The Least of These

November 26, 2017

This is the transcript of my sermon read to the congregation of Free Community Church on 26 November 2017. The scripture passage is Matthew 25:31-46. The transcript is also available on Facebook. 

Sisters and brothers –

We are at the end of the Christian calendar, at the close of a long church season that follows Pentecost. Today is the day we call the Reign of Christ! This is the time we affirm our foremost commitment to The Risen One who rules our lives. We long for his return in glory, but we also celebrate the fact that we long. It keeps us focused.

We yearn for the time when God’s will for all creation is fulfilled at last. But this year, for us at Free Community Church, the Reign of Christ is a particularly difficult time. Rev Yap Kim Hao – whom we all love and who loved this church most – has left us. He, who, like Moses on Mount Nebo, had looked out at the Promised Land, couldn’t enter with us into this symbol of God’s great day. It’s just one week more.

Since the first sermon I gave here in 2014 at both Rev Miak Siew’s and Rev Yap’s invitation, Rev Yap had almost always been present to receive me after the service. He would hearten me, build on my thoughts, add miles to my miles, point me to ways to go even more boldly, and make broad my heart.

I come to you to preach, but every time I’ve left the beneficiary because of Rev Yap. Now God has taken him home, and the timing was certainly His. I know this because your schedule for my sharing today is set months ago. Today I am here preaching so that your grieving leaders – Rev Miak, Pastor Pauline Ong, Gary, Darryl, and others – can rest.

God is looking after you.

Be also assured, reassured, that we will see Rev Yap again, given the truth that is this morning’s scripture passage. It is at once what Rev Yap himself had believed in and practised uncompromisingly. At the same time, it is a passage I can imagine him struggling a lot with.

This powerful passage describes the importance of serving above all those who need our human touch: the destitute, the disenfranchised, the segregated, the outcast, the alien, the different. It closes Jesus’s ministry according to the Gospel of Matthew, rounding up his last public teachings before the Passover, during which he would be betrayed and then crucified.

Yet, here is something more: Jesus himself had begun 3 years earlier proclaiming that same theme! If you remember, in a synagogue in Nazareth, a younger Jesus had declared his mission statement in the words of Prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
(Luke 4:18-19)

So we have come full circle, seeing the beauty of it. Jesus now returns to the purpose he once declared to show his consistent, undeviating attention. But, at the same time, this closure in Matthew 25 is somewhat uncomfortable, disturbing even. You must have felt it too. It builds on a fundamental split in humanity and talks about eternal division into Heaven and Hell, unending joy and unending suffering sanctioned by God.

These extremes are posited as irresolvable absolutes. On the terrifying Day of Judgment, all the world’s people will be split down the middle. We will be divided into those who are welcomed into God’s Kingdom and those who are consigned to damnation with the Devil and his allies.

The passage has strangely at once both a moving, compassionate, and progressive message and a brutal, barbaric, and scary one. It seems all contradictory inside. How many of us have been inspired by this account even as we are frightened by it?

How can we make sense of the tension we feel here?

The Gospel of Matthew, in fact, gives us 2 other parables before this episode, and it is interesting that Jesus should close his last public discourse with them. As the 3 segments follow one after the other to form the whole of Matthew 25, many have come to call this last segment the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The earlier 2 segments are the Parable of the 10 Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.

In the first parable, we as Jesus’s followers are warned essentially to be alert always. I’m assuming you know these parables. In the second, we are warned not just to engage in good activities but, more importantly, to take risks in doing so. The man with one talent – a talent, by the way, was a lot of money, roughly 20 years of a labourer’s wage then! – is only happy to keep to the minimum and not develop himself. His returning master roundly chastises him and casts him out.

Then comes our seeming Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. But we are perhaps puzzled first by the form of this segment. Is it even a parable? How is this a story? It reads plotless and without development. Our relation to Jesus’s words changes somewhat; the passage doesn’t quite hit us as readers in the same way as the parables.

For one, the account is straightforward; it relates an event with no need for us to work out correspondences, what means what. We are told clearly that Jesus is the King, the sheep the blessed, and the goats the cursed.

In fact, we are told that Jesus will separate all “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” – this is already figurative language. The primary context must thus be real since it would be funny for a metaphor of shepherding to operate within a parable, another fictional device. There would be a double figuration. It would be like saying how someone is drenched like a drowned bird, which is like a fish. It entangles the references.

Then the event itself is unusually repetitive – as though Jesus’s intention is that we comprehend everything here as clearly as you can. He doesn’t want us to miss the point or lose its importance in a net of possible interpretations. The telling nags.

So what is said to those who are sheep is repeated in reverse to those who are goats: “You have done”, “You have not done”. What is said to each side also involves repetition in a statement that becomes a question. So “You have done A and B and C” or “You have not done A and B and C” becomes “When have we done A and B and C?” or “When haven’t we done A and B and C?”

A, B, C, D, and so on themselves are ultimately similar acts. They involve being kind, merciful, and compassionate towards disadvantaged fellow humans.

Pay attention: Jesus even directly names himself as the protagonist in the account. So we read: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” Well, this is as directly as it gets with Jesus, who enjoys referring to himself indirectly as the Son of Man.

Why is Son of Man Jesus’ favourite self-designation, have you wondered? Consider the times he has used it: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

In a way, Jesus is anything but the Son of Man: he is, first, the Son of God and, second, he was born of woman, without man. “Son of Man” is often considered Jesus’s self-deprecating title, used to subject himself freely to humanity, but it is, as I’m saying, an ironic one. Fascinatingly, it also sets him apart in nature from the other figures laying claim to being the Son of God at the time, Augustus Caesar included.

But the use in Matthew 25 is still more specific. It makes reference to the Son of Man coming on Judgement Day in glory. This isn’t a new context: in the Gospel of Matthew alone, there are 2 such earlier mentions. Matthew 13:41 says: “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” Matthew 16:27 says: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

Note the striking similarities in all 3 statements! Whenever the glorified Son of Man is announced, he is said to be returning, flanked by his angels, to judge us humans for the deeds we have done. They are direct warnings; these are not metaphors!

Having established Matthew 25:31-46 as no parable at all, the weight of future reality settles in. We feel its consequence as Jesus’s parting shot. But we’re struck by some amazing points Jesus emphatically needs us to be clear about. First, contrary to how some frame it, Jesus is in no way describing the judgement of non-believers only – or, for that matter, the church alone. It’s not what the passage says. It entails no exclusivity and, in fact, explicitly names all humanity (which is weirdly comforting).

Second – and this is curiouser – Jesus gives no exclusivity to Christians as being God’s family. He directly calls the needy we are to watch over “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. The text doesn’t require us to understand them as believers in any way!

So we have the universality of judgement on the one hand and, on the other hand, the universality of inclusion. Matthew 25:31-46 just doesn’t put Christians in a special position either in terms of God’s expectation from us or in terms of the goodness others should show to us.

There is yet a third radical point. By the fact that those called sheep are unfamiliar with having helped Jesus – remember that their question signals bewilderment! – we may deduce not just that they’re ignorant of him present in the needy. We may also conclude that they simply don’t know Jesus, that they aren’t Christians. The text doesn’t involve their recognition.

For the same reason, by the fact that those called goats show ignorance of having failed to help Jesus, we may conversely regard them not only as those who don’t know Jesus. The text makes no such specification. We may thus also read them as Christians who fail to understand Jesus’s presence in those who are weak!

So now we have a curious notion of a universality of identity with the Lord as well. Isn’t this stunningly contrarian?

Does this not, in fact, echo something we’ve heard before, Jesus warning in Matthew 7:21 that “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven”? It seems to confound what orthodoxy teaches us about utter salvation through faith in Christ by grace! We know Ephesians 2:8-10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” What now?

You can see why, theologically, Matthew 25:31-46 has posed readers so much trouble. Even C. S. Lewis, when confronting this passage and the necessity to square all scriptural parts, threw up his hands and said: “I frankly confess I don’t know. The real relation between God’s omnipotence and man’s freedom is something we can’t find out.”

I have no real answer here either. If you are under the deep conviction that justification is from believing alone, that faith in Jesus offers the only path to eternal life for all, this passage hurls a big spanner into it. It seems to suggest the importance of works – albeit of a certain kind – even in apparent exclusion of faith!

Or rather, if we must attempt to square this, it seems to suggest deeds towards those who need us as the necessary expression of our faith. It connects to what we also read in Philippians 2:12, that often debated call to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”.

If we want consistency across all scriptural points, we can at best acknowledge that God’s comprehensive plan, His total plan across all histories and cultures, operates under humanly unknowable principles. We trust in His wisdom and specifically a wisdom through which the sense of a loving God who is also a Judge coheres.

We believe in Jesus, Jesus as the Saviour of all, and we work wholly through our belief. But, at the same, we presume nothing, judge no one, and leave the question of how eternal destiny is for each to God, knowing how the righteous God has private business as a Lover too.

This is, for me, the best, the least painful and presumptuous, way to understand Hell. The doctrine of Hell has always caused Christians to struggle with its reality and some even to turn away from the faith, unable to embrace a loving God who also engineers eternal damnation. Yet God wills it, and the Gospels repeatedly posit it. We are tried by faith.

Personally, I am willing to meet everyone, no matter the thoughts on Hell, in the concept of kerygma. Kerygma is Greek for preaching, proclaiming. Perhaps this is the most basic way to think of Hell, to think of it as kerymatic, a Hell that must exist in order to proclaim. The nature of Hell is unknowable, and so are its real operations and the meaning of its eternity. But, if to be in Christ is our goal, then not to be in Christ must be a possibility, and this possibility is the reality of Hell.

Hell – whether real or otherwise – must exist against the direction we take in Jesus. This kerygmatic Hell is also the one in Matthew 25:31-46, through which we understand not that, if I’m without Christ, I go to Hell but that I’m in Hell because I’m not in Christ.

There is admittedly so much ignorance we have of the afterlife that there surely can be real resolution in the infinite wisdom of God. All I need to concern myself with about Hell is that I do not wish to be where Jesus isn’t.

In this way, we may also imagine our work in society, being present to the destitute, the disempowered, the outcast, the alien, the different – in whom is Jesus. As we help these, we unveil Jesus in them and in us. This is the path towards God’s Kingdom. Conversely, without this humanity, this divinity, this heart of Jesus, no matter how rich, stable, or prosperous a society is, is it not an image of Hell?

Can you imagine all this and see the kerygmatic eternity in our actions?

In conclusion, from this account in Matthew 25, if I may sum it all up in 4 lessons, they are these. One, we learn where Jesus’s heart is, in which spaces within our world Jesus hides. Two, to this, we learn how a Christian should tune his or her being according to the Lord he or she follows. We are to turn not to the centre but to the margins.

Third, we note what distinction Jesus forcefully makes here – between those who are present to the marginalised and those who aren’t – and those who are, are called family. We note what distinction he conversely doesn’t make – between who are Christians and who aren’t. Yet, this is what much of Christianity today is concerned with.

Fourth, we learn outrageously that the act of helping others is more important than knowing it is Christ we have helped! Now, isn’t this interesting? God wants your utter involvement in others rather than your religiosity. It is, in fact, when the former, your involvement in others, can set aside, even forget, the latter, your spirituality, that one paradoxically approaches Christ-likeness.

Those in the passage whom Jesus praises and welcomes don’t even know that, in what they did, they have been godly. Christ-likeness is this that leaves behind notions of lawfulness, images of purity, the fear of self-contamination, even potentially personal salvation, in order to be there for another.

All these points fundamentally challenge us to see what it must mean to be a Christian in our world and where all of a Christian’s being should face.

Shall us pray?

Here is a poem of mine titled “Meeting God”:

I have a hunch
what God wants from me
is to buy Him lunch.
I think He is asking me
with His eyes
for some meat
and a bowl of rice.

I feel it is an issue
how God is out all day
selling tissue.
His eyes shine grey
they say so much
of tenderness
I dare not touch.

Dear Lord,

Grant us the eyes to see You
in those our own earthly eyes would avert.
Train us to see clearly You in those
who need us to be the truth of You
in their lives…

Grant us the ears to hear You
in those our own worldly ears are deaf to.
Help us to comprehend their language,
to integrate their soft rhythms into the rhythm
of our lives…

Grant us the lips to speak
words that you would have spoken
to bring kindness and hope and freedom
to those who are dying quietly inside,
who have gone so far out
they have lost their way…

Grant us the hands
to do not any work but your kind of work:
to write, to build, to make, to cook,
to hold, to lift, to pull, to support
in the name of humanising love…

Give us courage to see You,
tenderness to hear You,
clarity to speak as You,
and will to manifest You.

In the name of our Lord Jesus,

Amen.

Gwee Li Sui

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2 Responses to “The Least of These”

  1. Shenny Says:

    Enjoyed your sermon tremendously! Please preach more often! 🙂

  2. Gweek Says:

    awww thanks! 🙂


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