Sermon: Compassion is the Standard

November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46

With this story, Matthew wrapped up his account of Jesus’ teaching. In the next chapter, Matthew turned to the closing days of Jesus’ life: his anointing at Bethany, the Last Supper, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

For the last two weeks, we’ve looked at Jesus’ other stories which Matthew recorded in chapter 25: the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five prepared and five unprepared, and the parable of the three stewards of riches, two of them active, and one of them passive. So we, and Matthews other readers over the last nearly two thousand years, have been told to be prepared, and have been told to be active.

Doing what?

Matthew – and Jesus – answered that question with this story.

Unlike the previous two, this one is not a parable. It’s not a story that teaches by example or by contrast. This is a literary technique that had been current in the Hebrew people for two or three hundred years. It’s called apocalyptic, and it quite simply means that it’s a description of the world’s end and God’s judgement in order to comment on contemporary human behavior.

That is, if you’re writing apocalyptic, you look at what’s going on around you, good and bad, and then you describe what God thinks about all that by saying what God will say about it at the world’s end.

We call it “The Sheep and the Goats,” but sheep and goats have very little to do with it. The people in the story are human, not bovine, and they talk about human things, not bovine things. The divine judge asks about simple things, too: did you feed me? Did you give me something to drink? Did you welcome me? Did you give me something to wear? Did you visit me when I was sick or in trouble?

It’s the answer to those questions that determines who has done well, and who has done ill, who has fulfilled their responsibilities as human beings, and who has not, who inherits the blessing, and who is deprived of it.

In short: Did you care for me or not? The standard is: compassion.

As the Dalai Lama has said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

Or as the 16th century Christian poet John of the Cross wrote, “In the evening, we will be judged on love.”

Love is a high and hard standard – but its elements are simple. Food. Water. Welcome. Warmth. Care. Being present. Being present.


Simple, and yet profound. Because in this story, Jesus said that care for any human being is the same as care for the Judge of the Universe. Though Jesus did not, in this story, identify the “Son of Man” with himself – a figure “like a Son of Man” is very common in apocalyptic literature – he used that title for himself throughout his ministry. Matthew, for certain, identified this Son of Man as Jesus, and we’ve followed him in that ever since.

And we’ve followed him in the tender notion that when we care for any of God’s people, we care for Jesus. That’s how important human beings are to God. When we show people compassion, God accepts that love as well.

It can be daunting. Nancy Rockwell writes, “The hope of the world rests on Christ’s shoulders, we like to say. Yet, in the reading for the end of the year, he shifts that mantle to our shoulders.” Indeed. It’s as if Christ added a new line to the Lord’s prayer, after “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” one that read: “Love us as we love one another.”

Love us as we love one another.

Karoline Lewis writes: “Jesus says to us, ‘If you do not see or experience the reign of Christ in your life, before you cast culpability elsewhere, you better first examine yourself.’ If you have to ask Jesus, “when was it…?’ you are not paying attention. Furthermore, if you have to ask Jesus, ‘when was it…?’ you really do not believe that your actions make a difference for moving Christ’s reign to its fullest expression and presence.”

It can be difficult to see the presence of Christ in others. Some appear determined to demonstrate that they have cast Christ aside. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they hurt, they maim, they kill. Others seem to have barricaded themselves away from the hungers and thirsts of others. John Wesley wrote, “One reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers.”

If we’re going to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the sick, if we’re going to welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned, we must cross over the walls constructed by ourselves or our society, and be present with them. That’s been the missionary impulse of Christianity for centuries. Let it be our impulse now.

For it is Jesus himself who is out there. It is Jesus in the little brother who sobs with a skinned knee, and it is Jesus in the thousands of women who have said “me, too,” to experiences of sexual assault and harassment. It is Jesus in the Syrian refugee and in the Micronesian immigrant looking for a job. It is Jesus in the halls of power who must be reminded of their duty to compassion. It is Jesus in the one whose mind and body are wracked by years of drug abuse. It is Jesus in the one unjustly imprisoned. It is Jesus in the one justly imprisoned, too.

It is Jesus who calls us, over and over again, to love each other, and to love Jesus through each other. It is Jesus who love us, too, and summons us into the joy of the heavenly realm.

Through our compassion. Through our aloha. Through our love.

Let us answer the summons.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon:

Please note that the recording does not precisely match the prepared text. Because, well, Pastor Eric improvises.


Photo by Marc Nozell used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on November 26, 2017

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