The Royal Law

Matthew 25:41-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

I think it’s interesting to see how people react to this picture of Jesus as the king and judge of humanity.  Some people are all too ready for Jesus to return and get the judging underway.  Others—and I’m one of those—are content for him to take his own sweet time.  Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to see repaired in this world, a lot of things where I would like to see the divine hand taking direct action, but then I remind myself that Christ is taking direct action through you and me and that, in fact, that is what this particular picture that Jesus is painting is really all about.

In one of our ELCA clergy Facebook groups this week, one pastor asked the question, “Where is the grace in this passage?”  That’s a really Lutheran question, and to their credit, a lot of our pastors did a pretty fair job of making a case for grace in this passage even though it is so clearly about judgment.  I was feeling a little bit contrarian, so I noted that the writer of Matthew was not a Lutheran and didn’t seem to be all that concerned about grace.  Righteousness, yes. Grace, not so much.  In fact, the word grace doesn’t appear even once in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

But that doesn’t mean grace isn’t in there.  Mercy is a kind of grace, and twice Jesus quotes Hosea and tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”[1]  In Matthew 18 he tells the parable of a slave who is forgiven a great debt, a story about mercy, grace and forgiveness and how we sometimes fail to pass that same grace along to others.  In chapter 23, Jesus again scolds the Pharisees for their lack of grace when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In an odd way, there is even grace in this picture of the final judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, even though the goats are sent away to eternal punishment.  To see that grace clearly, though, may take a bit of translating.

In Hebrew there are two words for “people.”  The word ‘am is used to designate people who are Jewish, the people of the covenant, our people.  Goy or goyim are people who are pagans or gentiles.  Those other people.  The same idea appears in the Greek of the New Testament.  Laoí is used for people inside the faith community or the church and éthne is used for people or peoples outside the faith community or church.  When this passage says “All the nations will be gathered before him,” the word that is translated as nations is éthne.  So this is a description of all those people who are outside the community of faith.  Those other people.  They’re the ones being judged.  At least that’s what’s implied in the language.

The implication of the language and the lesson for those within the community of believers, is that there are people who are righteous even among those who live by other beliefs and those who have never heard of Christ.  They are instinctively taking care of the persons in their communities who are in need, and in doing so, they are caring for Christ.  It’s specifically because they are not believers, not members of the community of faith, that they ask Jesus “When did we see you in these circumstances?”

So one way you might see grace in this passage about judgment, then, is that even though these “sheep” on the right hand were not people of the covenant or followers of Jesus, they inherit the kingdom because they lived lives of righteousness and compassion.  Christ, the king, surrounded by his angels, seated on the throne of his glory, brings in all these people who never knew him or knew about him because they simply acted out of compassion.

Having said that, it’s also a given that if you are part of the community of faith, a follower of Jesus, it is expected that you will also be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger.  Those things are part of the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.  This kind of righteousness rooted in compassion—it’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we, too, encounter Jesus.

Whether you read it as applying to insiders or outsiders or both, it’s tempting sometimes to read this passage as our Ticket to Heaven Punch Card.  Feed the hungry?  Check.  Clothing for the poor? Check.  Welcome a stranger?  Check.  Visit someone in prison?  Check.  If we do that, though, we’ll miss the point of everything Jesus had to say in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven and about what constitutes real righteousness.  We would be like those scribes and Pharisees he rebuked in chapter 23, paying attention to the details but neglecting the justice, mercy, and faith at the heart of it all.  

Oh, and love. We would be missing the love.

In chapter 19 someone asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”  “But which ones?” he is asked.  Jesus replies, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;  Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus repeats the commandment to love later in chapter 22 when he is asked what is the greatest commandment.  He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” he wasn’t inventing a new rule, he was quoting Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself was an important ethic of the Jewish people.  Jesus broadened that ethic and applied it more widely by expanding the definition of neighbor.  Because “love your neighbor” was so central to the teaching of Jesus, it became the central ethic of his followers.

Saint Paul wrote in Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Again, writing in Romans, he said, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[3]  James called it the royal law: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

What the “sheep,” the righteous who are rewarded in Matthew 25 are doing when they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger is simply this: they are loving their neighbor.

In this picture of judgment in Matthew 25 we also see another portrait of love.  We see a king sitting on his throne of glory.  But this is a king who cares deeply for “the least of these” in the human family, a king who has compassion for those who struggle.  He cares so much about the struggling and suffering that how they are treated becomes the yardstick by which the others around them are judged.  We see a king who walks with them in their struggles and identifies with them.  With us.  We see a king who rewards those who show love and compassion through acts of mercy and assistance and kindness.  We see a king who defines “love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul, the absolute bottom line of righteousness.

Love, real love, the kind that Jesus is talking about, the kind that comes from a decision and sticks around for the long haul, the kind that gives of itself… love is transformative.  It transforms the hungry into the well-fed.  It transforms the naked into the clothed.  It transforms the unemployed into workers.  It transforms the homeless into the housed.  It transforms the stranger into a friend. 

The other day I was listening to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon called Love, No Matter What.  His TED talk is about what life is like for families where one of the kids is different in some way, and in that talk he told about Clinton Brown.  

When Clinton was born he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition.  The doctors at the hospital told his parents that Clinton would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t have any intellectual capacity, that he probably wouldn’t even recognize them.  The doctors suggested that they should just leave Clinton at the hospital so he could die there quietly and not be a burden to them.

But his mother wasn’t having it.   She took him home.  And even though she didn’t have a lot in the way of education or financial assets, she managed to find the best doctor in the country for treating diastrophic dwarfism and convinced him to take Clinton as a patient.  

Over the course of his childhood, Clinton had 30 major surgical procedures.  Since he was stuck in the hospital during all that time, he had tutors.  It turns out he was not intellectually challenged at all.  He studied hard and became the first member of his family to go to college.  And because he could walk now, he even lived on campus and managed to customize a car so it would accommodate his unusual body.

One day his mother was driving home and she saw his car parked in the parking lot of a bar near the college that was popular with the students.  “I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar,” she said.  “And I thought to myself, ‘They’re six feet tall, he’s three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.'” She said, “I knew I couldn’t go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone.  And then I thought, if someone had said to me, when he was born, that my future worry would be that he’d go drinking and driving with his college buddies …” 

Solomon asked her, “What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?” And she said, “What did I do? I loved him, that’s all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

She loved him.  She loved him enough to not leave him at the hospital to die quietly.  She loved him enough to find the best doctor.  She loved him enough to make sure he was educated.  She loved him enough to see him as a person and not as a condition or an anomaly.  Love transformed him.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

Christ is with us and among us, always, waiting to see how we love each other and love the world…how we love him.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

[2] Galatians 5:14

[3] Romans 13.9

[4] James 2:8

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