Text Study for Matthew 25:31-46

My study of the gospel text for this Sunday is fairly long on its own. So, I think I will publish it today and put out more text study materials in the next few days. But first, a couple of related notes.

November is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s publication of The Freedom of the Christian. 1520 is such a central year for Luther’s theology and writing. I’m disappointed we haven’t celebrated his publications from that year a bit more (although we’ve had a few other small concerns to address this year). I reference this document several times below and encourage you to consider reading (and re-reading) Luther’s text in its entirety.

This is also fundraising time for our friends at workingpreacher.org. I plan to contribute to their work and I hope you will as well. They do a great service for preachers across the church, and that work should be supported by those of us who use it.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 serve as bookends for Matthew’s pre-passion narrative. But Matthew 28 serves as the capstone of the Gospel and ties the bookends to the larger narrative.

Most important for our text today, Jesus says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” The call is to disciple the “nations.” The Son of Man uses the same word in the Great Judgment in Matthew 25. Matthew assumes that the church has been engaged in that mission during the time between the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. The sheep and the goats are not completely in the dark, Matthew assumes, about the good news of Jesus.

A major theme of that good news in Matthew is that God is “with us” in Jesus. Jesus is named “Immanuel” (God with us) early in the gospel. The last words of the gospel, and of the Lord in Matthew’s account, are “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, we should not be surprised when we run into Jesus here, there, and everywhere. And yet, we are routinely surprised by the presence of the Lord in what we think are odd places.

Today’s gospel reading suggests that we are looking for God in all the wrong places. If you hear echoes of the Beatitudes from a few weeks ago, then your ears are tuned properly. We look for saints in all the wrong places because we look for God in all the wrong places. We expect to find Christ adorned with a crown. We resist seeing him hanging “in glory” on the cross.

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-free faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. “Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man,” writes David Lose (2014). “Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian (and several other places) Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.”

In Freedom, he writes, “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (Freedom of the Christian, page 524, my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. Luther says we are called “Christians” because Christ lives in us and works through us for the good of our neighbor. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us, Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 525).

I think it is important to emphasize how works “work” in the life of the Christian so that this text does not become a burden but is rather a joy. Tuomo Mannermaa writes, “When Christ lives in Christians through faith, love begins to ‘live’ in them as well, as Luther expresses it in the Heidelberg Disputation.” (Two Kinds of Love, Kindle Locations 1029-1030). Christ present in faith frees and equips us to see Jesus in the places we would not look on our own.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world, except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Loving the neighbor as Jesus loves me (us) happens through a particular way of seeing. “To those who desire to know God truly, Luther says, turn from what appears to be beautiful—all that is saturated in glory—toward that which is avoided and despised by the world, the cross and suffering,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones. “God is hidden in the cross of Christ and also in the crosses of those who suffer.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 2181)

Luther connects our way of seeing to our theological orientation. When we look for God in all the powerful places, we practice the theology of glory. When we do that, we will miss seeing God at all. Martin Luther gives voice to this conundrum in his theses for the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. It is useful to look especially at theses 19 through 22.

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

In Luther’s theology of the cross, God is always hidden under the form of the opposite. “The theologian of the cross in action must be the reverse of the theologian of glory,” writes Ruge-Jones, “preferring sufferings to works, cross to glory, the weak to the powerful, the fools to the wise, and universally that which is taken by the world as evil over that which the world lauds and pursues as good.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 3912).

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 530).

What are we to make of the “unconscious” (or perhaps “un-self-conscious”) responses of the sheep and the goats? The sheep did not act out of some sort of self-interest. Since they did not recognize Jesus, they did not act in order to impress him. There is no discussion or debate about whether those in need are somehow worthy or unworthy.

The sheep paid attention to the need and responded without extended reflection or calculation. Their faith informed and their love formed their actions. The goats did not respond accordingly. “Or to put it even more precisely,” writes Capon, “they [the sheep] are praised at his final parousia for what they did in his parousia throughout their lives, namely, for trusting him to have had a relationship with them all along.” (Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Kindle Locations 6635-6636).

This love by attention continues to be our vocation. “The victory of Jesus over the evil in the world is not simply a fait accompli which could be disproved by the continuance of evil to this day,” notes N. T. Wright. “It is a victory waiting to be implemented through his followers.” (Following Jesus, Kindle Location 1186-1187).

You may leave your listeners with several points to ponder this week. Who is “being Christ” to you this week? Who needs your loving attention this week? In what unexpected places and ways is Jesus showing up in your life this week? Where can you respond to those in need beyond your immediate daily activities?

Now for the “surgeon general’s warning” on this line of thinking. We could lead people to think we are affirming:

  • Co-dependent caretaking at the expense of myself – no, that’s not it.
  • White savior complex because we (white, male, European-educated, upper middle class) have all the answers to the world’s problems – no, that’s not it.
  • Colonization by evangelization – no, that’s not it (see the previous bullet point)
  • Power over the “needy” – no, that’s not it. Jesus power is always power with, to, and for the other.

It’s important to remember that the presence of Christ in us by faith produces the death of ourselves first (see Galatians 2). If serving in love makes us powerful in worldly terms, we are embodying the theology of glory and deluding ourselves.

Resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 6366-6368). Kindle Edition.

Online text of the theses for the Heidelberg Disputation — https://mbird.com/wp-content/uploads/sermons/HeidelbergDisputation.pdf.

Lose, David. “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God.” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/

Wengert, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian: The Annotated Luther Study Edition. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

N.T. Wright. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Kindle Locations 1186-1187). Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 966-967). Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91) . Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition

Weil, Simone. Awaiting God. Fresh Wind Press.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24

Limburg, James. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-2

Sharp, Carolyn J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s