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By David Howell

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Preaching Matthew 25:31-46


This final discourse of Matthew’s gospel has always reminded me of the ending of his rendition of the Sermon on the Mount. Its summative nature offers a dramatic and apocalyptic end point to Jesus’ teaching. It is the last judgment scene, and the visual effects of the Son of Man seated on the throne in glory, surrounded by angels in full array, with the rainbow gathering of all the nations on earth, also in glorious splendor, is the stuff of Hollywood epics. This text that appears as the final Lectionary Gospel reading for Year B and also for the yearly reading for Watchnight (New Year’s Eve) or Covenant (New Year’s Day) services, is an appropriate marker for an ending time, whether of the church year or the public year.
The text describes a moment of triumph, and invites a mood of celebration for those who have successfully lived as members of the beloved community. The image of the shepherd is intentionally aligned with Jesus, the good shepherd, who knows his sheep and who has led them through valleys and shadows, who has fed them in pastures of green and has seen them safely home into the well–deserved kingdom or realm of God. The Son of Man as King comes to bring their well-deserved reward to the faithful. It is an affirmation of those who have lived the Christian life and whose actions have been living testimonies of their faithfulness to their new life in Christ. This is a new world of light and life, theirs for eternity.
However, the text also provides evidence of the fate of those who have disdained the justice teachings of Christ and have in effect lived a more self-centered life, forgetting the call to love and compassion for all people, especially those in need. Theirs is also a kind of kingdom or realm, but there is no celebratory moment, no throne and no glory. Instead, theirs is a world of loss, pain, and utter darkness. And sadly they are unwitting in their action and amazed at the results.
Matthew’s recounting appeals to the understanding of the hearers in a way that is lost to perhaps the majority of us, with our twenty-first century post-modern, non-agrarian cultures. Both sheep and goats have experienced the attention of the shepherd. In first century Palestine, the value placed on sheep versus goats and the special care given this commercially important element of their economy would not have been lost on Matthew’s audience. We are not told why the sheep responded to the needs of the disenfranchised as they did nor do we know why the goats did not recognize the need to do likewise. In fact, both groups are amazed at the results. The underlying sentiment is that both groups had the opportunity and having experienced the shepherd’s care themselves, in some sense knew what was required of them. How they acted was a matter of individual (or group) choice.
What is challenging for our understanding of this text is its distance from Jesus’ requirements as stated in the two greatest commandments—or is it? At first glance, one might be sidetracked into thinking that the focus is simply on the sheep’s actions. They fed the hungry; provided drink to quench thirst; clothed the naked; and visited the sick and imprisoned. These are all worthwhile and necessary actions for those who would do the will of Christ. But is that all there is? Is that all it takes to be on the “right” side?
Lest we think that simply having a prison ministry, or doing regular sick visitation, or providing food for those in need by means of a food pantry or even a soup kitchen is the definitive answer to living and being Christian, and ultimately achieving the righteousness that leads to eternal life, it is important that we focus on the notion of self-giving love, even self-sacrificing love that is represented in these actions.
Christ calls us to love wholeheartedly—love God with heart, soul and mind, and love neighbor as self (Mt 22:36-40). This love is a divine gift of grace to each person who has experienced newness of life in Christ. It is the expression of that soul-stirring, life-enriching love that moves those who are fully in Christ to works of mercy and compassion that are evidenced in the feeding, the visiting, and the various and sundry acts that bring justice to the oppressed, speak peace to those who cannot rest, and offer new life to those under sentence of death, if only of their hopes and dreams. All are done in the name of the one who opened the path of eternal life for all people.
In a society that is generally self-serving, with many generational cultures that operate on a WIIFM (what’s in it for me) or “me” mentality, the compassionate generosity for which the Son of man in his glory offers the ultimate reward is more than counter-cultural. It requires a commitment to righteousness, to kingdom living that acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all spheres of life. It speaks to the engagement of one’s covenant with Christ in all aspects of daily life on earth, which in turn brings the adherent into that realm of heaven wherein is eternal life.

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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