I looked up the word stubborn in the dictionary this week and found my picture next to the definition. In Hosea 11, God accuses his people of being like undisciplined teens – the more you love them the further they pull away.
Jesus once story about how on Judgement Day God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. John Doe has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Hey, even Babe Ruth got three strikes before he had to go to the dugout.
Judgement is really not about punishing people for their sins. Its about providing justice for those who are oppressed. A day is coming when nations who go to war with their neighbor for sport will be made to pay for their violence. A day is coming when the masters of slaves will answer for their ownership of other human beings. There will come a day when the racist, the abuser, the usurper, and those who cheat the poor out of their daily bread, will find themselves in torment. Those who have been victims of wicked people will have their day in God’s court.
Jesus’ point is that the judge of all the earth won’t have a hard time distinguishing who is the victim and who is the accused in his courtroom. The two tables are separated by a courtroom aisle, the way shepherds used to separate their sheep from their goats. On that day the distinction between good and evil will be easily made. If you don’t know animals, think about any two other groups that can be easily sorted. The heaven bound and the hellions are as different as eggs and potatoes, Porsches and Yugos, diamonds and coal.
There is a thread that runs through most Bible stories. Someone is always underestimating God. The prophetess Deborah tells the Israelites that God has their back. They should fight against the Canaanite king and his general Sisera, who are keeping the nation hostage. People underestimate Deborah and Jael, because they are women. In doing so they underestimate God. God gives to Deborah the wisdom to lead the battle. God gives to Jael the strength to drive a tent peg through the sleeping head of General Sisera — you try lifting a sledge and using blunt stick to pierce a watermelon (Judges 4:21).
In Jesus’ famous story of the servants and the silver coins (called “Talents”), the servant with one talent underestimates the expectations the master has of him (Matthew 25:14-30). Jesus urges us to make use of whatever resources God has placed within us to serve his kingdom. Just because you can’t play cello like Yo Yo Ma or play ball like Michael Jordan, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect great things from you.
The ultimate story relating to people underestimating God is found in places like Zephaniah 1:7-18 and the book of Revelations. People always underestimate the Day of the Lord — not just how quickly it is coming, but how much they personally will be called to account for. There is a day coming when all who have ever lived on this planet will be called to judgement. The test question then we be, have we used the time and position that God has given us to do good and show compassion to our fellow man?
Let’s talk about sin. When the wayward youth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son takes the money and runs, he sins in three ways: first against the mores of his village and second against his parents, that is, the relationship that he was commanded by God when He spoke through Moses saying, “Honor you father and your mother.” Regarding these first two sins, Jesus would be the first to grant a deferment to the youth if the reason for his trip was to fulfill his inner calling or to come and be a disciple of the Lord. But alas, the kid only wanted to get away to chase fast women and drink sloe gin. The third sin committed that day is one that Jesus never grants us a deferment from; the calling to be compassionate to my neighbor. Young people grow into an ever widening circle of people for whom they must show love and compassion. First it is their siblings and parents, then their playmates, then the people at school, especially those who are being bullied or ostracized. As we enter into adulthood, our calling to compassion must extend to those who are poor, or subject to abuse. The circle widens out, as it becomes for us sin to exclude those who come to our shores because of famine, persecution, or conflict in another land. Jesus challenges us to love even our enemy. To do less, is sin.
Imagine Henry, a Easter-Christmas nominal Christian, coming to your church this week and hearing Jesus’ story about how on Judgement Day, God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Henry has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Henry, like Hamlet and many other fictional people, views his life as a series of good and bad decisions. We assume that we get into heaven if we happen to be doing something good when we die; like Hamlet’s stepfather saying his prayers. I think that this week’s sermon should answer Henry’s questions, instead of going over the familiar ground of being good when nobody is watching.
First, we have to say that goats are really fine animals. Jesus’ point is not that sheep are warm and fuzzy and therefor saved. He is referring to the fact that shepherds can do this separation very easily. God will not take long to sort us. The direction of our hearts, is an open book to Jesus who lives within us.
If you are hearing Matthew 25 or preaching it in church this month, there are some things you ought to keep in mind. First, the context of the three parables that Jesus tells, is that of his final week on earth. Like final lecture of the late CMU professor, Randy Pausch, Jesus’ last stories have special significance. Usually, we say that these three stories are Eschatological, that is, they deal with the final judgement of humanity and the second coming of Christ. But, I think that it is worth digging deeper.
The three stories also have a common theme. In each, there is a plain distinction between good people and bad. In each story, the right thing to do, isn’t the obvious thing to do. In the story of the 10 Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), the good people are rewarded for staying awake and preparing for the unexpected appearance of God in their lives. In the story of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-28), the good person invests him or herself fully in life, risks everything to use what God has given them. The bad one, buries their resources and gifts in a snot rag. The story of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:29-46), similarly, talks of good people being compassionate to everyone. Bad people take the more prudent course of only doing good when they know the recipient can return the favor in some way.
It seems strange dealing with the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in the middle of the summer. The hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” puts this parable to music. It is rarely sung except at Thanksgiving. Then, the actions of the farmer make sense. By telling Jesus’ parable in the summer, we preserve its shock value. The farmer lets the weeds grow among his corn. He’s my kind of gardener. We aren’t meant to imitate the farmer of this story. We are meant to think about what it means to be wheat or corn. We are meant to think about what happens to the weeds in the end.
This parable is one of Jesus’ many end of time stories. Why do the the good die young and the bad continue to do bad things with impunity? Well, Jesus tells us, this is temporary. In the final judgment, the weeds will be gathered and roasted. Bad people are weeds. Good people are corn. Get the picture?