IF ONLY WE HAD KNOWN
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
"They also will answer, '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?'
"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
People of God:
We start our look at this mornings passage by asking the question - Who are the least?
They are the ones, we discover from this passage, that we do not pay attention to, we disregard them.
Among the many people we talk to,
we almost never talk to them.
In between all the things that demand our attention in life, they are on the outside edge of our awareness, unnoticed, peripheral, always there but never receiving any of our time. They never receive a slot in our busy agendas. Rather our lives are spent on those people we regard as significant - family, friends, work, entertainment, worship, rest.
Jesus describes them to his culture four times in this passage, by repetition, so that we hear clearly who they are - the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those without clothing, the sick, the imprisoned.
The hungry and thirsty - those who
are much poorer than we are
We disregard them. They occupy no time in our lives. There is no time left for them. They are the least - the least significant, the least compatible with our character, status, the least worthy, the most undeserving of our attention. They are the powerless, who do not have the strength or status to demand our attention. To get involved in their lives will be too expensive. Our involvement with them will give little or no return.
The truth is, everyone of us has the "least" in our lives. We pass them by. We have learned not to notice them.
Jesus, at the end of his ministry, according to this gospel, started teaching extensively about eschatology - about the last things, those events that will bring to an end the world as we know it. He warned us of signs that would tell us that the unpredictable end was near (chapter 24). He warned us to be ready for that day, with the parables of the 10 virgins, and the parable of the talents. Then in our passage, he shifts away from story telling, from parables, and he addresses the issues exactly as they will be. Our passage is not a parable, it is impending reality. At the final judgement there will be a one basic division made between all humanity. And that division will be made on what they did in ignorance.
That is our second point this morning - notice that both the sheep and the goats are ignorant with regard of the truth of their action or inaction.
First, our attention on those destined for eternal punishment. Notice their response when Jesus says to them "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
They respond "'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?'
Because they did not see the Lord, the one worthy of their attention, they disregarded all those who needed their help. Their cry is this: "Lord, if only I had known it was you, I would have done something." Had I only known, I would have changed my behavior!
But on that day it will be too late. Those who in ignorance choose not to help the unworthy, the undeserving, the contagious, the relationally expensive, they will be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
If only we had known, we would have acted differently!
Actions done in ignorance will foreshadow their destiny. They ignored the anguished cries of others, God will ignor them in the anguish of eternal fire.
Notice also this morning that those who are destined for the blessing of God were also ignorant.
Jesus says to them: 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothesand you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
But they protest their ignorance: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
Their response also is this: "I didn't know that it was you Lord." They were ignorant of the fact that what they did for the least, they were doing to Christ. But notice the key difference - had they known it was Christ, it would not have changed their behavior!
"If only we had known - but we still would have done the same thing..."
And their behavior foreshadows their future destiny - for as they turned their face toward the least, and focused their caring attention upon them, so to, God in eternity will turn his face toward them and focus his care, attention and blessing upon them forever.
Before we conclude looking at this passage, let me make a comment about the commandment that we have been looking at in the past number of weeks. The 8th commandment - "You shall not steal." Last time we talked about robbing God of what was due him, I suggest to you on this morning that when we do not pay attention to the least among us, we also rob God of the attention that is due him. When we disregard the least, we disregard God. When we regard the least as insignificant, we regard God as insignificant. To not give to the least what they don't deserve is to not give to Christ what he deserves.
'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
Again we are pushed back to the fundamental question: Do we have a heart that takes, or do we have a heart that gives? Are we people who out of an unbelieving heart live like we have to take care of ourselves because no one else is watching out for us - and therefore to spend ourselves on behalf of the least would be a most foolish investment of our resources? Or do we out of a believing heart, understanding the riches of God's grace to us and his unending care, have we become people who are willing to give to others, to the least, give outrageously, give generously, because God will provide for us what we need? You see, the difference ultimately between the sheep and the goats is a living faith, and that living faith can be seen in what they do or do not do.
We have the least among us. They have coffee with us right after the service. They live in our neighbour hoods. They work beside us in the workplace. They sit in the same classroom at school. They are on the city streets we walk. They come to this country as refugees. We might regard them us undeserving or deserving - that is not the question. The real question is, do we pay our attentions to them at all?
One day, a women named Mary came up to Jesus, on she poured an outrageously expensive perfume of Jesus feet and wiped his feet with her hair. Judas, who was concerned about such a foolish waste of money on Jesus feet protested! Jesus responded.
"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me." The poor, the least are still among us. Let us like Mary, pour perfume on their feet, for in what we do to them, we do to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.