The Question is Not: "Is God Relevant"?
Often what is put last is of the highest importance. For example, Luke ends Jesus’ public teaching at the Temple with the story of the widow’s mite, noting that she gave more than the rich who gave much in that she gave her all. This passage has been interpreted as an example of giving one’s all. Although this isn’t wrong, the fact that this is the last of Jesus’ public ministry yields a far more important lesson. This woman had cast all she had left into the treasury. She was going to go home and die. Everyone could hear the dull thud of metal into the box as compared to the loud ringing of gold and silver coin by the offering of the rich. The money collected there helped construct the magnificent Temple complex which had awed the disciples. Jesus’ point is that no one came to the help of the poor widow, which the Book of James reminds us is the true religion. This is one of the reason the Temple was going to be judged and destroyed. It was a religion of show and not of substance.
The passage we are studying this morning is the end of Jesus’ sermon after He had left the Temple for the final time, lamenting its coming desolation. This would place the timing of this sermon as occurring immediately after the passage we cited from Luke 21:1-4. The disciples were awed by the appearance of the Temple, and Jesus used this as an occasion to preach this final sermon from the Mount of Olives, the place from which Jesus would soon ascend back to the Father, and the mountain to which He would return at the end of time to judge the earth. This mountain is opposite the mountain from which the blessings of the Sermon of the Mount were proclaimed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Mount of Olives outside the wall of Jerusalem becomes the mount of cursing.
Jesus begins his sermon with the prophecy of judgment against Jerusalem and is known as the Apocalypse of Matthew. It graphically portrayed the events in Jerusalem which would culminate in the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the burning of the city and destruction that would occur within one generation. He also uses this destruction as a paradigm for the destruction preceding the second coming of Jesus.
Immediately before this morning’s passage are the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents which reinforce the idea that God’s people need to be careful to do the work of the Kingdom in the time between the ascension of Jesus and His return and to be prepared for it. The true servant of Jesus is one whom Jesus finds doing his or her assigned tasks when He returns.
Exposition of the Text
This morning’s text begins with the events following Jesus’ return to earth with a host of His angels. This will be a time of separation of the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the wicked. In the Parable of the Tares, Jesus said that the wheat and tares were to remain together, lest someone uproot the wheat with the tares. Wheat and tares looked alike. It was only when the plants came to head and produced fruit that the difference between the two can be seen. This parable is relevant to the understanding of this text we are covering. It is God alone who can see who is who and rightly separate the righteous and the wicked.
What is important to note here is the field where the separation is to occur. Most Jews of Jesus’ day felt the separation at the end of time would be between the Jews and all the Gentiles. The Jews felt a sense of election and predestination and rested upon their false assumption that they were Israel. But there is no mention of Israel here. The place where God was going to separate his people from the wicked was among the Gentile world. There is a consistent thread in the gospel of Matthew about the makeup of the true Israel, the People of God. Some consider Matthew as being a gospel written to Jewish-Christians; however, whereas Matthew is concerned about the people of God, the true Israel comes out from all the nations, not ethnic and national Israel alone. In the beginning of the Gospel, we have the visit of the Gentile Magi. The end of chapter 4 talks about the crowd which would assemble to hear the Sermon on the Mount were a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. The visit to Caesarea Philippi in chapter 16 was to Gentile territory. (For those who want to know how this relates to what I am saying here can read the sermon “Upon This Rock” which is in this sermon archive.) Finally, if we look at the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel, it is a call to make disciples of all the nations (Gentiles. Baptism replaces circumcision. The true Israel are the believers in Christ.
At the Last Judgment, believer and unbeliever are separated with the saved called forth to receive the eternal blessing. Jesus invites them in with the words “Come ye blessed of the Lord.” They had lived out their faith and mission they were called to. Their faith was demonstrated in their ministry to the marginalized by society. They visited the sick and prisoner. They fed the hungry and clothed the naked. They would have seen that the poor widow at the Temple we had previously mentioned was cared for. They had spent their lives as the irrelevant of society ministering to the irrelevant of society. Though they were despised in this world, the final result would be eternal relevance and blessing in the Kingdom.
It is important to note the attitude of surprise from the hearing of these words. The true believer knows that whatever good they have done is not of themselves but is the work of God in them. He or she feels unworthy of this blessing. And we who believe are truly unworthy. We know that God has been gracious to us.
The importance of the attitude is seen in how addresses the second group whom he curses to eternal irrelevance. They protested this sentence by claiming the good works they had done. These works by men’s judgment were more noteworthy than those done by the first group. They would have been those who in Matthew 7:22 brag that they had cast out devils in Jesus’ name, prophesied, and did other wondrous works. These are the works of show. On the outside, their works were a gilded temple which men gloried in. In this world, they were the relevant of the relevant. They had done their good works to receive the praise of men. They had received the temporary relevance as their reward. But now, they were nobodies before God and would be cast out forever form the Kingdom. They had neglected the lesser and more humbling acts of ministry. They may have given money to the poor and naked out of their abundance. But their heart was not right. The world would have accorded them the badge of election, but not God.
Application of the Text
Jesus’ words are just as relevant today as they were in the days they were spoken. God is eternally relevant. He has the final say on what is relevant. There are many who say that God is irrelevant today. Others say that He is dead. This poison has greatly infected the church. We somehow feel we need to change in order to be relevant to society today. And if God is to be relevant to the world today, then we have to change God. If we want to do this that we might be relevant to the world, then Jesus teaches us how to do this. Build cathedrals of crystal. Emphasize health, wealth, and prosperity. We should deem to be practical.We should show people how to manage money, improve their marriages, and raise good kids. We should strive to polish our marketing of God to meet the world’s ever changing ideas and standards. Not we need to present a god who is love and a love that is god. We must tolerate everything. We need to be super patriots. We need to be the rock stars and the athletes people admire. We then can show our compassion for the poor by setting up missions and throwing the poor a biscuit to them out the back door of the church while neglecting to invite them to worship with us. Then they will listen, we think.
But we should also consider the end of such an approach. What will Jesus say to us at the Last Judgment? This world is fleeting. It is described in Scripture as the beautiful flowers in Israel which sprout after the rain. In a moment, the scorching heat comes and withers them. We must realize the most important question is what will Jesus say, “Come” or “Depart”? Is it worth to have our fifteen minutes of fame in this life to be cast eternally into outer darkness where there will be weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth? Is it love for our neighbor to share a few temporary blessings and practical advice and not warn them to flee the wrath which is to come? Love speaks the truth and sounds out the warning. We should do the works of feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the prisoners. These works were done by those who will be eternally relevant. But we must not leave the work of evangelization off.
John Wesley spent his life making conditions for the marginalized better. He worked to abolish the evils of society. He visited the condemned prisoners. He tirelessly labored to improve the plight of orphans. He spoke against the evils of slavery. He tried to improve the plight of the coal miners and the poor. As a historian noted, he may have saved England from the horrors seen in the French Revolution. But Wesley did not limit his work to improving the social conditions of those whom society considered irrelevant. He also won them to Christ. He offered not a temporary improvement in their affairs, but a permanent one. To join his societies, one had to confess that they were desiring to escape the wrath which is to come. Wesley put the two and two together of personal and social holiness as being the embodiment of true religion.
So let us this morning realize that we are called to live out our faith in this world, not by the standards which the world sets, but rather by the one which God has set. Let the oil in our lamps be always be burning. May we be prepared with the extra oil to keep them burning. Let us be investing out talents into the work of the Kingdom rather than in Wall Street for our own enrichment. Let us not be so worried about the temples we build externally, but the one of the heart where the Holy Spirit lives. Let us realize that all we have received is by the grace of God. If God has freely gifted us, we should freely give in response. This is what the children of the heavenly Father do. As God has forgiven us, we must forgive. The reconciled need to be reconcilers. This is faith in action. This is the message of the Bible, and Matthew in particular.
So Jesus finishes his last sermon in Matthew with the words we have heard this morning. This sums up everything that Jesus says in Matthew. Our eyes need to be fixed upon the Lord’s return. Hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter thou into the joy of the Lord” should be the purpose by which we live our lives. If we will put faith into action, then our faith will not be found dead in the Day of Judgment. We will be doers of the word, and not hearers only.