Readings for Sunday 22 November: Ezekiel 34.11–16,20–24, Matthew 25.31–46
We are Strictly fans in our house. Every Saturday night in Strictly season you can find the three of us on the sofa in front of the telly – hooked. And not just on Saturday night either – in our house, there’s Strictly chatter at the dinner table practically every day.
And one of the things we talk about is what it must be like to work with the professional dancers. How long and how often do they rehearse? Do the celebrities and the pros ever dislike each other? Most importantly – what are the professionals like in the rehearsal studio? Are they bossy and fierce? Or kind and encouraging? And which would we prefer, if it were us in the studio?
Me, I like a kind and encouraging teacher. I like to be challenged, but I really need encouragement, especially when I’m learning a new skill, so I’d definitely like my Strictly pro to be supportive. I had enough of shouty, critical teachers when I was at school – I don’t need any of that now I’m an adult. But other people disagree – I have friends whose idea of a fun workout is to be yelled at by a former Army sergeant. They know that without that kind of pressure they would give up. Carrot or stick – we all respond differently.
Today’s Gospel reading, at first glance, seems to be all about the stick. It certainly makes for worrying reading – I don’t think it’s possible to read this gospel without realising that we may, in fact, be among the goats, destined for the eternal fire. Who among us hasn’t walked past a beggar? Which of us hasn’t failed to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, look after the sick?
This Gospel certainly sends a wake-up call – this is Jesus in full Sergeant Major, kick up the behind mode, warning us that God takes very seriously our failure to love our neighbour. Jesus warns us that whenever we fail to help someone in need, we fail to help him. Whenever we ignore someone homeless, whenever we turn off the television during a charity appeal, whenever we judge someone who is poorer than us, we do the same to Jesus.
So yes, there’s plenty of stick in this reading today, plenty of warnings to get you motivated to love your neighbour. But there is also carrot, for the people like me who need encouragement. First of all, never forget that even the most forbidding passages of scripture have to be read in the context of God’s unfailing love for us. And secondly, in case you are worrying that all of this is unachievable, a second reading might help you to realise that actually, the bar is very low indeed.
Because if turning our back on our neighbour means we are turning our back on God, don’t forget that it works the other way too. Jesus says that what we do to the least of God’s family, we also do to God. My older daughter, Matilda, is also preaching this Gospel today and she puts it like this – when we phone an elderly relative or listen to a child or give money to charity, it is as if we are extending that compassion to God. Small acts of great love are what the Lord looks for in us.
My friends, there is both warning and encouragement in today’s Gospel. But whichever way you look at it the message is clear – it is not enough to love, you must also act. We need to take Jesus seriously when he says we have to look after other people. So how will you extend God’s love to the people around you today? Amen.