Matthew 25: A Certain Point of View
Topic: Perspective Scripture: Psalm 119:17–119:24, Matthew 25:31–25:46
I have been blessed to have a host of impactful and meaningful teachers, role models, and mentors throughout my life. Their presence in my story has been a constant reminder of God’s goodness and providence. While my relationship with these people has ranged from the formal to the personal, from the official to the tender, as I consider several of these figures from my life, I can recall a particular lesson that they shared that has stuck with me.
My aunt Carol, a petite and energetic woman with fire red hair, showed me as a child that a hug has the power to heal the heart and speak affection and affirmation. My youth pastor from high school, Andy Crossgrove, taught me about the value and necessity of discerning what hills I am willing to die on when it came to the convictions of my Christian faith. Ted Mingle, the pastor that first hired me as a youth director and a trusted friend, has repeatedly reminded me that being a good husband and father is more important than being a busy and successful pastor. A few months ago, I felt a strong and persistent tugging to pursue the opportunity to be mentored by another pastor I had met at a ministry conference our synod hosted a little over a year ago. Now Josh, a Presbyterian pastor serving out near Chicago, and I connect every two weeks and even in this relatively short time, and he has offered lessons on perseverance, perspective, and commitment to the ministry God has asked of me.
Each of these individuals has helped me by offering me another way to look at something. They offered me a different way of seeing things. It reminds me of a line Obi-Wan Kenobi shared in Return of the Jedi. And, for the record, it’s been many sermons since I quoted Star Wars so stop rolling your eyes.
After Luke Skywalker learned that Darth Vader was his father, he was upset with his former teacher because Kenobi had told him that Darth Vader betrayed Luke’s father. That’s when Obi-Wan responds, “What I told you was true…from A Certain Point of View. You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” You might chuckle at your nerdy pastor for quoting a Jedi Master, but there is sound wisdom in those words. All of us see things from A Certain Point of View that shapes our perception, our reaction, and our ability to practice our faith in Christ.
This morning we are starting a new message series that has a wide-reaching and hopeful focus. Our denomination, the PC(USA), has launched an initiative fostered out of a parable Jesus shared in Matthew 25. The Matthew 25 Initiative came about as the many individual pastors, churches, and leaders of our denomination attempted to process, pray through, and seek to address realities that seemed common to every community and corner of our country. Stories of prejudice, poverty, and pain and the resounding sigh of frustration as churches of every size and variety struggle to determine how they can offer the hope, truth, and justice of Christ amidst such complex and seemingly overwhelming circumstances. As Christ-followers, we are meant to be people of hope. We have both experienced and believed in the power of redemption. So, a collective question rang out of how can we assert that hope with endurance and effectiveness? How can we participate in bringing the kingdom of God into the broken principalities and systems that are all around us? What can we do when what we see seems like too much for our feeble faith? These are questions that require much of us. They require prayer, community, humility, and activity. And they also require us to see these realities from A Certain Point of View that will serve us as we seek to serve Christ and our neighbor. To help us discern and discover the pressing urgency of those questions, we turn to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.
This parable offers one of the more often quoted sayings of our Savior: Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. It is a sentiment and a teaching that many of us are familiar with and even regularly practice in our own lives. But this single sentence is found within a parable that is much more alarming and stark than we might be used to. And this parable itself is nestled within a heavy and somewhat troubling discourse. Jesus and his disciples are sitting on the Mount of Olives, a ridge just east of Jerusalem that overlooks the city, and they ask him when the end of the age will come. Jesus offers warnings, admonishments, and parables…one of which is our text, both for this morning and for the Matthew 25 Initiative.
In this story, Jesus shares an account of how all the people will come before the King, where they will be divided into two groups: the righteous and the cursed. The righteous will receive an inheritance from the King and a place in His kingdom. The cursed - well, just in case the name didn’t give it away, they are told to depart from the King and are cast into one of the most terrifying and traumatizing phrases in all of Scripture: eternal punishment. And how does the King determine who goes into which group? By that oft-quoted line we already mentioned: Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. Every time they fed those among them who were hungry or gave drink to the thirsty or offered welcome to the stranger, they did so for the King. Every act of warmth, shelter, and compassion they shared with their suffering neighbors, they also shared with the King.
Those who are cast into the cursed camp are frantic, indignant, and confused. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” They would remember, you would think, if the King had come to them asking for bread or for shelter. They can’t recall that happening at all. Surely, if the one who held power of them had asked anything from them, they would have given it. But that’s the point. Both the parable and of Christ’s wider-reaching lesson: The cursed in the parable only saw what and who they wanted to see, who or what benefited themselves. Our Savior demands a different understanding and A Certain Point of View.
Jesus shared this parable centuries ago, and yet it still holds tremendous authenticity and relevance for us today. Our human fascination with what comes after this life hasn’t changed, and the presence of those hurting and in need hasn’t changed. And, sadly, our inability to see beyond our own limited point of view hasn’t changed either. We are influenced and shaped by countless sources and realities within each of our unique stories. Our families, our upbringing, our fears, our politics, our past hurts, our aspirations, and hopefully, our faith. And so much more. And all of us can fall into the trap of complacency that we witness in the parable Jesus offered. Where there should be compassion, we might only offer suspicion. Where there might be a need for advocacy, we might accuse others of over exaggerating. Where there are stories of suffering and injustice, we might call it a fabricated fairy tale. And even if we make every attempt to have our eyes open to the Spirit’s call and make every effort to open our awareness to what is taking place around us, we can still be caught in a blind spot that exposes us and maybe even harms someone else. That is why we also need a new perspective, a fresh set of eyes, to see things from A Certain Point of View.
And that is the hope for this message series. There are realities that are present in our world, in our community, and our church that we are compelled to address as followers of Christ. Our denomination frames three of them: 1) Building Congregational Vitality, 2) Dismantling Structural Racism, and 3) Eradicating Systemic Poverty.
The world has changed in the last several decades, even moved at a jarring pace in the last few years. Privileges, exceptions, and place markers the church once held have all but eroded. What worked 20, even ten years ago, doesn’t hold the same resilient effectiveness. Society has evolved, and, in many more ways than we would like to admit, the church has struggled to keep up. The collected body of Christ-followers as the church still possesses the same timeless truth and vibrant purpose we always have, but we must learn how to invite others into it in a new way. This is the work of Building Congregational Vitality.
Every source of news media, whether it be printed on paper or seen on the news or scrolled through on our social media, has been bombarded with tragic stories of racism and prejudice. Far too many of which have resulted in violence against and even the death of people of color. Human beings made in the image of God and filled with the Lord’s breath have become hashtags and rallying points for groups and individuals to demand justice and an end of prejudice and practices of racism instilled and embedded within our society. A labor that for decades, many brave Christ-followers have fought and advocated for. This is the work of Dismantling Structural Racism.
Generations of people are born into, forced to struggle within, and eventually die in lives of poverty that they seem incapable of escaping. Homelessness has risen, and there are countless families who toil under multiple jobs and still struggle to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their children. Individuals are forced into predatory loan programs and become trapped and crushed beneath debt they could not avoid and cannot escape. It might seem a herculean task, but something must be done, and this is the work of Eradicating Systemic Poverty.
And, friends, the leadership of our church, and I believe that First Pres is called to participate in the redemptive and transformative work of ministry and justice that might seek to bring the hope and light of Jesus to all of these realities I have mentioned. Work that might put us in an exciting position to share the Gospel with our neighbors and see lives transformed by Christ. Work that, by the grace of God, might lift struggling folk and families out of poverty and that might see an end to racial injustice. Over the next three weeks, we will be blessed and privileged to hear from three individuals who have spent their lives and callings serving the church and their communities. There are leaders who have now been called to platforms with the express hope of advocating for all that we have discussed this morning. My encouragement to you, church family, is to listen with attention and curiosity. To make every effort to lay aside your preconceived notions, your lingering suspicions, and even your resigned sadness that the problem might be too much. In order to embark upon and live into this holy work, we must painstakingly embrace humility and admit that we need a new perspective as well, that we might need to be shown a new way and A Certain Point of View.