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The Great Surprise

Reverend Philip Stringer

Matthew 25:31-46

LET US PRAY: We ask, O Lord, that the words which we hear this morning and the worship which we offer, may bear fruit in our hearts and be acceptable in your sight, and strength and our redeemer. AMEN

A retired man became interested in the construction of an addition to a shopping mall. Observing the activity regularly, he was especially impressed by the conscientious operator of a large piece of equipment. The day finally came when the man had a chance to tell this worker how much he’d enjoyed watching his careful work. Looking astonished, the operator replied, “You’re not the supervisor?”

Do you work harder when you know that someone is watching you?

For anyone who thinks that life is about doing good works to please God so they can get into heaven, today’s text must be a delight. It spells it out, clearly defining good and bad. And if God is keeping score, then today’s gospel reading is like receiving the answers to the test before it is given.

But I have a surprise -- Good news and bad news. The bad news for anyone who thinks they are earning points is that God isn’t keeping score. The good news -- is the same news. God isn’t keeping score.

This parable is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats. In fact, a better name would be the parable of the great surprise. It is a story full of surprises.

For one thing, you may be surprised to hear that you and I are not the sheep in this parable. The next surprise -- a welcome one -- is that we are not the goats, either. We belong to Jesus through our baptism into Christ. We who live by faith in Jesus are referred to in the parable as “these who are members of my family.” The sheep and the goats are those outside of the church, and their judgment in this story is based on how they have treated those who are members of the church! “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” That’s a surprising twist, isn’t it?

But this is a story with twist upon twist. Is Jesus giving us a measuring stick for keeping score of non-Christians? No, he is not. In fact, Jesus told this parable AGAINST those who want to keep score.

In the Jewish tradition, there were many stories called “morality stories” that taught right from wrong. In these stories, there is always a hero -- a righteous person who knows that they are righteous because they have made the right choices and done good deeds. They can hold their head up high as they list how perfect they are. We can see elements of this in the story of Job, where his righteousness is repeatedly pointed out as proof that he does not deserve the suffering that has befallen him.

The Egyptians also had similar morality stories recorded in their “Book of the Dead.” In these stories, also, the hero knows he is righteous and can point to his list of good deeds as proof.

So it comes as no surprise that a laundry list of good deeds had become the measure of a good person in Jesus’ day -- sort of an itemized inventory of one’s importance.

Jesus was constantly at odds with people who tried to judge the righteousness of others. Once Jesus met a man who asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He was bragging, as it turned out, because he told Jesus that he had kept all the law perfectly. “Then you lack only one thing,” said Jesus. “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Then come follow me.” Jesus was unimpressed by keeping score. He was more interested in a loving heart.

In our parable today, Jesus does the same thing when he identifies the righteous as being completely opposite from the characters in the morality stories.

The surprise in Jesus’ story is that the righteous ones (the sheep) are surprised to learn they are righteous. They don’t even know what they’ve done to be righteous! They weren’t even thinking about it.

Furthermore, the unrighteous are surprised to learn that they are UNrighteous. The unrighteous ones are people like those lifted up as heroes in the popular morality stories. They loved to keep score.

In Jesus’ story he tells us that keeping score -- either our own score or the score of others -- isn’t the way we ought to be living. And that should be a relief to us, because if that is how life is, you are only as secure as your last good deed.

The good news isn’t that Jesus gives us a checklist for getting into heaven. The good news is that we are saved by God’s grace, apart from our works.

Having said all of that, at its DEEPEST level, this is NOT a parable about who’s going to heaven and who’s not. While there is SOME reference to that in the story, for you and me this is most importantly a story of where God meets us, and how. It’s not a story about going to heaven. It’s a story about the coming of the kingdom of God.

Jesus told this parable in response to the question of his disciples: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus has spent two chapters giving them the answer in all sorts of parables and images, and today’s parable is the very last thing he has to say about it.

And what he says -- perhaps the greatest surprise in the who parable -- is that the kingdom comes with Jesus, and Jesus comes not in some distant, future event, but in the weak and hungry and naked of today! Both the sheep and the goats are surprised to learn that the Lord -- the almighty -- has come to them not as a great and glorious figure, but as a stranger, naked, hungry, sick and imprisoned.

Today is Christ the King Sunday -- the last Sunday of the church year. We end our church year with an acclamation of the reign of Christ over all of creation. And the surprise for us on this day is that the final image we see of Jesus here is in the image of an outcast. The Son of God stands deliberately and voluntarily in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated, the tortured.

Jesus began his earthly life as a refugee and he ends it as a condemned criminal. What the world can’t understand is why we worship someone who -- by every earthly measure -- is a failure. That’s the scandal of the gospel -- THE great surprise of all time.

In this world, Christ the King is still an outcast. For us to be followers of this king is for us, also, to be outcasts.

This parable that Jesus tells is very confusing in many ways, because it is filled with so many surprises:

The surprise of who is righteous and who is not; the surprise of where Christ meets us.

The surprise of God’s grace at work in our lives.

And the surprise that we are called to be outcasts in the world.

We are children of grace. We don’t need to keep score.

That is good news for EVERYONE, because you can see the difficulty of course -- If we live life with the expectation of accumulating enough good points to get into heaven, then they cease to be good works, don’t they. We are no longer helping our neighbor -- we are exploiting their need for our own selfish gain. That is not a good work at all, and it would be better if we were to just give up.

Likewise, we cannot look to this parable as a way to judge the righteousness of others. We’re not in a position to see such things.

Nearly a century ago, Alexander Woollcott gave a speech at his alma mater, Hamilton College. He began by saying, ““I send my greetings today to all my fellow alumni . . . scattered all over the world. Some of you are successes, and some of you are failures -- only God knows which are which.” The sorting of sheep and goats is a job that belongs to God alone.

The parable is not about how to get into heaven. And the parable is not about how to judge your neighbor. Instead, the parable speaks to us most profoundly about this: Jesus identifies with the outcasts, and that is still where we will find him today.

And that’s good to know -- because on our own merits, we are ALL outcasts (as Paul puts it, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”).

And as followers of Jesus, we are outcasts in the world’s eyes, too -- because to follow after Jesus is to seek out the broken and unwanted.

Jesus identifies with the outcasts, and that is still where we will find him today. So let go of measuring yourself and others, and celebrate the surprise of Christ the King, revealed in our neighbor.

Christ, the King of all.


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