Summary: Judgment is based not on how religiuos we are, but rather on how loving we are.
Matthew 25:31-46 “Righteousness”
For my recreational reading, I often like to pick up a good murder mystery. I enjoy getting involved in the twists and tangles of the plot—all the time trying to deduce who was the murderer. When I get to the last pages, I’m usually surprised. The murderer, though he or she was a suspect, wasn’t the person I would have identified. Most of the time I like surprise endings.
In this passage of Scripture, where we have Jesus sharing a story of the coming Day of Judgment we have a surprise ending. It was a surprise to the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious leaders of the day, and also the followers of Jesus.
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF PIETY
People respond to God’s love and grace in a variety of ways. Throughout his gospel, Matthew has been displaying various forms of righteousness and exposing their shortcomings. These sure fire paths, which people believed would lead them to heaven, are shown, in today’s text, as coming up short.
One of the paths of righteousness is religiosity and its close cousin piety. Today we might call it playing church. In Jesus Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5-7, Jesus talks about the practices of alms giving, prayer, and fasting? He points out that many people do these activities in order to gain the attention of others and to be seen as righteous, holy people.
While very few people in today’s churches stand on the street corners and pray, or make a show of how much there are putting in the offering basket, we know what Jesus is talking about. We have seen people—we may even be one of them—who get so wrapped up in church that they can do little else. They neglect their children and ignore their spouse, or fail to hang with their friends, because they are caught up in the higher calling of serving Jesus in the church. A related trait is seen in those people who attend worship faithfully, but never allow it to soak in. Their lives are no different on Monday morning then if they had never darkened the door of a church.
Piety—spiritual disciplines—is vital to the Christian life. It is import to worship—this is not an option but a necessity. Prayer, devotional reading, Bible study, and Christian fellowship are all important in nurturing our faith. But, they are not, and were never meant to be, the totality of our response to God’s love and grace. They rather strengthen and equip us to respond to God’s grace in other ways.
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE LAW
Another path that people travel as a response to God’s love and grace is the law. They strive to be good people.
A rich young man comes up to Jesus in Matthew 19. The man asks what good deed he must do to have eternal life. The man points out that he has kept all of the commandments. In his eyes, he has succeeded in being a good person. When Jesus says he should sell his possessions and give them to the poor, he turns away. He doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want to become involved.
People get caught up in the law and pervert it. We see this throughout the Scriptures. A group of people bring a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery to Jesus so that he could judge her. The Pharisees are angered at Jesus for breaking the Sabbath in order to heal people. The disciples don’t want Jesus to minister to a Gentile woman because to do so would break the Jewish purity laws.
Living with the commandments as guidelines to our lives is important if we are to experience the abundant life that is ours as Christians. But, being good people is not the goal of the Christian faith and of being disciples of Jesus. There is more to the Christian life than simply does and don’ts.
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF SERVICE
In the judgment scene that Jesus describes to the disciples, the righteous are marked by lives of service.
Jesus took on human flesh and dwelt among us in order to express God’s love to us and allow us to catch a glimpse of what God was like. Jesus became involved with us. Involvement is also a mark of the lives of his disciples. The people who are designated as “sheep” or “righteous” are people who got involved in the lives of others. They clothed the naked, feed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoners.
This is the surprise. Righteousness--the abundant life--the life of a disciple, is not experienced in religious practices, or being a good person. Righteousness is lived in the mundane—in being aware of the needs of others and of seeking to meet those needs.