantries, and meal programs. We colored placemats for Trinity Table and donated cans of food and even made Stone Soup one night. We played games and sung songs, and did all of this in a child-friendly way. These were good lessons to teach the 30 or so kids who attended. They were also great lessons for us who are teenagers and adults, because the work of sharing and giving doesn’t stop in elementary school.
In fact, the work of sharing and giving only gets more complicated as we grow older. You tell a child that someone is hungry, their first reaction is to share whatever food they have handy. It was no trouble at all to get the kids on board with the idea that Jesus wants us to feed the hungry. But when you’re an adult, we have questions – is this person actually hungry, or trying to scam me? Did they get themselves in this position? Do they need food, or do they need to learn a lesson? Do they need a meal program or a job application? And what food should we give them? If someone truly needs help, should we restrict the food we give them to just the healthiest, or can we throw in some cake, too? And when do we stop giving? What’s the balance between caring for ourselves and our church, vs. caring for the hungry? We regularly get calls at the church asking for grocery and rent assistance, and some of these thoughts usually run through my mind. I want to be charitable, but I also want to be smart about it. Issues of need in our world are not simple. And so while children at VBS may readily embrace the idea of giving…for adults, the issue of hunger is much more complicated.
But Jesus addresses the complicated question of hunger with a fairly uncomplicated answer. It makes me wonder how much we simply complicate the issue ourselves.
The conversation in which our passage today occurs was a complicated situation, as Peter described. The context wasn’t about the poor or hungry, it was about the destruction of the temple, the end times, and salvation. The disciples were curious what their Messiah would achieve for them in the end. Jesus is, of course, happy to tell them all about it, albeit in fairly obscured terms. Matthew’s Gospel never gives us the disciple’s reaction, but I imagine they were pretty befuddled. I hope so, anyway, because my eyes certainly glaze over when I read most of Matthew 24 and 25. There’s a lot of metaphor and parable and imagery floating around in those chapters. Until you get to the end of the conversation, the end of Matthew 25, our passage today - when Jesus gets really clear cut. “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, 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… Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
When it comes to people in need, Jesus doesn’t complicate the question; he cuts right to the chase. At the end of all things, the question God will ask is not how big and beautiful our churches are, or how pure our thoughts were, or even how discerning our charity work has been. God will ask if we fed the hungry and visited the imprisoned and befriended the stranger. God will ask if we cared for the least among us, the ones who need the most help, the ones we’re told will come first in the kingdom of heaven.
That is a lot less complicated than I want to make it. Any questions I might want to ask about people’s real need or their motivations or my feelings about their choices seem to be totally unimportant in the light of this passage. Feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Jesus says all that without qualifications or caveats.
One of the gifts of church is that it’s a place where we learn intergenerationally. And the thing that I have learned after spending the last week with our youngest church folks is that if someone is hungry, we should offer whatever food we have handy. It’s not actually that complicated.
And if I want to complicate it, here’s the gift Jesus gives us: we get to look at people in need and see our Savior. So when I go to the McDonald’s at Blue Ridge Mall and see a homeless guy asleep in one of the chairs, I get to see Jesus. When I take the 23rd street exit onto 435 South and see panhandlers, I get to see Jesus. When I turn on the news and see people in prisons and detention centers, I get to see Jesus. When I enter a hospital room, I get to see Jesus.
And when Jesus is homeless or panhandling or incarcerated or sick or lonely, our response becomes a lot less complicated, and a lot more child-like. None of us would turn Jesus away, and so none of us need turn away another human being.
What a gift! What a blessed opportunity to share! What a holy way to see the world through the holy eyes of children. Thanks be to God. Amen.