Matthew 25:31-46 CEB
“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
With the new year comes the time for new resolutions, so what will we try to do differently in 2023? Exercise more? Indulge less? Maybe there are some projects we didn’t get to in ‘22 that we would love to give more attention in ‘23. What about we as Christians or even us as a church, should we have a goal for the new year? Last night, the last night of 2022, many churches spent the evening, not in revelry but in prayer. They marked December 31st as a Watchnight, preparing for the coming year in fasting and prayer. Our scripture reading for today comes from that service, so instead of the typical story of wise men of the east, we have Christ sharing with us what really matters for not only the coming year but every year. Our goal as Christians and our goal as a church could be and should be one of compassion: compassion for ourselves, compassion for others, and compassion for the world. Through compassion, we will discover Christ anew and dwell in his kingdom forever.
Today’s scripture reading doesn’t really sound like a good choice for the new year at first glance. In it, Jesus is telling a final parable to his followers about the end times. In his parable, Christ has returned to judge the nations, and he divides them with righteous sheep on his right while the unrighteous goats are to his left. In this parable, Christ is talking about the end of things, the final judgment, and a finale hardly seems like a good place to start when we are at the beginning of 2023! Except, when Christ describes judgment, it is based on the actions that people took or did not take in their lifetimes. While the calendar turns from the old year to the new, so too, do we have a chance to turn again to God and commit ourselves to the kind of action Christ is concerned about in this passage and in our daily lives.
How should we define these actions? I would classify these actions as part of being compassionate, but let us take a closer look at the scripture. When Jesus divides people, left from right, I am fascinated by his measuring stick. You would think for as much as Christians talk about sin, that surely our Lord would say, “Well, those of you who are adulterers, thieves, murderers, gossips, and liars. You go on my left, and only those of you who were nice people go on my right!” Instead, his measure is “‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’” Not a single mention of sin in sight! Instead, the measure is whether people cared for others, and yet, Jesus takes this measure even deeper. After hearing their judgment, these righteous people question where and when they did these things for Christ, he responds, “‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” Here, it is made clear, God is with the least and, in fact, suffers with those who hunger, thirst, are lonely, are naked, sick, and imprisoned. Hopefully, this should not surprise us, after all, we hold that God became fully human, sharing intimately in all the pains and distresses of his children.
God has always identified with the least, and where people are at their most vulnerable. In Exodus, as God outlines the social codes the Hebrews are to live by, the LORD even states “‘Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant [...] Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry’” (Exodus 22:21-23 CEB). God goes on to say that his people should not abuse or exploit the poor, warning the people that if they should and the poor cry out: “‘I’ll listen, because I’m compassionate’” (Exodus 22:27 CEB). Now, maybe we could ignore this if God only mentioned it once or twice, but with a cursory glance through scripture, both in testaments old and new, you’ll find at least 100 separate verses to start with about God’s concern and care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. Really, we should see this list as the Bible’s by-word for the least, those that suffer. This is not an exclusive or exhaustive list, but in it, God continually reminds God’s people that God suffers with those who are the most vulnerable and stands with people where they are least secure.
Again, I am drawn to this word: compassion. This word is taken from the Latin, compati, literally meaning “suffer with.” God has compassion, and so God calls on us to be righteous by being compassionate. As I mentioned a few weeks ago now, this idea of righteousness is the idea of being faithful in our relationships and keeping our promises. A hallmark of God’s relationship with people is compassion, so if we seek to be righteous, to be faithful, we must seek to also be compassionate. We must seek to suffer with.
What an ask of us! To be compassionate is perhaps the hardest thing God could ask, even perhaps harder than simply asking us not to sin! Maybe, that’s why we prefer to try getting on God’s good side by being decent people rather than being compassionate ones. Avoiding sins often ends up being a checklist of moral don’ts. It’s like those New Year’s resolutions. Lose twenty pounds. Check! Build a deck out back. Done! Don’t cheat on your spouse. Covered! Don’t gossip. Working on it! Compassion makes us uncomfortable because relationships are not checklists, and so suffering with others has no easy fixes or quick deadlines. It reminds me of the guiding rules of a retreat I went on a few years back. When someone else was sharing in that space, we had to commit to “no fixing, advising, ‘saving’ or correcting one another.” That’s compassion in a nutshell! If you ask people who feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, work with immigrants, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned about when they feel they are best meeting these needs, suffering with others will be a key part. How can you feed someone if you do not know what they hunger for? How can you treat a sickness if you do not learn more about the illness? We must understand one another in order to care for one another. This extends to every act of compassion.
Now, I am going to move on to something even harder. Compassion covers not only how we should act with others and the world, but more immediately, how we should act toward ourselves. Self-compassion, like self-forgiveness, is hard for us, yet so essential to how we treat others. I often find the people who are least compassionate with themselves are the least compassionate with others. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard for us not to fix, correct, or save another! If we can only solve them quickly, we won’t have to think about our own vulnerable and suffering places! It’s similar to sin, if I can only point out another’s sin, I don’t have to worry about my own at that moment! Except, Jesus has already taken care of sin’s predominance with overabundant grace, and so now, suddenly, we have no excuse except to be gracious with ourselves. Suddenly, we have to acknowledge that relationships are not built on easy fixes but on continuous interaction and vulnerability. Jesus told us that one of the key parts of our relationship with God is to love each other as we love ourselves, so part of loving others well is loving ourselves better. Being compassionate with ourselves is key to then turning around and being compassionate with others and with this world.
I’m afraid it’s not a step-by-step process. It’s a journey where we will slip and collide and crawl our way back to just a few inches from where we started. This final judgment sounds scary at first considering how little progress it feels we make, but Jesus is really telling us what the kingdom of God looks like. It is not a place full of perfect people, mostly sinless people, or even decent people. It is a place for compassionate people, and as pastor and reformer Henry Ward Beecher once said, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” Compassion will do more in our lives to make us like Christ and ready for Christ’s kingdom than checking lists or avoiding the don’ts, but only if we let it. Let’s make compassion our resolution this year and every year. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman