About Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25)

Those of you who were at church yesterday and were in the main room heard me open with an illustration about my coaching years. Later in the day, a former runner on the team reminded me that I would often divide the team during practices into groups based upon their talent and level of fitness. One group would have higher expectations and demands. And she reminded me that I often referred to the groups as the sheep and the goats. I had forgotten that. And probably very few of my runners realized I was making a Scriptural inference in those titles.

The parable of the sheep and the goats is one that has been more debated than most parables as to what it is teaching and who are the characters in the groups. So, yes, there are sort of sheep and goats camps of biblical interpretation about who are the sheep and goats! And I did not want to get us too terribly deep into those weeds … because, well … there was another parable about weeds coming up later.

Simply stated, some believe the parable in its context of a discourse by Jesus is referencing God’s judgment upon Gentile nations relative to their treatment of Israel during the Great Tribulation and in advance of the 1000-year millennial kingdom. Others believe it is more general and is referencing the final judgment at the end of all time. I see the merits in the arguments of each, but along with the other two parables in this week’s study simply chose to draw the big ideas and timeless principles out of it.

And one of those timeless principles is the certain reality of God’s judgment. There is a time of accounting that will happen, and the reward or curse that follows is dependent upon one’s faith and execution of that faith in practical ways. Understand that the deeds being spoken of in these verses (and other such passages) are not prescriptions of things to be done in order to gain favor with God. Rather, having gained God’s favor and relationship through Christ, these deeds are the proof-positive outworking of that inner faith. There is a focus away from self to serving others — all men, but especially those of the household of faith.

So judgment is real and is not the overblown imagination of a televangelist in full stride. Not everyone agrees or believes that there will be a final judgment. Why do some people deny this teaching, found here and in many other passages? What might a denial of future and final judgment say about how a person has a wrong view of God? How do we reconcile seeing God as both the definition of love, yet also the dispenser of final justice and judgment?

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “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. 35 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, 36 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.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “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.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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That Just Ain’t Fair! (Matthew 13, Matthew 25)

A sense of fairness or justice rises very early in our lives. I have seen this most recently when watching my grandchildren. They are constantly looking to see that they are being treated with fairness and equity about such pressing matters as to how much orange juice is in their cup as compared to that in their sibling’s glass.

I suppose you could logically argue that the children in the illustration are actually being self-oriented, making sure they are taking care of themselves and not getting short-changed in any way. Call it maybe “the survival of the fittest.” Being motivated from a sense of justice would cause one child to be equally upset if they got “more” than the other and called attention to that. And that does happen with children and with adults as they see the inevitable inequities that exist in a fallen and sinful world.

But in any event, we have some internal wiring that tells us there needs to be fairness and justice. We know in some intrinsic way that wrongdoing should not be tolerated and that action should be taken against those who harm others. And I would argue that this represents our creation in God’s image, and that the existence of the principle within argues for a good and just law-giver and omnipotent judge.

But as the years go by, the injustices about which we grieve have much greater gravity than the ounces of orange juice or the size of the apple pie slice of dessert. We are saddened when the powerful and entrenched people of society take advantage of people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. We boil over internally when we see evil people in a third world country abuse children or murder innocent people for having a different faith or being from a different tribal ethnicity. Human trafficking is a total outrage. Where is justice? How is this allowed to continue? Will these evil people have to pay for their actions in either this world or the next?

We may also feel the injustice of a life taken before its time, of a young life lost to the folly of a drunk driver, a child neglected or beaten by irresponsible bullies in their lives, or an illness that cuts someone down in the prime of life. Where is God when this happens? Why does injustice exist? Is there a time of accounting, and when will it be?

These are the types of questions we will be seeking to address a bit when we look at three different parables this Sunday and in our writings this next week. To be prepared, here are the three parables of interest in this study …

Matthew 25:31-46 — The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “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. 35 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, 36 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.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “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.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 13:24-30 — The Parable of the Weeds

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:47-50 — The Parable of the Net

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Brighter Still (Matthew 25:1-13)

I have a recurring dream.  Maybe you’ve had it, too.  I’m back in school; it’s finals week.  According to my schedule, I have a math final.  That’s bad enough on its own, but in my dream, I’d always forgotten that I ever even signed up for a math course.  What I’m left with is a looming final and a semester’s worth of equations left unsolved.  In a panic, I’m left to try and put the pieces together in the hopes of not failing out of the forgotten course.

I don’t know much about dream analysis, but in this case it’s usually safe to assume that such dreams stem from fears of inadequacy or unpreparedness.  And, in turn, those fears reveal a solemn fact: that there can be no quick-fix to cover for the absence of commitment.

Regarding life in the future, Jesus teaches:

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)

Now, there are a number of ways to interpret the parable.  First, Jesus could be suggesting that the foolish virgins represent those who reject God’s grace and lose their salvation.  But nothing in the parable indicates that the flame has to mean salvation.  So—secondly—Jesus could be saying that the foolish virgins represent those who started out with enthusiasm toward God’s kingdom, but their emotion could not sustain them throughout their life.  Or, finally, the “then” of verse one could refer to the period known as the tribulation: the Church is “raptured” into heaven, and during the seven years that follow ethnic Jews would be given the chance to turn to Christ, and through them redeem a great multitude.  The foolish virgins, therefore, could refer to those who—during this seven-year period—refuse to turn.

Regardless of the exact nuance, Jesus’ message is clear: preparedness begets joy, a preparedness for which there can be no substitute.  In his book God in the Wasteland, David Wells highlights a disturbing fact about contemporary Christians.  Many of us might assume that Christianity’s problems stem-at least partially—from an overabundance of religious “fundamentalists.”  But no, says Wells; the problem isn’t that we have too many fundamentalists, but too few.  In the last several decades, American churches have become preoccupied with personal satisfaction and self-improvement.  Christian books on dieting (yes, dieting) became bestsellers in local Christian bookstores.

The tragic result of this culture of “therapy” is that Christianity becomes indistinguishable from any of the other voices out there in culture today.  If my goal is happiness, then why choose Christianity over any of the simpler options at my disposal?  But now that Christianity has chosen to market itself based on felt needs and personal satisfaction, the light of the gospel has been extinguished, and our hopes dashed.

This, friends is a tragedy.  But while we may analyze and pick apart the trends of our broader culture, we must also turn our gaze in on ourselves—or, better—to allow God’s Spirt to expose our backward motives.  If I look to Jesus to satisfy my immediate needs, then I have treated him as a means to an end.  And when his blessings dry up, or they no longer satisfy, the fire of my faith flickers dim and expires.  But if I look to Jesus as my ultimate source of my satisfaction and joy, then the fire of my faith burns brighter still.

 

How to Leave a Legacy (Matthew 25:14-30)

There is nothing new about the desire of people to leave a legacy. For many, it is primarily about how they will be remembered by others.

Consider so many of the archeological and historical structures of antiquity. From the tombs of the Pharaohs to the ruins of Rome such as the Arch of Titus – remembering his military exploits – these are all efforts to enshrine a legacy of greatness and accomplishment. And a few of them remain, though surely the majority of such efforts over the years are lost to ravages of time.

A better encouragement about what defines “legacy” comes from the venerable mind of Billy Graham, who said, “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.

There is great truth to that, as you can indeed impact three, four, or perhaps five generations after you by your faith, evidenced by a life of trust and commitment to God.

But today, let’s take apart the parable of the talents for some help in defining how we can be a people of legacy leaving.

Matthew 25:14-30…

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

I am reading from the NIV – which I typically use, though Chris often uses a different version – the ESV. It would be better for the NIV translators to have remained with the word “talents.”  Probably they were trying to get away from the confusion of “talent” as an ability or skill that one possesses, when actually the term in the text speaks of a measurement of money – a LARGE measurement. It could be gold, or more often actually silver – ranging from about 40-60 pounds. A talent was thought to perhaps represent the equivalent of 15-20 years of wages for a working man. In any event, it was a lot of money.

In the ancient world, slaves (who served as a sort of indentured servants) were often entrusted with great responsibility of stewardship in a household.

16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

We don’t know how long the master was gone, but it sure sounds like the banks in these days paid a lot better interest than we can get in our generation!! But the point of the story is that there were means available to the servants to, while putting assets to some risk, have them yield a positive return through wise investment.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 

That last phrase probably is a reference to an invitation to a banquet, or feast, at the master’s table … and though it is getting ahead of ourselves in interpretation and application to say this:  You can see how this has a ring of spiritual and eternal application of the great feast that the Scriptures speak of as in heaven – the eating at the table of the Lord forever, etc.

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

Actually, the statement uttered by the third servant condemns himself, not the master; and it reveals his true intent. If the master was as the servant claimed, it should have motivated him even more greatly to invest and make the most of what he had been given.

It would appear that this servant, along with being lazy, simply hid the money away in hopes that it would be forgotten – in the event that, if the master did not return, it would be his own. There would be no official record of it with others. So he was to be seen as both lazy AND self-motivated.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Let’s take this passage and make five statements of application from it:

  1. We are servants of Jesus Christ – our master – living in a period of time where we await his promised return.
  2. We have been given gifts and resources to be used – spiritual gifts and material assets – with a presumption that they will benefit the household (the kingdom) of our master.
  3. Our master – Jesus – will return (or call us to join him where he is) and there will be an accounting as to our use of HIS resources given to us.
  4. There is abundant opportunity to invest HIS resources in causes that will benefit the master’s kingdom.
  5. Seeing the master as harsh, and thereby hoarding HIS resources with a view toward keeping them for our security and use, positions us away from being any sort of blessing.

I am afraid that too many Christian people who are part of the kingdom see God in the way the third person today in the story viewed the master. They see God as hard and scary, not really someone they can trust. They’d rather play it close to the chest and hold onto resources carefully – because one can’t quite be sure what God will do if they are generous.

Summary Statements and Thoughts …

I’ve heard more than one person, late in life say, “The only thing I’ve ever really kept is what I’ve given away. It’s a universal law: You have to give before you get. You must plant your seeds before you reap the harvest. The more you sow, the more you’ll reap.

I have never seen a year before this one to quite match the maple tree seeds that cover the ground. In my frequent cycling on the canal towpath, the pathway is so covered as to make a soft and cushioned, tan surface. Imagine a maple tree holding onto the seeds, afraid to lose them out of fear. That would never happen. What they produce is for the purpose of watching the wind scatter and wing those seeds even far from the tree. Even a dumb tree knows what to do with its resources! Share them!

In the end, this all comes down to a heart issue – the view that one has of God, along with a person’s values system about the passing reality of this world and the eternal reality of the world to come. Jesus rightly commented that a person’s heart and their treasure are not far separated. And when we value those things that God values – the stuff of the eternal kingdom of light – the use of our treasure to prosper that becomes a legacy we can never lose. It may well bless our family for several generations, but even if it is forgotten by them and we are forgotten by everyone in the world of the living, we are not forgotten by God, nor is our work lost.

Are you going to count on others – friends, family, business associates, etc. – to remember what you’ve done in the physical world, or do you suppose it would be better to think in terms of letting God be the custodian of your legacy because of your investments in things eternal?

Should We Care About Leaving a Legacy? (Matthew 25:14-30)

This weekend is the third and final message within our series on stewardship. We have looked at two principles so far – of IDENTITY, as seen in Ecclesiastes 2; of RESPONSIBILITY, as seen in 2 Corinthians 8.  Finally, we will examine the LEGACY principle – turning on Sunday to Matthew 25:14-30.

I believe that in my lifetime I have heard critics of every President of the USA say something like this: “He only cares about his legacy,” or “The only reason he is doing that is because of the legacy of his presidency.”

So, is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Actually, it could be either, depending upon the attitude, I suppose. If a President is interested in his legacy in terms of how he will be remembered personally, then doing things for self-aggrandizement and personal reward is rather arrogant and self-focused. But if the POTUS does something because he wants the legacy surrounding his presidential leadership and administration to be known for accomplishing great good for the benefit of the country, then that is a worthy interest for the record that will remain.

When I was a child growing up, I clearly remember a wooden plaque on the wall of my parents’ house that simply said, “One life ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”

My parents really lived by that, as did my father’s parents and generations before him. I recently had reason to rehearse for someone about my family’s involvement in a variety of ministries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and even one in Maryland. My grandparents were rather successful in varied agricultural pursuits, and they took from their income what was needed to live a comfortable, yet simple life. The rest of it – the vast majority of it – they simply gave away to Christian causes near and far. They lived just across the street from me, and I remember as a boy having my grandmother show me all of the colorful stamps she had collected from all over the world – having done so from supporting and corresponding with missionaries on every continent. Their generosity is a legacy of trust and faithfulness I have received from them.

We have talked and illustrated at church on several occasions about how, even in one’s own family system, unless you do something truly extraordinary, you will be forgotten in four or five generations. And surely any generosity will be lost as well, again, unless it was more extraordinary than any of us are likely to be able to provide. And that is kind of depressing, isn’t it?

But God is so much better than this. He does not forget. What we give to Him for the purposes of eternal values and the building of the eternal kingdom is not forgotten. As we studied just weeks ago in the book of Hebrews, those readers in the first century were questioning the value of anything beyond the creature comforts of their own lives in their own generation. But the writer said to them to endure, because “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”  (Hebrews 6:10)

We can be really glad that God is the best bookkeeper ever!

But it all comes down to a heart issue and a values system. Jesus rightly commented that a person’s heart and their treasure are not separated. And when we value those things that God values – the stuff of the eternal kingdom of light – the use of our treasure to prosper that becomes a legacy we can never lose. It may well bless our family for several generations, but even if it is forgotten by them and we are forgotten by everyone in the world of the living, we are not forgotten by God, nor is our work lost.

In preparation for Sunday, here is the text from Matthew 25:14-30 that we will be talking about …

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’