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Surprise! Surprise!
November 23, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 25:31-46

Surprise! Surprise! The Scripture lesson for today is full of surprises. Let’s look at Matthew 25.31-46 in detail.

The first surprise for many Methodists is that there is judgment! The Son of Man will sit on his throne, surrounded by angels. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will divide people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be put at his right hand and receive the reward. The goats will be put at his left hand and receive punishment. Southpaws and goats get bad press! Goats get a raw deal. I’ve often wondered why goats are the bad guys and sheep are the good guys. Tuesday’s news reported that a herd of sheep was remembered in a will. Each sheep receives $12,000! The sheep are rewarded!

I attended a seminar in which Suzanne Bar-Tal, staff archaeologist and senior lecturer from Archaeological Seminars in Jerusalem, gave two fascinating lectures on "Jesus the Jew in First Century Jerusalem." When she was describing Jesus’ life in rural Galilee, I asked her, "Why are goats discriminated against?" When we lived in Manteca, there was a goat farm on the edge of town. Goat milk was shipped all over the area, and greatly appreciated by people who are allergic to dairy products. When we lived in Rocksprings, Texas, one summer, the major industry was goats. Rocksprings is called "The Angora Goat Capital of the World." So why, I asked Dr. Bar-Tal, does the Bible discriminate against goats?

She laughed and told us about sheep and goats. In Jesus’ day, the indigenous, wild goat was a pain. The goat ate everything in sight, including the root system of plants. In a few weeks, the goat could completely, permanently, denude a plot of ground, so that nothing would ever again grow there. Therefore, the goat was not popular, and became the symbol of those deserving eternal punishment. Isn’t it interesting how the goat is a taker; one who takes selfishly, indulgently, wanting the very last morsel for himself, with no thought for anyone else, and with no thought for the future. The goat was concerned only for his stomach, not realizing or caring that eating the root system would mean starvation in the future for even the goats. The goat resembles modern takers who want to take and use all the natural resources for our consumption today. They see nothing wrong in taking all the oil, taking all the redwoods, not caring for anyone else, nor the future.

Such behavior is not tolerated by the Son of Man, by the King who judges. Takers are not tolerated. Only givers will inherit the kingdom. Only those who, like sheep, will give the wool from off their backs so that others may be warm, will be rewarded.

There will be a great division, a separation. Takers will be separated from givers and banished. We celebrate two festivals today: Thanksgiving and the last Sunday before Advent, "Reign of Christ the King." The lectionary suggestion for today is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Christ the King separates. Most of us would rather read this familiar passage, and skip over the part about the Great Division. But, judgment, whether we like it or not, is a reality. Some will make it and some won’t. We don’t have to look too far around us to see examples of folks who are takers and folks who are givers. Judgment is essentially a division between the givers and the takers.

Surprise! Surprise! Everyone is judged. "All the nations will be gathered," said Jesus. The scholars interpret this to mean all humankind. I often am asked, "What about other religions? What about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about those who are perfectly happy with their own religion?" In this passage, Jesus includes all nations and all religions. The Great Division is universal, and the criterion used to divide the sheep from the goats is not religious; the criterion distinguishes between givers and takers, regardless of their religion. Jesus cut right through all religions, cut through confessions and professions, cut through theology and philosophy, cut through liturgy and ritual, cut through institutions and organizations, cut through pretense and self-righteousness. Surprise! Surprise!

Another surprise: Where is Jesus, the king? Where do we find Jesus today? Jesus said, “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.” Where is Jesus? V. 40, "As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus is in the hungry who stand in lines at Sacred Heart. We hope Jesus is here this morning, but we know Jesus is in the hungry! Jesus is in the strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Jesus expands the Old Testament ethic where the widows, orphans, and strangers are to be assisted and treated with respect. Jesus includes all who are in need. How we treat those in need is how we treat Jesus. Jesus identifies with the poor, identifies with those who have no advocate, and are unable to help themselves.

Surprise! Surprise! Ministering to those in need is advocated by the major religions, not just Christianity.

From the Hebrew Scriptures: “Blessed is he who considers the poor,

the Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.” Psalm 41.1

From Islam: “They feed with food the needy wretch, the orphan, and

the prisoner, for love of Him, saying, ‘we wish for no reward nor thanks from

you.” Qur’an 76.8-9

From Buddhism: There are three kinds of persons existing in the

world: one is like a drought, one who rains locally, and one who pours down

everywhere. How is a person like a drought? He gives nothing to all alike,

not giving food or drink, clothing and vehicle, flowers, scents, bed, lodging and light, neither to recluses and Brahmins to wretched and needy beggars. In this way, a person is like a drought.

How is a person like a local rainfall? He is a giver to some, but to

others gives not.

How does a person rain down everywhere? He gives to all, be they

recluses and Brahmins or wretched, needy beggars, he is a giver of food

and drink, clothing…lodging and lights. In this way a person rains down



Christianity is not the only religion called to minister to those in need Our church is also actively engaged in feeding the hungry, ministering to those in need. We prepare meals for the shelters, and volunteer at Sacred Heart. Yesterday, 27 from our church packed hundreds of food boxes at Sacred Heart. Harvey Mayeda and Darryl Noda are engaged in prison ministry. They go once a week to the prison. We contribute food and clothing to Sacred Heart and the Second Harvest Food Bank. But, isn’t it scandalous that the rich land of America, where the rich continually get richer, cannot feed and house its people. It’s a scandal. Let us pray and work for the day when everyone has food, housing, and opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must move from hand-outs to giving a hand, not doing for, but doing with. Feed the hungry, yes; but let’s build a society where everyone feeds themselves and lives in their own home.

Surprise! Surprise! Ministering to human need is not done out of our own strength. V. 34, “Then the king will say, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father.’” The passage implies a relationship with God. We respond to human need not in our own strength or ability. We respond because we have been blessed, because we have experienced the grace of God, the mercy of Jesus, and are powered by the Holy Spirit to minister to Jesus through those in need. It is God’s initiative and blessing that turns us into givers.

We begin life as takers. Infants are helpless, completely dependent on mother. They are takers. Gradually they learn to be givers, but some never make it past the taker stage. As adults, they remain selfish and self-centered. When toddlers begin to share, give a picture they have drawn, when they want to help set the table, encourage them to become givers. Givers are in relationship with God. The relationship is called salvation or redemption. To say “I am saved, I belong to Jesus” is evidenced by becoming a giver. If the words of faith are not evidenced in giving, words are worthless. Jesus is emphatic! He said, Matthew 7.21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Furthermore, 25.34, “Inherit the kingdom”, says the King. We inherit the kingdom. We don’t earn it or deserve it. The kingdom is given to the sheep.

Surprise! Surprise! The opposite of kingdom is eternal punishment. This is figurative language. Tradition says hell is eternal fire, but in the preceding parable, Matthew 25.30, Jesus used the phrase, “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” A preacher preached about the gnashing of teeth in hell. A toothless old lady in the front pew interrupted him and asked, “What if you have no teeth?” Without missing a beat, the preacher responded, “They will be provided!” Outer darkness and eternal fire are incompatible, they are not the same. We do not take them literally. This is figurative language. The kingdom is also figurative language. The kingdom is not a place, but a relationship with Jesus where we welcome God to rule, where we accept the rule of God in our lives. Eternal punishment, eternal fire, outer darkness is figurative language for the absence of a relationship. The key sentence is v. 25.41, “Depart from me.” Hell is the absence of a relationship. Hell is living outside the grace, outside the rule of God. Both the kingdom and eternal punishment are present realities as well as future.

Last Sunday, a worshiper told me his father recently died and while his mother grieves, she received a phone call from a supposed Bank of America investigator who wanted her assistance. After giving the scammers $20,000, she realized she had been taken advantage of. The takers evidently used the obituary to get her name and circumstance. Takers like that convince me there is a hell! They deserve etrnal punishment. After the 8:30 service this morning, a worshiper told me that while she was visiting her mother, she noticed her mother was at the computer. Her mother asked, “Why does AOL want my bank routing number?” She had already typed in her credit card and social security numbers! Her daughter quickly deleted the page! AOL doesn't ask for such information. Be alert and beware. If you live alone, and receive telephone calls or emails requesting your participation, never give money or credit card or Social Security numbers. Consult with your family, or respected friends, before responding to any requests or offers. There are cruel takers out there!

There are takers who take not only money, but people’s lives. The Civil War did not end slavery. Slavery is alive and flourishing. Women, especially from Korea and Thailand, are imported and enslaved in sex rings, domestic service, and marriages. On December 7 we will have a program on human trafficking, and a presentation on human trafficking on January 14.

Immigrant laborers pay brokers to get them to the U.S., only to find they must work as slaves to pay more money to the brokers. Slave laborers also work in other countries in abysmal surroundings, 12-14 hour days, paid next to nothing to produce goods which we then purchase. We support slave labor. Do you realize we are probably wearing clothes produced by children!

Tom Harkin, US senator from Iowa, sponsor of legislation, wrote, “During my three decades in the U.S. Congress, I have witnessed firsthand the horrors of abusive child labor in many countries. Once you see children toiling in fields and factories, children who are beaten and starved, children who live without love or even basic care, you can't help but be passionately committed to ending this scourge.” An action we can take is to research companies. Perhaps our Missions/Social Concerns Committee could research and publicize to us the companies who use child and slave laborers. Would you pay a little more for a shirt or buy one made by a child? Stop buying from those companies, and let the companies know you no longer are a customer. Stop the takers who exploit Jesus by exploiting the least of these who are members of Jesus' family.

The king is intolerant of goats who take, intolerant of those who support takers in their taking. How we respond to human need is how we respond to Jesus. In the Great Division, the takers will be separated from the givers. To the givers, the king will say, "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." To the takers, the king will say, "Depart from me.” Which are you, a giver or a taker?

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris