I Was in Prison and You Visited Me

Matthew 25:31-46
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.”

I Was in Prison and You Visited Me
The Congregational Church of Easton – Nov. 26, 2023

Let me repeat line 40:
Truly I tell you just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you have done it for me.

Matthew uses the metaphor of a shepherd who loves the sheep who are in his care. They will receive good things from his father. They will inherit the Kingdom that was prepared for them before the world began.

Why have they been chosen to enter God’s new order of love? Because of their loving actions. They fed the hungry, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners. They didn’t realize when they did these things that they were actually doing them to Christ but, again, as Jesus says,
…just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you have done it for me.

By the “least” he is referring to the vulnerable members of society, those on the margins without power and influence — those who are often disregarded as undeserving. In the status conscious world of 1st century Palestine, “the least” were at the bottom of the pecking order — especially children, who were considered the least of the least.

The first part of this morning’s reading overflows with love. In God’s new order — in God’s Kingdom — love flows, and the weak and defenseless are cared for the way a shepherd cares for his flock.

Then the tone of the passage shifts. The loving shepherd is also a judge. I’ll continue reading, beginning with verse 41. Remember, the king had separated the goats from the sheep and put the goats on his left side.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.

I was a stranger, and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me. Then they will reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?”

Then he will answer,” I assure you that when you haven’t done it for the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.

This is pretty tough stuff! So harsh! Those who have not cared for the weak and vulnerable will be sent away into eternal punishment! One of the commentators on this passage says how uncomfortable this passage makes him. He said he can’t help everyone; He doesn’t have either the money or the time.

I don’t know about you, Matthew 25 makes me uncomfortable too. I used to have a friend in a nursing home, and I did take time to visit him once every three or four weeks. I would call him on holidays. You’re probably thinking, “That’s pretty paltry,” and you’re right.

I’ve never taken time to visit anyone in prison even though I’m familiar with a prison ministry near me. Yes, Matthew 25 makes me uncomfortable too.

When we look at the enormous number of people in America’s prisons and the fact that one out of five children go to bed hungry at least once a month — when we look at the way in which the weak and vulnerable are not cared for here the way they are in a country like Sweden — when we are honest with ourselves about the way the “little ones” are treated both here and in many countries around the world, we know that there will be lots of goats facing torment on judgment day. Yes, Matthew 25 is uncomfortable.

Part of the reason there are so many goats is the way our society is structured. In Israel during Jesus’s time you would encounter people who need to be cared for every day — perhaps several times a day. People walked, so they would encounter needy people all the time.

There was plenty of opportunity to give food to hungry children begging in the markets or water to thirsty travelers whom you passed on the road. Many of your neighbors were sick and needed care. There were no hospitals.

We here in the suburbs don’t run across defenseless people nearly as often. There is less opportunity to care for the needy. And it’s harder to know who is vulnerable. Nice looking clothes are inexpensive and readily available. When we lived in Westport, the only vulnerable people I recall were our neighbors who lost a college aged daughter.

Churches DO give us opportunities to serve and to care. Think of the ways this church gives you opportunities to serve “the least” of Christ’s sisters and brothers. When members are sick, you can reach out to them. You can cook for the Merton House food kitchen or drop off toiletries and canned goods for their food pantry.

If you’re like me, you wouldn’t have as many opportunities to serve people in need without the church. And, if you’re like me, these opportunities can enhance our lives. They bring us into God’s presence.

I don’t believe in a future day of judgement in which sheep are going to be separated from goats. What I do believe is that when we are in service we can be filled with love. In God’s kingdom love flows. Opportunities to serve bring us into that flow of love.

I used to organize the Westport Community Thanksgiving feast that fed a Thanksgiving meal to homeless people and those without families nearby. Once I interviewed some the volunteers to ask them about their experience. Often they broke into huge smiles. They talked about how happy the guests were and how happy that made them feel. People love volunteering at these feasts. Many sign up to volunteer months in advance, for fear there won’t be a place for them.

I’m sure you’ve all experienced being bathed in love when you have had opportunities to give — especially those of you who are or were in service professions like teaching or nursing. Think of the times when you were able to comfort an unlovable child. My wife, Susie, says that when a child is most unlovable, that’s when she or he needs the most love. Acts of love bring us into God’s presence — God’s kingdom.

Goats, on the other hand, don’t seize opportunities to serve the little ones. Goats often view the least of Christ brothers and sisters as undeserving. They see many of the poor as not worthy of compassion. Goats in their busyness and self-absorption cut themselves off from the joy of serving.

Matthew says goats are sent into eternal punishment. I don’t know about that. I’ve always believed the choices we make create our own hell — and heaven — here on earth.

I’d like to close by saying a word about visiting those in prison and ways that the larger church gives us opportunities to serve prisoners. I had a neighbor in Rochester, NY, who was very involved in a prison ministry, and i’ve always wanted to do something like that.

Writing this sermon helps me see I already am making a small contribution to people in prison. The Congregational Church of Easton is a member of the United Church of Christ. Connecticut’s prison population has decreased significantly. The Connecticut Conference of the UCC has been an active part of the coalition that has influenced policies that made this possible.

In 2014, during our Conference’s annual meeting, we passed a resolution to end mass incarceration for non-violent offences. Since then our lobbyist in Hartford has joined with representatives of dozens of other organizations to work for prison reform.

Let us pray. Thank you, God, for opportunities to serve persons who need care and who are often looked down upon as not worthy of our compassion. Thank you for the United Church of Christ which provides us the opportunity to join with others in creating a more compassionate society. Thank you for opportunities to express care and compassion and enter into your loving presence through the missions of this church. Amen.