Summary: Christ has left us pretty clear instructions about how he expects us to conduct our lives. Are we healthy, or are we hurting?
I’m going to pretend like I’m a doctor for a minute and ask a question. How many of us have been for an annual physical in the last year? This is a relatively routine question, isn’t it? Our primary care physicians hound us with this question every year. For those of us in the work force, our human resources office often asks the same question. The insurance company may even send us a letter each year reminding us that the full cost of an annual physical is covered by our insurance.
So it is that most of us, hopefully, arrange for an annual physical. We make an appointment, drive around for a half hour looking for a parking place, sit patiently (or maybe impatiently) in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination. And we do all this so that a team of medical professionals can measure our wellness. Indeed, it’s not a very comfortable experience, which is why we often try to avoid it. However, these examinations give us an overall picture of our health. If the tests show our LDL cholesterol is on the rise, we know to cut out the cookies and start walking a few extra miles each week. If a lump is found, we return for more testing, and hopefully nothing more than a surgery to remove it. We do what needs to be done to maintain our long-term physical wellness. And in the end, no matter how things go, these check-ups could end up saving our lives.
In many ways, the same sort of thing is happening here in Matthew’s depiction of the final judgment that you heard a few moments ago. Jesus’ words about his ultimate return are not meant to condemn or to scare, even though it may feel that way. Instead, Jesus’ description of the separating of the sheep and the goats is meant to provide a snapshot of our overall health as disciples of Christ. Are we developing? Are we learning? Are we growing in ways that will lead to new habits and ways of life? Are we experience the full life our God intends for us? Because, after all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Shepherd, and King.
Christ's ministry on earth was about establishing a whole new system of justice, a kingdom completely different from any kingdom the world had ever seen; a new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being. This parable of the sheep and the goats is a description of that new kingdom, and it is also a challenge to begin making that kingdom real today through our own works of compassion and mercy in Christ's name. If this is the goal, the vital question for us is, “How are we doing?”
As Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, he is seeking to convey the importance of serving the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. The image of the Shepherd King one day separating the sheep and the goats is a diagnostic tool designed to inspire faithfulness, to root out self-centered living, and to help each of us measure who and where we are as we grow in the likeness of Christ. Because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, a healthy disciple. We love those who probably can’t give anything in return. And we do that not with a goal of earning God’s love or anyone else’s, not to curry favor, not even to make sure we are considered righteous at the end of time. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the ill, visit the imprisoned, and serve the needy because these are the ways of healthy disciples. When we are doing these things, we can know that we are ready, that we have a long and healthy life ahead of us.
We all know what it is to feel healthy, right? When we are sick, we pray that we will get better quickly so we don’t feel miserable. When people start exercising or dieting and lose a few pounds, they always comment about how much better they feel. And the same is true in our life as Christians. I imagine many of you have experienced this phenomenon as well. Whether it’s serving the homeless downtown with Mustard Tree, or building a school in an impoverished country halfway around the world, or dropping some change in the beggar’s hand, or providing shelter for someone displaced by fire, or visiting the sick in the hospital, or wrapping up a Christmas gift for a child that will receive no other presents, when we serve the least, the last, and the lost in Christ’s name, we always find it to be a rewarding, joy-filled, life-giving experience, do we not? This is the measure of our vital signs.