The Peril Of Zip-Code Religion
Very near the end of His life, Jesus told this parable. It’s found in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, beginning to read at the thirty-first verse. This is the Word of God. “When the Son of man comes in all of His glory and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep at His right hand but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those who are at His right hand, ‘Come, oh, blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me food. I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited Me. I was in prison, and you came to Me.'”
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcomed Thee or naked and clothed Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, My brethren, you did it to me.’ Then He will say to those at His left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave Me no food. I was thirsty, and you gave Me no drink. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome Me. Naked, and you did not clothe Me. Sick and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to Thee?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to Me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh, God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love to preach. I love to place myself at the command of God’s Holy Spirit and invite the Lord, if He so desires, to speak through me. I love to plunge myself into some passage of Scripture, heart, mind, body, and soul, and then to try to share with you some of the things which God has revealed to me there. I love to preach. But there are times when preaching is a difficult, ah, even a frightening thing. This is such a time, for you see, today we approach a passage of Scripture which is so important, so great in its significance, so overpowering in its message that I almost fear to tackle it, yet Christ will not let me do otherwise.
I refer to the passage of Scripture which is commonly called the Parable of the Judgment. It’s found in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at the thirty-first verse. The story, as Jesus told it, is so clear that it does not need to be retold. You know the details of this story as well as I do. But it does seem to me that there are three great truths which rise up out of this parable which we need to consider. It won’t be easy, but easy or not, this is a word from the lips of our Master.
First, this parable makes it clear that Jesus will always be found with the least of the brethren in this world.
This parable was told right at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and the message is that Jesus will be with the least. But what I want you to understand is that Jesus’ ministry began on the very same note. The first sermon that He ever preached in Nazareth, recorded in Luke 4 – you can read it there for yourself – it’s a sermon which is based on a passage from Isaiah. And in that sermon, Jesus stands before the people, and He says, “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” There were those then who did not wish to hear that word. And as a matter of fact, after the sermon, the people there in His hometown turned against Him. They took Him out to a high hill to throw Him off, but somehow, the Bible says, He managed to escape.
But what I want you to see is that from the beginning to the end, the message of Jesus was one and the same. He would always be found with the least. They didn’t like to hear that message then, and so they tried to shut Him up, and they tried to do it by nailing Him to a cross. And the same thing is true today. There are those who do not wish to hear the call of Christ to be among the least in the world, and they’re trying to shut Him up. Oh, we don’t do it with a cross today. Instead, we do it with a church. We try to lock Him up inside a sanctuary, and we say, “Sing hymns to Him. Pray to Him. Read Scripture about Him. Preach sermons about Him.” All of those things are great, but don’t ever let Him outside the church. Don’t let Him out into the traffic of life. Two thousand, years ago, they tried to silence Him by rolling a stone across the doorway of a tomb. Today we try to do the same thing with the carved wood doors of a sanctuary. But just as He couldn’t be silenced then, so He cannot be silenced now.
Understand something, please. You must. Jesus never once suggested that we are to forget the church and instead pour all of our effort and energy into ministry to the least of the brethren. He never suggested that. He never once suggested that the Great Temple in Jerusalem be torn down and the money given to the poor. Jesus loved the temple. It was very important in His own spiritual life. He went there again and again and again. He loved the temple, loved it so much that He was willing to risk life and limb in order to keep it pure and beautiful. Jesus loved the temple. And in fact, Jesus said to the people of Jerusalem that the worst day they would ever know would be the day when the temple fell in ruins. There are those in the church today who advocate forgetting about the Church and letting the buildings tumble into ruins and spending all the money on ministering to the poor and the needy of the earth. And they sound so noble when they say it, but the fact is it isn’t noble at all.
You see, the problem is that it is the Church, the Church – above every other institution on the face of the earth, it is the Church where people encounter Jesus Christ, where they are gripped by Him and changed by Him and encouraged to grow in Him and to grow in their service to Him in the world. And therefore, if we maintain the Church in a manner befitting our God, then more and more people will be drawn to the Church, and thus more and more people will be drawn to Christ and grow in Him and grow in their service to Him in ministering to the needs of the least in the world. That’s the way it works. What I’m saying to you is this: the stronger we are as a Church, the stronger we are in our personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and the stronger we build the temple of God, the stronger will be our witness and our ministry to those who have need in this world. And that’s a fact.
Besides, it’s been my observation that so many of those people who advocate letting the Church buildings go and spending the money on the poor are people who themselves live in very fine houses with lovely furnishings and with attractive yards. And it’s always seemed a trifle strange to me that they would begrudge the House of God what they themselves possess and enjoy in their own houses. I remember the Word of God from the pages of Scripture. God cried out to the people, “Why do you live in your paneled houses when My house lies in ruins?” Haggai 1:4.
You see, the point of the parable is that we must build the Church, yes, build it as strong as it can possibly be, for then Christ, through the Church, will encounter people and change them, and then through them, move out of the Church and into the world to carry on His ministry to the least of the world. That’s the way it works. So if you encounter those who say they’ve been changed by Jesus, observe their lives. If their lives have not changed, Jesus has not changed them. The parable says that Jesus will always be found with the least. And that means that for us as Christians, it’s not our talk that counts; it’s our walk that counts. It’s the way we serve the least in our lives.
Martin of Tours is one of the great heroes of the Christian Church. And on one occasion, he entered a little village. It was the dead of winter, bitter cold. He encountered there a beggar asking for food. Martin had no food with him at the time, but he had an old tattered cloak, which he was using to ward off the cold. But he took that cloak, and he tore it in half, and he gave half to the beggar, and he kept the other half himself. That night, Martin of Tours dreamed a dream. It was an inspiration of God. And in the dream, he saw all the Company of Heaven gathered about the Throne of the Lamb, and King Jesus Himself was seated upon the throne. And He was wearing an old tattered cloak, and the angels cried out and said, “Why? In the glory of Heaven, with You being the Lord of Glory, why are You dressed in rags?” And Jesus replied, “Because My friend Martin gave it to Me.” It is when we encounter the least that we encounter Christ. That’s the first message of the parable.
The second message of the parable is that Jesus will not only always be found with the least, but Jesus will also be found with those who love and serve the least.
In the parable, it says that those who love and serve the least gain the gift of eternal life. That’s what the parable says. Now, that may lead you to think that these people in the parable were ministering to those who were in need simply to gain for themselves the Kingdom of Heaven, but that wasn’t the case at all. You can hear it in the reading of the parable itself. Jesus said, “You fed Me.” And the people said, “What do you mean, Lord? When did we feed You?” Jesus said, “You visited Me.” And they said, “Oh, Lord, come on. Where? Where did we visit You?” They weren’t even aware of it. They weren’t trying to gain honor points with Christ. They were ministering to the least purely and simply because they loved the least. Let me put it to you this way. They did not do what they did in order to get to Jesus. They did what they did because Jesus was already in them.
Margaret Dodson is a woman I wish more of you knew, and she happens to be my mother-in-law, but more importantly, she is a remarkable Christian woman. Christ dwells in her so clearly that you can see Him there, and because He dwells in her, she does the most remarkable things. I could go on and on and on with examples, but just one to make the point. One day, every single week, all day, without fail, one day, every week, she goes down to the Rescue Mission in the city where she lives, and there she ministers, loves, and serves those who are the least, people whom we would regard as being repulsive and disgusting, people who have simply bottomed out in the business of living. She loves them and she serves them. She meets their spiritual needs by teaching them the Bible every single week. She meets their medical needs by driving them to the doctor’s offices and seeing that they’re cared for. She meets their practical needs by helping to find them places to sleep and food to eat and clothes to wear.
Oh, yes, sometimes she gets frustrated by the apparent lack of progress. Sometimes she gets angry at the demands they make upon her. Sometimes she gets hurt by their lack of gratitude. But still she keeps on loving them. Why? Because she thinks that that’s going to get her a ticket to Heaven? No, that’s the farthest thing from her mind. Besides, she’s smart enough to know that wouldn’t work anyway. No. She loves and serves them simply because Jesus Christ lives within her. And because Christ loves the least, she has to also. That’s the second message of the parable. It’s true that we are saved by faith alone, but you see, the faith that saves us is never alone. It invariably works itself out in acts of love and mercy directed to those who have need in the world. Jesus Christ changes human lives. He changes people. But when those people are changed, that change expresses itself in loving, sacrificial service to the people of this earth, particularly the least. Jesus will always be found with the least, but Jesus will also always be found with those who are loving and serving the least.
But there’s a third truth in this parable. Oh, it’s one I wish we didn’t have to confront, but it’s here, and so we have no choice but to face it head-on. It’s a hard saying. The parable tells us that Jesus will not be with those who do not serve the least.
Jesus says that we’re going to be like sheep or like goats. And in Jesus’ mind, that was a very clear distinction because, you see, in first-century Israel, the sheep were always white, and the goats were always black. And Jesus said, “The sheep are going to be separated from the goats.” And Jesus Himself is going to be with the sheep, and He will be separated from the goats. That’s what He says. And the basis of the separation is not going to be theological belief or denominational background or social prestige or Sunday school classes attended or verses of Scripture memorized. The basis of the separation is going to be whether or not we have served and loved the least.
That’s what I choose to call the peril of zip-code religion. That is to say that if we, as the Church, believe that our religion is intended to deal only with those who live in our zip code, only with those who live in our neighborhood, only with those who are our friends, only with those who move in the same circles we move in, if that’s what we believe, then one day we shall hear the voice of the King say, “Depart from me.”
I want this church to be a church filled with sheep. I want this church to be the heart of a great city, reaching out to those who are in need in this city and around the world. Much has already being done in that regard, but there’s so much left to do, and we need your help, we need your thoughts, your ideas, your concerns, your suggestions, and that’s why I hope that you will discuss this parable with your families and with your friends and at work and at school and over at the bridge club and on the golf course and in your small groups and in your Sunday school classes and then in the women’s circles and wherever you happen to move with other people. Talk with them about this parable and what it means and then begin to devise for yourself ideas or thoughts or concerns or suggestions that will help us to determine where this church, in the name of Jesus Christ, ought to be moving out in ministry to those who are the least of the world.
And I want you to share those things with us. We’re prepared to take them and to deal with them. But more than wanting your brain power and your heart power, we want your man power and your woman power. I’m not so much asking for your money as I’m asking for you. You see, Christ needs hands and feet and eyes and ears and voices and loving arms if His ministry to those who are the least of the world is going to be carried out by the Church in our time. And I pray God that you, because you love Jesus, will respond to that call.
I think here, a young Mexican boy who came to the United States nearly thirty years ago now. He walked into a hamburger stand in Southern California. He didn’t happen to notice the sign that said, “Whites only.” He was physically thrown out of the restaurant. He went back to Mexico. There he committed a crime. He was arrested. He was sentenced to prison. He escaped from prison. And it was then that he ran across the Bible, and he began to read the Bible, and he began to study the Bible, and he was converted by what he found there so that he went to the church and there surrendered himself to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And then after that, he went to the authorities and surrendered himself to them. He went back to jail and served out the rest of his term.
He then got married and had some children. And he came to the United States once more. And once more in Southern California, he, together with his family, they were thrown out of a restaurant there. And he called out to the manager, and he said to him, “You can’t treat us like that. We are children of God, just like you are.” And the manager said, “No, you’re not. You’re migrant workers. You’re trash.” And that little man was determined not to lose his dignity. And so he simply turned around and walked away from that ugly scene. But from that day to this, he has given himself to the cause of the migrant workers of this land. His name is Cesar Chavez.
And I confess to you that in times past I have stood with others in the church and heaped condemnation upon him. And I take to this pulpit today to recant. I withdraw it. I regret it because I have been forced now to see this little man as he really is, a man with a simple but powerful faith in Jesus Christ, a man living the ascetic Christian life, taking no salary for what he does, living only on what he’s able to produce from the land, not enriching himself with either money or power, only carrying out what he believes to be a ministry given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ. And I invite you to see him in the same light. Oh, he’s made plenty of mistakes along the way, lots of errors of judgment, and no one’s perfect. And he certainly isn’t. But I ask you to see him as he is. And when he is wrong, let us be quick to offer counsel and advice. But when he is right, let us stand to support him, but never ever let us dare to ever question or impugn his motives, for in so far as he is serving the least, he is serving our Christ.
So some of you are going to hear what I’m saying today, and you’re going to be thinking to yourselves, “You sound like a bleeding-heart liberal.” I’m not a liberal, but I do have a bleeding heart. You’re aware of the fact that from way back, in Christian history, artists have used the bleeding heart as the symbol to represent Christ? I’m no liberal. I don’t want to be. I never will be. My faith is both too simple and too deep for any of that. I’m no liberal, but I do have, yes, a bleeding heart because, you see, to have a heart that suffers with those who suffer, to have a heart that reaches out in loving service to those who are the least in this world, to have that kind of bleeding heart is to have the heart of Jesus. Jesus.
Let us pray. Gracious God, the call is so clear. We do not always wish to hear, but the call is there. We shall find Jesus when we love and serve those who are the least. Amen.