Giving Goes Beyond You

I spent hours yesterday reading blogs, book excerpts, theological debates, and theories written by a variety of theologians, faith leaders, and other authors that all attempted to offer insight into our main scripture passage from Sunday’s message. I also spent a good bit of time thumbing through the chapters preceding and following the passage and looking up words in the original Greek.

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

I tell you that as a framework for where I’m actually going to go in my writing this week. Our passage is one that will probably be familiar to you, whether you have a religious background or not. There are plenty of voices who would offer us the “right” interpretation of these words–and most of them disagree with each other. That said, what follows is what I personally believe to be at the heart of the message, the way that I see Jesus representing his heart in this sometimes controversial parable, and where I see the application of it mattering in my life and in the way I love others. I could cite several sources that would back me up, several more who would disagree, and others still who would see it from another angle entirely. My goal is not to prove a point, or to explain away with ease what is a complex and nuanced cluster of scripture. I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

The passage is from a parable found in Matthew 25:31-40, the parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s one parable, set among several others, that Jesus used to describe the kingdom–what it was to look like and how his hearers’ lives would shift if they learned to follow his ways. It is the second message in our series about giving, and what we are invited to do is to look at giving differently. We are invited to move beyond a rules-based, transactional framework and begin to look at giving as an overflow of the self-emptying life of Jesus living within us and guiding us to deliver this kingdom to a waiting world. Whether you’re not at all familiar with this parable you have it memorized word for word, or you find yourself somewhere in the middle, I invite us all to read it again with a heart that’s willing to see it with fresh eyes as we dig into what it might mean for our lives today:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

Last week Pastor John spoke about the importance of being “for” all others, and how God calls us to give others our “for” before we give to him. Let’s look at this week’s passage through that lens. When we read the passage about the sheep and the goats, we naturally want to identify with the sheep, which pits us against the goats, those outside of our assumed camps. But if we can remember that the word “brother” in last week’s passage means anyone from a womb, then the sheep and the goats are our kin—regardless of which side we’re on.

Choosing to give all others our “for” can protect us against the temptation to try to identify who the sheep and the goats are, which really is not the point of the teaching at all. If we identify with one side, we set ourselves up against the other side, creating the us/them mentality that Jesus is continually trying to free us from. If we see one side as good and one as bad, one saved and one damned, one righteous and one depraved, we’re missing the point. We cannot give all others our “for” if we categorize people and only identify with one side. If we are for all others, we won’t stop to assess which camp they belong to or to judge the “why” behind their needs before coming alongside them as our brothers and sisters.

It is also important to note that, on any given day, we move from goat to sheep and back again a multitude of times. Sometimes we respond to the need in front of us, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do the right thing because we want the gold star, other times we are moved by the love of Jesus living within us and, like the sheep in his story, we don’t even realize we did anything worth noting at all. The two sides aren’t set in stone. No one gets caring for the least of these right every single time. This is a fluid picture, designed to teach Jesus’ followers what the kingdom is meant to look like. We would be wise to follow the example of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in praying this prayer,

“Loving God, allow me to be a sheep at least once in a while, and never let me forget that most of my life I have been a goat.”

We mentioned last week that paying attention to the context of what we read in scripture is vitally important. It bears repeating this week. This parable Jesus tells is set among several other parables in which he tells his hearers more than once, “This is what the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus preached about the kingdom more than 80 times in the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It was one of his favorite things to talk about. Our passage is set apart by chapter and verse in our bibles, but it is not a stand-alone teaching; it is a continuation of the stories that precede it, stories all about what the kingdom is like.

Jesus was (and is) a master communicator. He knew his audience, knew that they had been trained up in dualistic, transactional thinking (as many of us have been), and so he begins with what they know. He outlines an either/or, in/out scenario. He gets their attention and uses the opportunity to tell them again how important it is that self-emptying love be what sets them apart as his followers. He’s about to demonstrate what that kind of radical love looks like by willingly submitting to the murderous violence of the humans he created, but he’s telling them in this parable what that looks like in practical, day-to-day ways. And then, after describing the sheep and the goats and the fates of both sides, Jesus chooses to identify not as a sheep or as a goat—he doesn’t pick a side. He identifies himself, instead, with the needy as he states, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus continually challenged the religious, works-based teachings of his day. He often called the Pharisees out for paying lip-service to God while their hearts were far from him. This week’s passage is another example of the difference between behavior modification—works-based religion–and the kingdom of God. The interesting part is, Jesus is teaching his hearers to do good works. This is clearly not a passage that encourages us to say a prayer and so secure a ticket to eternal life. This passage encourages listeners to do good things, to serve, to act–but more importantly, it deals with the heart behind the works.

There were many in his day, some of them likely in attendance as he spoke, who were good at checking boxes. Behavior modification, keeping all the rules, was a common practice for the religious leaders at that time, and it was what they had been teaching the people for hundreds of years.

But the kingdom would never come by way of behavior modification.

For the kingdom of the God of love to come in its fullness, there had to be a different way, a new way, a way that wasn’t about us versus them. This is what Jesus continually taught about.

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I love this quote. It is absolutely true. When the love of Jesus reigns within us, we live like the sheep–unaware of our “good works”, living in the flow of the spirit, letting his kingdom be cultivated and grown within us, and then freely giving the fruit to all those around us.

The early church understood and modeled this is the way they lived with one another. Pastor John actually began his message with these verses:

All the believers were one in mind and heart. Selfishness was not a part of their community, for they shared everything they had with one another. The apostles gave powerful testimonies about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great measures of grace rested upon them all. Some who owned houses or land sold them and brought the proceeds before the apostles to distribute to those without. Not a single person among them was needy.

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

Not a single person among them was needy. Selfishness was not a part of their community. They were one in heart and mind. Is it possible that this is what Jesus was pointing to in this story that he told? Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that it is. In a blog post about the sheep and the goats, he wrote,

“The real message of the parable is a call to a transformed mind and heart.”

In the story, Jesus is calling his hearers into transformation. He is telling them, You can choose an either/or way of living, or you can join me on the margins, where I identify not only with the needy, but as the needy. The early church listened to his teachings, they understood what he meant, and they lived in unity with each other, having—as a community—the heart and mind of Jesus living within them. Self-giving love modeled after the givenness of Jesus replaced selfishness and they gave what they had for the good of all. It wasn’t about them, and what served them best. It was about understanding that self-giving love is the way of the kingdom, and as they were permeated with the love of Jesus, giving flowed from them as the natural expression of his life within them.

May it be so with us, as we each leverage what we have graciously been given for the sake of those who need what we have. What we give, we give to Jesus…

–Laura

Laura wrote above: I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

And she included this beautiful quote:

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I am taking a “grace” week in the midst of what is a super busy season, so instead of writing, I would ask that you read Laura’s beautiful words again. We are invited into the deeper…

–Luanne

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