Matthew 25:31-46

A sermon by The Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy

Matthew makes us face whether or not we are a righteous nation. Many Americans assume we are righteous. They claim we were founded as a Christian nation and that we are a Christian nation. Some go so far as to claim that America is God’s new chosen land. None of these assertions are true. Righteousness is not an exclusive American deal. In a friendly Facebook debate, one of my Redneck friends actually said, “I believe Jesus helped write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” I responded, “I bet that’s news to Thomas Jefferson.” My friend thinks that righteousness comes in a box stamped MADE IN AMERICA. Many Americans suffer from the self-righteousness that we possess “righteousness” that other nations lack.

Is America a righteous nation? I slogged my way through a number of conservative sermons this week just so you wouldn’t have to endure that kind of suffering and here is why conservatives say we are not a righteous nation: Abortion, evolution, gay marriage are the big three. I also scanned a few liberal sermons and this is why liberals say we are not a righteous nation: racism, nationalism, lack of concern for the environment, and injustice. Liberals and conservatives agree that we are not a righteous nation, but disagree about what causes our unrighteousness. Basically, we have reduced our understanding too “at least our scandals are not as bad as yours.”

 

Righteousness, it seems, is the chameleon of theological words. What passes for righteousness in America today is “being right” with might. If you have the vote, you can dictate what is righteous. When we start deciding who is righteous on the basis of polls, we should know we have a problem. Introduction

What Can Wash Away My Sin?

  1. Redeem Your Sins with Acts of Mercy
  2. Merciful Deeds Deliver from Death
  3. Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice
  4. Give Alms with Respect to the Things Within
  5. Storing Up the Treasure for a Good Foundation
  6. Love Covers a Multitude of Sins
  7. Merciful Practice Is Good as Repentance for Sin
  8. By Alms and Faith Sins Are Purged Away

Conclusion

“A broad yet deep study of the atoning power of merciful action in ancient Judaism, the New Testament, and early Christianity, Alms is beautifully written and persuasively argued. Deposit this book in your library’s treasury and generations of readers will be enriched.” —Matthew W. Bates, Quincy University, OnScript

“Recent years have seen a sharp rise in interest in the topic of almsgiving in Jewish and Christian traditions. Downs makes a contribution to this burgeoning discussion by tracing the character of atoning almsgiving as it emerged in the first two centuries of Christianity and by exploring how Christians correlated such a notion with an understanding of the atoning value of Christ’s death and resurrection…Readers interested in the topic of almsgiving in early Christianity will learn much from this volume.” —Bradley C. Gregory, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology

“Downs’ work is a great contribution to scholarship on almsgiving and atonement.” —Paul A. Brazinski, Reading Religion

“This thorough examination of Jewish scriptural traditions, New Testament writings, and second- and third-century Christian authors reveals that believers had many theological incentives for performing merciful acts and giving to the poor.” Christian Century

“In this important study that fills a major gap, Downs offers a compelling exploration of almsgiving in the early church. Because of the centrality of almsgiving in early Christian thought and practice, the theme becomes a window onto ideas of sin and salvation, the changing nature of the Christian community, and the interpretation of scripture. This book should be essential reading for any scholar of early Christianity.” —Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President, Provost, and Professor of Classics & Letters, University of Oklahoma

“Although pervasive in early Judaism and Christianity, ‘atoning almsgiving’ is terra incognita for most biblical scholars. David Downs illuminates, corrects, clarifies, and synthesizes what can be known of a complex subject that spans both Testaments and reaches into third-century patrology. His research is thorough; his exegesis painstaking; his conclusions original, provocative, and insightful. Alms is now the standard investigation of its often-neglected, yet important, topic.” —C. Clifton Black, Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

“Downs’ study allows one to grasp the theological implications of the practice of almsgiving.” Choice

“David Downs here significantly advances the growing realisation that early Christian gifts were not ‘disinterested’ in the modern sense, but were expected to bring reward, recompense, even atonement for sin. By meticulous and deeply researched study of key texts stretching from the New Testament to Cyprian, and through detailed analysis of their scriptural sources, he offers a robust historical argument that will challenge and inform all future treatments of this topic. This is a very fine book which will be warmly welcomed and carefully studied for years to come.” —John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University

“Downs’ careful and meticulous study anchors the early Christian notion of atoning and meritorious almsgiving on their faithful engagement with scriptural traditions of promised reward for an individual’s or a community’s care of the needy. His outstanding textual scholarship, theological sensitivity, and keen contextual understanding make this volume a critical source for both scholars and students.” —Helen Rhee, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Westmont College

David J. Downs is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Some Christians believe we are a righteous nation because they are clinging with all their might to the moral certitudes of the conservative wing. Other Christians believe we are a righteous nation because they are clinging with all their might to the strident programs of the left. Righteousness doesn’t come from a secular political commitment. Righteousness is not about being for or against social issues. It’s not about pietism or external religion or praise songs. Righteousness is active and it’s more than having right beliefs. Whichever party we belong to, however dear and precious we hold it all to be, none of it is going to make us a righteous people. Only God decides what is righteous.

The place where we are made righteous is the house of God. What we do in this place on Sunday morning matters because the Righteous One is here, the one who declares that we are his righteous people. That is why we have a formal call to worship so that we can enter into this special zone of righteousness. We come into this holy, sacred space and we are reconfigured into a new shape and a new form . . . . Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-war and antiwar, pro-choice and pro-life, pro-gay marriage and horrified at gay marriage, tired, anxious, eager, quarrelsome and we . . . . all of us together . . . . are morphed into a congregation at prayer and at praise, ready for God to teach us how to be a righteous people. And if that is not what is happening, if we are gathering here and leaving here Sunday after Sunday, unmoved, unchanged, unrepentant, stuck in the mud, our opinions carved in the stones of idolatry, then we are not a righteous people.

Now, I am going to do my best to make this portion of Scripture come alive for you today. I want you to see that this church is an outpost of righteousness and is going to need to be stronger than ever for the next 100 years. I want you to see that you matter a great deal in the righteousness that comes only through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reality check: The nations will be judged. What a shock to the sacred doctrine of individualism. The nations are gathered. Did you miss this salient point? Nations will be judged for how they have treated the least of these. We treat the rich like gods, but how do we treat the poor? James has a scathing reminder of how we fawn over the rich and tell the poor to sit in a corner. I bet some of you have always said, “Jesus is telling each one of us that we should each do our part to feed the hungry and take care of the sick. He’s not talking about the government.” Or maybe you have said that the poor should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The poor have no boots! “All the nations will be gathered before him.”

Reality check: Jesus has prepared a final examination for the nations. One question: “How did we respond to human need?” (Fred Craddock) Mommy, I’m hungry. Daddy, I’m cold. Grandma my tummy hurts. How did we respond to human need?

The politics of Washington are not righteous. What we have is a dog-eat-dog localism in which public dimensions of society evaporate, and each looks to his or own narrow interest. This is what is so deadly wrong with our politics. They have become the politics of winning and not the politics of righteousness.

Winning is not righteousness. Our nation is a theological entity that in the end must face God’s judgment. Our political parties have forgotten how to be righteous. Our political parties are self-serving and they have put us in a huge theological crisis that can’t be resolved by being conservative or liberal. Our political infrastructure has broken down and no one wishes to know the truth. As a student of the Old Testament, I believe that we are in the same mess God’s people were in back in the book of Judges. There’s a telling verse in Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The people stumbled along into crisis after crisis and there would be sporadic public leadership exercised by opportunists and thugs, a brand of politics that sounds like street gangs, a high level of brutality that culminates in a terrible barbarism. Life was cheap, power was arrogant and careless, and death was at hand. That is how it was in the day of the judges and that is where our democracy is headed. Our disregard of truth and justice is putting all of us in jeopardy.

Righteousness is not a private, spiritual deal. It is a public matter of transformation that takes place in the real world of economics and politics. Our story is clear about what it means to be a righteous nation: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Please note that Jesus calls the people who led their nation to do these things by one name: The righteous.

How are we supposed to take care of all these needy people? Well, our story insists that righteousness means meeting human need. And that takes money. What in the world does money have to do with righteousness?

Here then are two stunning theological principles:

The nations are to be judged by how well human need is met.

Righteousness is a matter of serving people and almsgiving.

I bet you didn’t see that coming. Well, the tradition of almsgiving as righteousness is deeply embedded in Judaism and the early Christian church. I recently read Gary Anderson’s book, Sin: A History. Not much of a title, I admit, certainly not Fifty Shades of Grey, but oh what an explosive thesis. Anderson points out that in the book of Daniel there’s a story of Nebuchadnezzar having a dream of the cutting down of a giant tree with only the stump left. Daniel tells the king that he is that tree. Daniel then gives the king some advice: “Therefore, O King, may my advice be acceptable to you: Redeem your sins by almsgiving (sidqa) and your iniquities by generosity to the poor; then your serenity may be extended” (Daniel 4:27). The NRSV translates the Hebrew sidqa as righteousness, but note the parallelism in the text between sidqa and the phrase “be generous to the poor.” In Hebrew the meaning of the first phrase is defined in the second phrase. So righteousnesss is here defined as almsgiving. I’m going to wait a moment and let this sink in: almsgiving is righteousness.

And there’s more evidence for the idea. “The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving” (Psalm 37:21). “Happy is the one who gives generously to the poor” (Proverbs 14:21). “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Proverbs 14:31). “He who withholds what is due to the poor affronts his maker; he who is generous to the poor honors him.” “He who is generous to the downtrodden makes a loan to the Lord; he will repay him his due” (Proverbs 19:17). “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”

Protestants find it hard to grasp that what we do toward the poor registers directly with God. Investing in the poor doesn’t sound like a good business plan, but there’s a heavenly bank. “It is as though the poor person was some sort of ancient automatic teller machine through which one could make a deposit directly to one’s heavenly account.” To be righteous is to be generous. But we are shocked. This can’t be right. This is not what we have been taught. Baptists never met a biblical teaching we didn’t try to spiritualize. Gnosticism is our default setting.

JESUS SAYS, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:19 – 20). Jesus says that we have a heavenly bank account AND WE ARE TO MAKE DEPOSITS. The idea of giving to the poor and funding a treasury in heaven is strange to our ears. I’m not saying we can buy our way to heaven because only God can make us righteous. “The importance of giving for the purposes of reconciliation is nearly universal in the early church.”

The early church’s insistence on almsgiving was taken over by Roman Catholics who decided to use it as a marketing campaign to sell indulgences. The idea was changed from helping the poor to helping ourselves out of Purgatory. The Pope decided that selling indulgences would be a good way to raise the money to rebuild St. Peter’s Cathedral and so almsgiving, righteousness became part of a capital campaign. No wonder it made Martin Luther so mad. He swore that if Tetzel, the indulgence seller came to his town, he would beat a hole in his drum. Tetzel would beat loudly on a drum to summon townspeople. So the Catholic Church distorted the meaning of almsgiving.

Then Martin Luther and the Protestants insisted that you can’t buy your way to heaven and they made righteousness a matter of the free gift of God and therefore made almsgiving an option for Christians, unrelated to righteousness. This also cannot be right. It produced cheap grace and millions of born again folk sitting at home on Sunday morning living off that long ago confession of faith. Backsliders we once called them in derision.

Only when we take seriously the relationship between giving and righteousness, do we have a chance to get our stewardship theologically right. Giving is not a voluntary decision for the Christian. It is not a matter of giving in order to get. It is not a way of buying our way to heaven. It is a matter of righteousness. Giving is a public testimony that we belong to God. We are returning to God what already belongs to God. We give for the benefit of others not for our benefit. It counts as righteousness. It’s not as far-fetched as you have thought.

Serve human need and give alms. It’s what it means to be made righteous.