The Work and Reward of a Good Neighbor (11am)
Topic: Christian Living & Discipleship Scripture: Matthew 25:31–25:46
How do we determine whether someone is a good neighbor or not? No doubt if we used the metric of those classic old movies, most of us would fall short. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where everyone is always sitting out on the porch waving at each other and people borrow cups of sugar and where neighborhoods host like summer block parties or Christmas gatherings. Maybe I’ve just been living on the wrong streets but that’s not my experience. In fact, if I had to quantify the measurements for being a good neighbor it would come down to a few things.
- The length of your grass. You don’t want to be the guy that looks like you’ve got a savannah in your front yard. But you also don’t want to be the guy who keeps your yard at a crew cut making everyone else feel guilty. You need to find the perfect balance.
- Smile and then immediately break eye contact. You can’t be rude. If you see your neighbor, you give them a smile and maybe one of those “how ya doing” nods. But you also don’t want to be creepy - so you be sure to return to whatever you were doing.
- Random Acts of Kindness: To solidify yourself in the neighbor hall of fame, all it might take is shoveling all the way past your sidewalk and getting your neighbors while you’re at it. Boom, you are now the favorite person on their street. Unless you own a snow blower. Because if you do you’re expected to cover a 2-3 house radius and if you don’t you’re just lazy.
So, that’s what I’ve come to find as the checklist for being a good neighbor: proper lawn maintenance, smiling just enough but not too much, and occasionally going out of your way to be the hero. Now, let’s be honest. Those aren’t the only things that make you a good neighbor. They might help but, for the most part, each of those actions just sort of keep us in good graces and out of each other’s hair.
No, I think one of the true marks of a good neighbor is crossing the lawn. We moved here in June and within a day or two we met our neighbor, Kathy. She’s a kind, retired woman who lives behind us. She came over right away. She greeted us with smiles, interacted with Isaac, and asked us if we needed anything. She told us she was sort of the grandmother of the neighborhood. She goes out of her way to chat with us, play around with Isaac, and even watched our house and cats when we went away for vacation in the summer. She crossed the lawn and struck a relationship. She sees us and engages us.
That quality, actually seeing someone, is more rare and precious a trait than I think we often realize. And Jesus knew that as well. He knew that the first step to serving another, to exercising compassion, to being a neighbor is seeing another in need. In Matthew chapters 24 and 25 we witness Christ dive deep into a subject that doesn’t come up all that often: the end times. And that’s where our neighbor text appears for this morning. Nestled within the destruction of God’s temple, natural disasters, sightings of the anti-Christ, and the Rapture…we find our text on how to be a neighbor. We’re looking at Matthew 25:31-46. Read Matthew 25:31-46.
We often think of Jesus as this gentle, tender figure surrounded by children. So a stark and somewhat harsh teaching like this can sometimes surprise us. Phrases like “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” aren’t exactly the most warm and fuzzy images. And yet, those are the words of our Savior. He surrounds his message with a heavy and somewhat shocking gravity – a message about being a neighbor and providing compassion and relief to those in need. This should show us just how important this element of following Christ is to our God. It reminds us that what believe in our hearts must be coupled with action.
In our text, Christ reveals the work of a true and a good neighbor. And he doesn’t really leave much to the imagination or interpretation. In Christ’s teaching, we hear him praising those whom he calls the righteous. We’ll call them the good neighbors. The good neighbors are standing before Jesus and Jesus welcomes into the eternal kingdom with the blessing of the Father and a rich inheritance. And why does he present this immeasurable reward? Well, it’s not because they came to the gates with a full attendance record from church. It’s not because they passed the standardized theology exam. It’s because they cared for Christ Himself. They met their Savior in his hour of need and gave him sustenance, refreshment, hospitality, protection, healing, and presence.
Our good neighbors here are, no doubt, excited about what they are hearing but they’re also kind of confused. They must know who they are talking to and don’t want to be caught taking credit for something they didn’t do. So, they ask Jesus, “Um, when did we do that?”
And Jesus gives one of the most convicting, troublesome, inspiring messages in all of Scripture: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
To the others, we’ll call them bad neighbors, Jesus calls them cursed and tells them to get ready for the eternal fire. And he lists the same but opposite reason. They ignored Christ when he had the deepest needs. They offered him nothing to eat when he was starving and nothing to drink when he was dehydrated. As he shivered in the cold, they walked by without providing a blanket or new clothing. When he needed the presence of loving and compassionate people, they offered none. And just like the good neighbors, but probably with a little more indignation, they are quick to ask when they ever did any of those things to Christ. And He gives the same answer: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did not do for me.”
They ignored the hungry. They passed by the thirsty. They closed the door on the stranger. They offered to warmth or protection to those in need. They denied the sick and incarcerated the gift and relief of community and presence. And for that, they will face eternal punishment while the good neighbors enjoy eternal life.
If you’re like me, like many, you’re probably kind of struck by the harsh spirit of Christ’s teaching here. This word from our Savior forces us to stop and think – when was the last time I did that? When we think of condemnation or eternal punishment our minds usually zip to sins committed. We envision the most heinous acts and those who perpetrated them. But Christ doesn’t condemn sins of commission in this text. He does elsewhere, but not here. No, here Jesus condemns sins of omission. Things we did not do. Acts of kindness left undone. Motions of justice left unexercised. Compassion that lays dormant instead of put into practice. When the condemned are given their sentence the list Jesus cites off isn’t one of all the terrible things they have done but instead a list of all the terrible things they left undone.
Too often the Christian faith is marked by and known for the restrictions it places. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Yes, the Christian life is one committed to not doing certain things. All the way back to the Ten Commandments, we see that God does indeed place limits and laws on us for our own good and for our growth. We are disturbed or troubled when we hear of a Christian in the public eye being caught in scandal. In my own life, I saw this. The senior pastor at the church I went to as a teen announced one Sunday to the congregation that he had been having an affair with a woman in the church. Those stories trouble us and cause us to become defensive and disappointed. As they should.
But here, in our text this morning, Christ calls our attention not to those times we committed a terrible deed. Instead, he forces us to recall the many times we did not act. Every time we ignored one in need. Every time we averted our eyes, pretended to be distracted by something around us, or rationalized in our own heads why we need not act in a certain instance. Those are the things Christ places before us and tells us to explain.
And so, we frame this text with the call to be a neighbor. Here’s the problem with what being a good neighbor might look like to most of us. The problem with making sure our own house and yard are in order without really knowing the stories of those up our street. The problem with offering a smile, a nod, and a brief hello to the person in our pew without really sharing life with them. The problem with focusing entirely on our own set of priorities and schedules while ignoring the needs of the many in our path. The problem is that it’s way too easy. And we’ve made it that way.
So how do we begin the process of changing that? Well, it’s hard. I tell you that not as a pastor who has accomplished it but as a regular person who is still struggling with it. But I know the work of being a good neighbor starts with seeing. Seeing people not only as Jesus sees them but seeing Christ in all people. Not only in those who suffer or those who struggle, but in everyone. Those we count as friend, enemy, or anything in-between. Because, regardless of any differences – ideological, physical, cultural – every human being is made in the image of God and given the breath of God. After we begin seeing – truly seeing Christ in others – then we can move to action.
Faithful giving could be a big part as your tithes enable First Pres to be a neighbor here in Bloomington-Normal. But I think there’s more. Missions trips, like the one our high school students will go on this summer, are a means of not only doing the good work but learning the stories of those we serve. Organizations like Compassion International afford individuals and families the chance to sponsor a child and provide necessary food, medical treatment, and educational needs. Serving with local ministries here in Bloomington-Normal give us a look into those who are suffering right in our own neighborhood.
Anyone can do the work that Christ describes here. You can imagine commentators and authors take different angles with this text, especially considering what surrounds it. One common theme they all agree on: None of the things Christ lists here are uniquely Christian acts. They are basic, universal human needs being met in a time when they are lacking. In a way, being a good neighbor doesn’t take anything more than doing the most basic work of compassion: seeing the need of another and intervening. The details, environment, risk, and cost of the work may vary but the heart of it does not. That is the work of a good neighbor. And the reward? Well, Christ doesn’t mind words. When we serve those in need, we serve Christ. When we love those lacking it, we love Christ. When we see Christ in the stories and experiences of others, when we participate in relieving their suffering – that is when we see the work and reward of a good neighbor.