Surprised by Grace

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

One of the more intriguing shows on television right now is The Good Place. In the first episode, Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is informed she is in “The Good Place,” a utopian paradise into which only the most righteous individuals are admitted. Before long, however, she realizes that she is the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop: the one who actually belonged in the Good Place was a human rights activist during her time on earth; in her own estimation, the one who actually made it was “a selfish dirtbag from Arizona.” Predictably, Eleanor determines to keep her head down and pretend that she belongs, so as not to be sent to the Bad Place. As you can imagine, this situation yields a number of opportunities for comedy and raises some interesting moral questions, the most obvious of which is: what would we do if we were placed in a similar situation? I like to think of myself as an honest person: if the server at a restaurant forgets to charge me for something I ordered, I almost always call it to his attention. What happens, however, when the stakes are substantially higher? What happens when being honest costs us, not an order of chicken wings, but our very sense of self? I suspect that most of us would be inclined to follow her lead, concealing our suspicion that we simply do not belong.

Over the last three weeks, we have heard a series of related parables from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. On their face, these parables appear to be cautionary tales about responsibility and preparedness. The overriding message seems to be that we should avoid ending up like those bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil or the slave who buried his master’s talent in the ground. One could view this morning’s text through a similar lens: we need to avoid ending up like those people who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. The underlying message of these parables appears to be this: at the end there will be those who are prepared and those who are not, and we should do as much as we can to be numbered in the first group, since those in the second group are in big trouble. As harsh as it can be, this interpretation has an appealing quality, because it assumes that our efforts to make our way through the world will be rewarded. If we prepare diligently, risk appropriately, and show some compassion every once in awhile, we will be successful in this life and in the life to come. If you think about it, this jibes pretty well with the way our faith is understood by shows like The Good Place. In the popular imagination, the Christian life is basically about holding ourselves to exacting standards in order to attain a heavenly reward.

The problem with this interpretation is that it misses the deeper point of these parables, and of the Christian faith in general. Under the surface, these parables have very little to do with preparedness. The key to understanding this chapter of Matthew’s gospel comes when the righteous, having been told that they would inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…or naked and gave you clothing?” If this series of parables is actually about preparedness, this exchange would look very different: the king would say to those at his right hand “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And in this alternate version, the righteous would say, “Yeah that sounds about right!” Instead, we find that the righteous are not only ignorant of their righteousness, they are so surprised to be included among the sheep that they ask for documentation; they imply the king has made a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop would have been furious; if you find that an error has been made in your favor, you do not call attention to the error! Yet, this unexpected moment is the key to understanding not only this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but the entirety of Jesus’ ministry.

It is tempting to read Matthew’s gospel as an account of Jesus establishing a new religious tradition, one that replaces justice with mercy by substituting one set of requirements for another. It would be easy to read this morning’s parable through this lens: to assume that God’s favor is contingent not on following the Jewish Law, but on caring for the least of these. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the fact that the righteous were surprised by their inclusion in the life of the kingdom. More than anything else, the surprise of those at the king’s right hand reveals that this fundamental truth: there is nothing we can do to guarantee our place in the kingdom. This series of parables is the climax of an argument that Matthew has been making since the Sermon on the Mount: despite any pretensions we may have, we are unable to save ourselves. Now, this may not seem like the most relevant conclusion, since I suspect that there are not too many of us who worry extensively about our eternal destiny. But this message applies to our daily experience of the world. Even as we blindly pursue success or notoriety, Jesus reveals there is nothing we can accomplish that will truly set us apart from others. Believe it or not, this is good news. In fact, this is the very heart of the Christian faith. Recognizing that we can’t save ourselves disrupts our compulsion to conceal our true selves and frees us to take our inevitable failures not as measures of our worth, but as opportunities to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. This, by the way, is why stewardship is such a crucial component of the Christian life: giving allows us to recognize that even our hard-earned money, the ultimate marker of worldly success, is not going to save us. Moreover, realizing there is nothing we can do to save ourselves allows us to be honest about our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that there are times that we too are numbered among the “least of these.” No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all muddling our way through life, stumbling upon triumphs and tragedies along the way.

Right after this parable, Matthew begins his account of the passion, which at its heart is a grim reminder of what human beings are capable of. When given a clear choice, God’s people rejected God, proving their inability to save themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus went willingly to the cross and redeemed their betrayal in the Resurrection. Ultimately, this is what it means to acknowledge the kingship of Christ. It is about putting our lives in the proper perspective, recognizing that Christ reigns even in the midst of our foolish decisions and deliberations. The Christian faith is not about performance, nor is it about appearing to belong; it is about acknowledging our dependence on a grace that takes us by surprise.