31 “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; 35 for 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And 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.”
Sermon Cheap Grace
Good morning. For the last couple weeks, I’ve started my sermons by saying something like, “this isn’t one of my favorite parables.” Not today. This is one of my absolute favorite Bible stories. It’s also one of the reasons I preach from the series of readings known as the Revised Common Lectionary. If I didn’t use the Lectionary, I’d be tempted to preach this text every Sunday.
It’s a summary of everything that Jesus has taught in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the last public teaching that Jesus offers in the Gospel of Matthew, so it’s really important—so important, actually, that this story is set aside for the last Sunday on the liturgical calendar—the calendar that marks the seasons of the year for the Church. We call this day Christ the King Sunday.
Today, Christians everywhere celebrate the lordship of Jesus Christ over all earthly powers and principalities. According to the scholar Karoline Lewis, this day is a way to affirm God’s reign over empires that do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. It’s a reminder to us to remain faithful; it’s a reminder that God is always in charge, no matter how bleak things look.
And let’s face it: things look bleak. The coronavirus is raging out of control. Sure, there’s a vaccine on the way, but it’s going to be a few months before any vaccine is widely available. In the meantime, we continue to set new records for the number of infections that are diagnosed in this country:
· Nearly 200,000 positive test results were recorded on Friday, alone.
· We will soon reach 12 million cases.
· Total deaths in the United States are over 250,000.
That took less than a year. To put those numbers in perspective, the US lost over 58,000 troops during the Vietnam war, most of those between the years 1965 and 1971. That was about seven years. We lost a little over 400,000 military personnel during World War II. We were involved in World War II for about four years. COVID-19 has been present in this country for about a year.
Yet we argue amongst ourselves whether the pandemic is really all that bad. What we believe about the pandemic often aligns with our political beliefs and where we get our news. I point this out, not to attack one side or affirm the other, but to remind us what we already know: we live in a divided society.
So did Jesus.
And we’re called to be disciples in the midst of these divisions.
Today’s reading is a story about discipleship. It’s a story about people who are sure they’re doing the right thing. It’s a story about judgment. It’s an answer to all the people who ask Jesus, “What must I do to gain eternal life?”
Some of the people who ask these questions are trying to trick Jesus into saying the wrong thing, while others are trying to figure out just how much—or how little—they have to do to stay faithful to God. They want to know that God will let them off the hook for their sins. They want to know who’s in and who’s out. Just like us.
So, Jesus tells everyone that the king—meaning Jesus; remember, this is Christ the King Sunday—will separate the righteous, the sheep, from the unrighteous, the goats. The sheep are gathered at the king’s right hand, the goats at his left. The righteous are welcomed into the kingdom:
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, 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.
How do the righteous respond? They ask:
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
For the goats, the situation is reversed. The goats offered no food or water to the king, they didn’t clothe him when he was naked or welcome him when he was a stranger, or visit him when he was sick or in prison. And the unrighteous ask the same question of the king: “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?”
This, to me, is the truth of the story: the righteous have no idea when they were righteous. The unrighteous have no idea when they were unrighteous. Very often, we don’t know when we’re serving Jesus, nor do we recognize when we’re ignoring Jesus.
We are always so certain of our own righteousness. We’re convinced that we are the sheep, not the goats. That’s a problem. A spiritual problem. If we are thoroughly convinced of our own righteousness, we grow blind to ourselves and we provide a poor witness to God’s love in the world. We fail to follow Christ.
The same is also true when we cling with absolute certainty to all of those parts of our secular identities that separate us from one another: politics, wealth, race, nationality, etc. All of those things separate us from one another, and when we choose to remain separated and isolated, we are not following Christ.
So, what’s the way forward?
As I’ve said before, I often push back against the traditional interpretations of parables. In this case, I might not read the eternal punishment of the goats quite so literally. Instead of reading that as being sentenced to Hell for all of eternity, I’d like to stick with the idea of the outer darkness, the place where we live in a state of isolation and disconnection from one another, a place where we are not practicing love for all of God’s beloved children.
The goats are upset that Jesus didn’t reveal himself to them, that Jesus didn’t call out for their help They want Jesus to let them off the hook because, well, how could they possibly have known that it was Jesus who was hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or a stranger, or sick, or a prisoner, if Jesus didn’t bother to reveal himself? They were happy in their practice of faith. Why couldn’t Jesus remind them that this time, they actually had to change?
In this interpretation, the goats are being lazy or complacent. The sheep, on the other hand, are so busy being righteous that they’re not aware they’ve ministered to the suffering Christ:
These were people who had entered the joy of their master without even knowing it. Such participation is not self-evident. The joy they knew was not complete; it was mixed with suffering, danger, risk, tribulations and most likely many disappointments. And yet, it was joy. They acted out of mercy.
In other words, they were so busy doing the work of discipleship that they hadn’t bothered to ask the question, “How much of this discipleship do I have to do?”
This is the contrast between cheap grace and costly grace that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace was the idea of forgiveness, without the act of repentance. That is, without change on the part of the sinner. Conversely:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us our life, and it is grace because it gives us the only true life.
Bonhoeffer is saying that the righteous, the sheep, choose the path of discipleship; the righteous choose the difficult path, the true path, in which we lose ourselves—the path in which we lose the divisions that separate us from one another.
No, none of us will ever do this perfectly. We want Jesus to tell us that we’re doing just fine as we are. We want to keep practicing our faith the way we’ve always practiced it. But the world around us has changed. What worked in the past doesn’t always work now. We must not seek the cheap grace of old answers when we have new problems.
The answer, then, the way forward is to set aside our fears, overcome our divisions, and get busy doing the work of discipleship—get busy doing mercy. This seems like an overwhelming task, especially when we have so many divisions among us.
Here’s the thing each one of us needs to remember: You don’t have to do all the mercy, all the time. But you have to be committed to doing mercy. And if you find yourself pushing back against something that Jesus calls us to do, or bargaining with it, or arguing over terms, then we might be looking for cheap grace, a way out of doing the difficult work.
When we feel that, we have to keep going. We have to lean on one another and carry one another. We have to constantly work on giving up the things that divide us from one another. No single disciple has to shoulder all the burdens, but none of us may turn away from the task. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that we are called to do mercy, even when that’s difficult. We are called to pursue costly grace. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis. Sermon Brainwave (podcast), November 22, 2020, retrieved from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/755-christ-the-king-a-nov-22-2020  CNN, “The Latest on the Coronavirus Pandemic,” retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-pandemic-11-21-20-intl/index.html  Dirk G. Lange, “Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46,” retrieved from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-matthew-2531-46  Lange.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” reprinted in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. New York: HarperOne (1995), p. 308.