No Mere Good Teacher
Today’s passage paints a disturbing and very harsh picture. The separation of the sheep and goats, the saved and the damned, into two groups -- one destined for eternal glory and the other for eternal fire in the company of demons -- is meant to be a frightening and troubling scene.
If nothing else, this story shows that Jesus, the good shepherd and lover of our souls, is also going to be the great and final judge of all mankind. When it comes to caring for the least among us, Jesus means business, and there will be no place to plead ignorance of His presence among those who are on the outside, the dirty, the unclean, the strangerous and the dangerous and all of the ones we teach our children to avoid.
Our refusal to look them in the face will be His reason for refusing to allow us to see Him face to face on the day of judgment. He is watching us through their eyes, observing whether our faith is real or just gassy philosophy. Today’s story makes it clear, He is watching you and me observing our level of compassion through their eyes. Do you dare to gaze into their longing eyes? Do you dare to gaze into His longing eyes? They are one and the same face.
As an aside, teachings like this and our Truth Seeker’s Verse for this week -- “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes the the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ) are the main reason Jesus can’t be labeled as merely a “good teacher.” If you or I were to say these things about ourselves -- to stand up and claim we will be judging all the nations, sending some to heaven and some to hell, we would have to be taken away to a padded cell. And rightfully so! We are sinners, every one of us, saved only by grace through faith and the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. Who are we to judge anyone?
Only someone in God’s position could make these statements. Therefore, Jesus was either God in the flesh, or a very deluded, very evil person. That is something each of us must decide at some point. Do you believe the miracles? Do you believe the testimony of his first followers, who almost to a man embraced execution rather than deny His divinity? Or will you write off everything he said as the ravings of a madman foaming at the mouth?
Which do you think He is? I know what I believe -- that He is the Son of Man, co-equal with God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. But you must weigh the evidence, search your heart and mind, and decide for yourself. Only please don’t make the mistake of labeling Him as just another good teacher. That position is absurd and, frankly, tellingly oblivious to what Jesus said about Himself.
Dividing the Question
Now back to the sheep and goats. This story is very plain -- even a child can see what it is about. But, believe it or not, scholars tend to quarrel a great deal of the meaning of this teaching. Some have seen this story as a plain call to social justice. They certainly can make a strong case. After all, Jesus speaks in very clear language about meeting the physical needs of those who are downtrodden and oppressed. He speaks of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, encouraging the prisoner. It is hard to miss the point here: we must care for those who have urgent physical needs.
However, there is another way to look at this story. Throughout history, while most have seen this as a call to social justice, many other interpreters have seen it is as a metaphor for spiritual support within the body of Christ. That interpretation hinges on two small words in verse 40: “‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
Those words, “my brethren” lead some to believe that this passage applies only to caring for those who are within the body of Christ. While that interpretation faces some serious challenges in light of Jesus’ other teachings about leaving ninety-nine righteous people to find one who is lost and our Lord’s conspicuous habit of healing the blind, curing lepers and feeding the hungry crowds, it is hard to argue completely against it.
According to that school of thought, each of these needs is spiritual -- hunger and thirst represent a hunger and thirst for righteousness, nakedness represents an unregenerate state while the robe of righteousness is waiting to be worn. Sickness represents the disease of sin whose wages is death. And prison represents those who are held captive by the sins they cannot seem to escape from. It is, as I said, hard to argue completely against this interpretation.
So which is it? Is this story calling us to social justice or spiritual support within the body of Christ? Does Jesus expect us to care for the poor and outcast of society, regardless of their faith? Or does He expect us to show mercy to those are part of the body of Christ -- His church?
I see no reason why it cannot be both. The call to social justice is clear throughout the Scriptures -- the poor are always very close to God’s heart. And at the same time, we are not mere material boys and girls. There is a deeper side to all of us, and that spiritual dimension also requires nurturing and tender care. Yes, you may disagree with me, but I have decided that this story is calling us to radical social and spiritual accountability.
Urgency of Compassion
First, the physical. The physical suffering of others matters very much to God, and if Jesus teaches us anything at all, it is that the needs of others call out urgently for compassion. Indeed, Jesus goes so far in His identification with these urgent needs that He claims we are serving the Lord himself when we are serving the poor and needy.
In 1205, a very rich and spoiled young man was riding his horse through the Italian countryside when he came upon a leper with outstretched hand. The young man, who had always despised lepers, had been listening to God’s voice of late, and dismounted to kiss the beggar’s hand and give him a coin. The beggar disappeared, and the young man realized that he had been caring for the Lord himself. That young man, Francis, gave his heart to God, gave up everything he had and moved into the leper colony nearby.
Much earlier, in about 310 AD, another privileged young man was also riding his horse when he encountered a beggar. The shivering wretch was naked and turning blue in cold. The young soldier dismounted his warhorse and cut his warm and heavy soldier’s cloak in half and gave it to the beggar, risking severe punishment for destroying his uniform. Later in a dream he saw Jesus on the throne of heaven, wearing the cape he had given to the beggar, saying, “Behold what my servant Martin has given to me.” The young cavalryman went on to follow Christ and eventually become bishop of the town of Tours in France. A scrap of his cape was passed around in little shrines for many years after his death -- these little shrines were called “capelli” in Italian, or “little cape houses.” In English, the word is translated “chapel” -- a tribute to the compassion of Martin of Tours that endures in countless churches today, including Calvary Chapel and our own neighboring church Faith Chapel.
We, His people, must work for healing and justice in the world, and that compassion must extend to all of God’s children, whether they know Him or not.
“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2.26)
Importance of the Spirit
Next we must consider the importance of the Spirit. By the same token, our obligation to serve others has a spiritual dimension. What good is it to slap band-aids on owies when there is cancer deep inside? When the body and mind will fade away, the spirit will remain.
Furthermore, there is a kinship between believers, and with that familial relationship comes an abiding need to care for one another. There are those in this room and in this fellowship who are strangers in need of a place to lay their head, who know the cold of a prison cell, and who are sick with no one to comfort them. The kinship we have compels us to care for one another deeply -- and if the body of Christ cannot care for those within it, it is only a corpse, a dead horse that no amount of hallelujah singing and windy sermons could possibly prop-up.
The scriptures tell us plainly -- we must bear one another’s burdens. We must encourage one another. We must build each other up. This goes for spiritual needs as well as physical needs. Sure, we must not rest until every child of God is well fed and warm in body, but we must always keep in mind that these bodies are only temporary, while the spirit is eternal. As we provide bread for bodies, let us also provide spiritual bread for the soul. As we cover physical nakedness with our “capes,” let us also cover the shame of the spiritually threadbare with the robe of righteousness and the soul-warming blood of Christ. While we set prisoners free from physical addictions, let us also set souls free from spiritual bondage.
As we answer the urgent call to physical compassion, we must also remember the ultimate importance of the spirit.
“As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.” (Psalm 103.15)
Responsibility for Care
Finally, we bear the responsibility for caring for others. In the end, whether in body or in spirit, Jesus is perfectly clear about one thing: we are indeed our brother’s keeper. This is not your neighbor’s job, this is not your brother’s job, this is not the government’s job, nor even the institutional church’s job. It is your job and mine. We are responsible for the care of others.
Will You Pass Him By Today?
Today, like Martin and Francis, each of us will meet someone in need. Will you brush them off as inconvenient? Or will you serve them, and in doing so serve the Lord?