September 3, 2000
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
It was the end of the semester and students had shown up to take a final on a course on Jesus Parables. They waited impatiently for the professor to appear with the exams. Instead, someone from the registrars office came just at the time the exam was to begin. She told the students that unfortunately the place for the exam had been changed to a room on the other side of campus. Time is critical in these exams and students rushed from the room to make the trek across campus, noticing, as they did so, a disheveled drunk lying by the road. They shouldnt allow drunks on campus.
They arrived at the re-assigned room and on each desk was the exam. It contained one question, a fact which struck terror in them since everything depended upon answering one question. The question was: interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan. Students struggled to remember everything they could the professor had said and what they had read in the text book and they were still writing when the time was up.
A week later students got their grades. Everyone had failed. The reason was they had walked by that guy lying on the road , and so demonstrated that they really didnt understand the parable of the Good Samaritan. Are there going to be a lot of complaints about the grading on that exam? You bet. Will students have a good case?
Not according to these words of Jesus which confront us in Matthew 25, a parable - if that is what it is - about the basis on which Jesus will separate sheep and goats at the last judgment. The principle of separation is what people have done or not done in their lives, not upon what they knew. Finally, college learning is not ivory tower learning. If it doesnt compute in real life, its not real learning. The types of students who complain about grades in college are going to complain about how they are treated in real life. Students who recognize they arent going to get everything right while in college will cope well with the give and take of real life. Thats the point of the final exam story. It is also the point of Matthew 25.
Im one to talk. I went to a cooperative college. Six months out of the year I worked in industry in a job related to my major of chemical engineering. If it didnt work in the pilot plant, it wasnt any good in class and every Drexel student knew that.
We might ask Matthew, what is the basis on which the separation between the sheep and the goats is made? His answer is, one group of people saw those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, needing clothes, sick, or in prison and because it wasnt someone worth helping or because helping that person brought you no benefit, or because they had other things pressing on them, they did nothing to help. While people in the other group, when they met people with needs, fed them, gave water to them, housed them, clothed them, looked after them and visited them regardless of who they were or what particular pressures they personally faced..
Thats the basis. But notice the difference between verses 37-39, the words the righteous say to the Lord and verse 44, the words the goats say to the Lord. The first group says, when did we see you, Lord, in need? They met the needs of many people, but though they never saw the Lord in this, they saw needy people and they helped them. The second group, the goats, say, when did we see you, Lord, in need, and did not do you service? If we had seen you, we certainly would have rushed to support you. The implication is, no one they saw in need reminded them of the Lord, because had they been honest, upright, caring people they saw, they would have done something to help. Those are my kind of people, they would say. As it was, they did nothing to help because all they saw were the downtrodden street people.
This parable emphasizes the truth that ultimately every person on earth will be called upon to account for how he/she used whatever opportunities he/she has had during his life to serve needy people. But on judgment day there are going to be some surprises. People will be surprised to find that what they did kindly to insignificant people without thinking a second time about it turns out to be significant. And by contrast, there are those who will discover that what they failed to do to serve the lowly and unnoticeable was important.
So, earlier in Matthew, 16:27, Jesus says that when he comes, he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Or, when Paul sets up his argument for justification by faith in the book of Romans, he talks about the need for justification by discussing the Jews and their judgment and Paul says, (2:6) God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
And in one other place, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul says, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Now let me clarify one theological matter because this passage does not say everything. The Bible is like that. It assumes the readers know the larger framework of assumptions about God and life which may be discussed in one passage, or demonstrated in one persons life, but is not repeated. The larger framework is that salvation is not earned by good works. These people who are called sheep and righteous act consistently with their nature. Nothing is said in this passage about grace, faith or the atoning work of Christ. Matthew 25 does not give a full picture of all that is involved in salvation. We cannot conclude from this one passage that grace, faith and Christs atoning work are not significant as we come to judgment day.
At the same time, what we do in life to serve people is important when we come to the judgment day. Thats the long time line perspective. There is another perspective from which to see service. As a person grows and matures in the Christian way, it is necessary to acquire certain skills. One of those skills is service. The reason why we ought to serve people is not because we see service from the perspective of judgment day. That was not the point of the parable in Matthew 25.
Jesus himself is the example we want to look at and say, heres why we need to serve people. Jesus ministered to the poor and the outcast and we want to be like Him; if indeed we are His disciples, we need to do the same things. In Matthew 11:5, Jesus is describing his work, The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. What we see Jesus doing, we ought to want to do. We all dont have a gift of healing, but there are a variety of ways to serve the poor and sick. The people in verse 42 of Matthew 25 were wrapped up in their own needs. Those needs took up so much of their time they really had no time left for the needs of people around them. There is always something in our lives which works like being late for an important examination so we ignore what is happening to people around us. Im guilty of this. Efficiency in use of time is built into me.
C. S. Lewis - I told you I was going to quote him regularly - had a correspondence - in Latin - with an Italian priest named Don Giovanni Calabria. In one letter he wrote,
I believe that the men of this age - and Lewis includes the priest and himself - think too much about the state of nations and the situation of the world. Does not the author of The Imitation (Thomas a Kempis) warn us against involving ourselves too much with such things?
We are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe, we neglect Verona (where the priest lived) or Oxford (where Lewis lived).
In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks my advice, the Lord Himself is present: therefore let us wash His feet.
I have always believed that Voltaire, infidel though he was, thought aright in that admonition of his to cultivate your own garden....
Its interesting that in both Hebrew and Greek, the words for worship (ivdu and latreia) also are the words for service. For example, Psalm 100:2 is often translated, serve the Lord with gladness. Nancy and I were worshiping at the Carlisle church one Sunday during vacation time, and Ken Hoke was preaching on worship from Psalm 100, but in the pew Bibles, the word was translated, not worship, but serve. And in the New Testament, Romans 12:2, where Paul is talking about offering ourselves to God, he says this is your spiritual worship, or, it might be translated as in the King James Version, your spiritual service. The implication of this dual meaning is that when we serve people, we are also worshiping God. And that implication is consistent with the great commands as Jesus talked about them in Matthew 22:37-40. The first command is, love the Lord your God, and the second is, love your neighbor. We need to do both things. So, if the attitude of being a servant is learned by attending to God as Lord, then serving people will develop as a natural way of life. What else helps here is if your mother or father were a model. My mother was good at visiting the sick, and she would take each of the four of us along with her at different times. Sin, on the other hand, uses bondage and lack of service to others to stunt, thwart and cramp people. So thats what theyre like in their lives.
The real test of discipleship to Jesus is when we serve the lowly, the insignificant, and the unimportant in the worlds eyes. And in Matthews Gospel, at least, this is the last teaching Jesus does to his disciples, the last thing He wants them to remember.
When I spoke at prayer meeting this week, I asked the group a question: our general sense is that the BIC have been committed to service, how do you see that? Now understand that in our background we were mostly farm people in small communities and we had many of the characteristics of the Amish. So here were the examples within the life time of the people in the prayer meeting. When you were driving to town, you called up your neighbors to see whether they needed anything you could get for them, or whether they might want to come to town. It saved them a trip. Kenneth Hoover remembered the time his father was sick at harvest time and a wagon train of people came to harvest his corn. And others remembered when the Stern barn was destroyed down in Franklin County and there was a barn raising. In a barn raising, you can get a barn built in one day.
Others, not from the country life, remembered preparing meals for people at the San Francisco mission, and still others mentioned service on the mission field. A few years ago I counted some 35 former missionaries in the Grantham Church. Many people would go for five or ten years, and then return to their home community having given those years - often the best year of their lives - in service.
In these days, many people spoke of having meals brought in, having someone from the church cut wood for them or, test their soil, help moving, and they spoke of the teenagers going to serve in another country, like the 18 people who went to Honduras this summer.
In all of this, Jesus is the example. He who said, in Matthew 23:11, the greatest among you will be your servant. Or Mark 10:45, the Son of Man (that was Jesus name for himself) did not come to be served, but to serve. And, to return to Matthew 25, verse 40, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
So if service pleases the king, what service have you done recently? If service was what Jesus himself did and encouraged his followers to do, what service have you
done? Jeff Ernico, a lawyer in this congregation, established the pro bono program for lawyers in the Harrisburg area and I know something of how much time in his really busy schedule he gives to pro bono work. Thats the kind of thing Jesus wants. When students came this fall, one of the first days they were here they went out into the community to give a day of service. That establishes a right pattern; but service cant be a one time thing, yet it needs to start somewhere. Where are you starting?