Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)
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.”
Today’s scripture is sometimes referred to as the Judgment of the Nations. It focuses on the question, “Do we do the right thing when no one is looking?” C.S. Lewis said that doing so was the definition of integrity. Later, Henry Ford called it the definition of character and expanded it to also include doing the right thing when everyone is looking.
Last month, NPR had a story on church attendance. Following a survey by the Pew Research Center, science correspondent Shankar Vedantam examined the numbers more closely. You see, 79 percent of Americans say they are part of an organized religion which makes our country an outlier amongst developed nations. Further, almost half of all Americans report that they attend a worship service every single week compared a number more like 20 percent in Europe. Vedantam’s exploration uncovered that if our behavior aligned with our declarations, then the pews would be packed every single Sunday and, in many churches, that is not the case.
The method of validating this is called the timed diary where individuals record exactly what they did over a one-week period. According to the timed diaries, 24 percent of Americans were actually in church. The issue is not so much with our church attendance. Rather the issue is in the disparity of what we said and what we actually did. Unfortunately, America was unique in this manner as other countries’ results showed actual attendance matching reported attendance. It sort of reminds me of asking my children if they’ve brushed their teeth.
In our scripture, the sheep did the right thing when no one was looking. They offered clothing and nourishment to the naked and hungry. They invited strangers into their homes. They visited the sick and those in prison. The goats did not for they thought no one saw. In reality, our God sees everything.
This advent is a perfect time to reflect not only on our personal and family behavior but how we, as a church and a nation, might turn to radically assist others. The Bible contains no shortage of reminders that we need to take care of those in poverty yet many of us don’t know a poor person by name.
Can we use this season to build a plan to change that, regardless of who is watching? It’s not just the right advent thing to do but it has eternal implications.