Here’s a confession: Before going to Seminary, I thought a good sermon consisted of a relatable message, easy to understand biblical principles with enough conviction to propel me forward (but not enough to wash me with guilt), all wrapped together with the words of a gifted orator. None of those components are inherently bad. But, in this season of pruning and awakening, the Lord began to show me a profound truth: Cherry picking scripture is one of the Enemy’s greatest weapons against the church.
I could tell you about the time a pastor stood up on a Sunday morning and used Romans 8:28 to tell the church it was okay to go out and purchase the new Apple TV because they could use it to host a Super Bowl party as a fellowship event. He assured us that Jesus was totally okay with that. (He also told us that Jesus was a fan of the New England Patriots, I should have known then that it was a lie straight from the pit of Hades!) Or the one about a church being called to suburbia. (I’ve heard that one WAY too many times… and every excuse in the book for why it’s true.) It would be a quite convenient truth actually… except that I don’t see it in scripture. (And I will address this specific issue a little further down the road. So don’t send me emails saying that rich people need Jesus, too. I agree with you.)
But, for this specific post, I want to focus on one specific passage… and if you know me in the slightest, you know this is the ONE passage you can’t slick-talk me on. I have studied it like no other passage… in the original language, through countless translations and commentaries. This passage, single-handedly, has led to sleepless nights, countless conversations, and the best form of transformational, constructive theology formation of my entire life: Matthew 25:31-46 (And, YES, I know it’s a final judgment text.)
A few days before the Sunday morning service in question, my husband and I went to one of our pastor’s small groups. After everyone had left, my husband and I began talking to our pastor and his wife about that week’s sermon. Our pastor wanted to ask us a question, specifically about this passage. He asked me, off the cuff, what does the passage say. My response, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
Immediately, he got so excited, like a sibling who tricked his brother into doing chores for a week. He proceeded to inform me that the passage doesn’t actually say that. According to him, it just says we have to do it for “ONE of the least of these.” He then proceeded to tell us how we’re not suppose to save everyone. I don’t remember much about the rest of what he said to be honest. I couldn’t get past the whole “we’re not suppose to save everyone” comment. But, I do remember getting back into my car and looking up the passage during our ride home. I remember continuing through the part about the sheep… and then getting to the goats.
I remember reading the particular section (verse 45) about how we’re ALSO told “whatever you did NOT do for ONE of the least of these, you did not do for me” (emphasis mine). I remember getting physically agitated at how someone could discount a POTENTIAL necessity to feed a large swath of people who are in prison, or homeless, those who are starving of famine in third world countries or the youngest, most innocent, of our own citizenry only getting one meal a day, which is provided by the public school system.
It also didn’t help that the following day, I went to the church to talk about the topic of the new building vs. church planting. At this point, the decision had been made to build a new space and I was trying REALLY hard to be okay with it. Context here is important: The prior Sunday, the sermon centered around sacrifice… to the point that the pastor challenged people to possibly re-think future home projects (like remodeling a kitchen) for the sake of funding the church/community center. So imagine how I felt pulling up to the staff parking area and seeing two brand new Lexus SUVs. I actually lost my cool in that moment, that’s when I was informed they weren’t purchased… only leased. Not quite sure why that made a difference because the optics of the situation don’t change. (And again, please understand, I’m sharing with you MY journey and what I was wrestling through. Did I have a problem with people having money? Nope. Did I have a problem with them buying an expensive car. Nope. Did I have a problem with them asking others to sacrifice and then seeing their sacrifice didn’t include a Ford (or some other less expensive car) instead of a Lexus… Yep. Not saying I’m right here. But, I also don’t see ANYWHERE in scripture where Jesus models this… AND THAT’S WHERE I WAS WRESTLING WITH IN THE CHURCH.)
Very long story summed up short…. we went to church on Sunday and our pastor gave the sermon. He talked about the sheep and how the need to save everyone doesn’t really exist. (To be completely fair, his message focused on how we only have to help the person right in front of us. This becomes very important in about 5 or 6 posts from now.) I tried to bare through it as best I could and PRAYED he would redeem the message when he got to the goats. But, here’s the thing: HE NEVER EVEN MENTIONED THE GOATS. He just stopped his sermon by giving everyone a free pass. I guess that passage stops at verse 40 in his Bible. (That was an intentionally snarky comment. I’m repenting. But, seriously, cherry picking scripture is NEVER okay. And this is FAR WORSE than using it out of context.) Based on His sermon, there’s no need to feel guilty about not helping everyone because Jesus doesn’t tell you to. For. Real. That was the end of the message. I didn’t even stand during the last song. I didn’t get up when everyone was dismissed. I didn’t respond to anyone when they said hello. I just sat there. My husband got the kids and came back. I was still sitting. He took them out to car and came back again. I just sat there. By myself. Jamie slid in beside me and asked if I was ready to go. I looked at him, tears streaming down my face and said, “I’m ready to hear the rest of God’s Word.” And then I wept. Little did I know that would be the last sermon I’d ever hear at that church.