Lessons in Chemistry: Jesus’ Litmus Test

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:   Matthew 25:31-46    Date:  November 26, 2023

Summary:  According to the parable of the last judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, Jesus’ litmus test for faithfulness and entrance into God’s Kingdom is how a person treats those who are hungry, naked, imprisoned, and in need of hospitality.

Karen and I recently enjoyed watching the series “Lessons in Chemistry”, which is based on a book by the same name.

The story is about a brilliant young chemist named Elizabeth Zott, played by Brie Larson.  Zott was a chemist in the 1950’s, when the sciences were dominated by men, so as a woman she wasn’t taken seriously and was often not given credit for her work.

Zott ends up leaving the science research firm she was working for.  And she becomes the host of a TV cooking show, but instead of giving up on chemistry, she turns her food preparation into little chemistry lessons about the ingredients she’s using and how they interact together.  Very clever!

Now I think I’m a pretty good cook, of some dishes at least.  But unlike Elizabeth Zott, I stunk in Chemistry classes in high school and college.  Me and my lab partners were the kind of students that teachers worried were going to mix the wrong things together and blow up the classroom!

But one thing I think I did succeed at in Chemistry class was doing a litmus test.  I mean, it’s not rocket science– you just stick a special piece of paper into some liquid and see what color it becomes.

If it turns red, the solution has a high acidic or pH content.  If it turns blue, the solution has a high alkaline or content.  If it’s purple, it’s somewhere in the middle.   It’s a simple test with clearcut results.

Our society has adopted the term “litmus test” to apply to lots of other things.    For example, some people use the criteria of whether someone is a “dog person” or “cat person”, to determine what kind of personality they have.

In the arena of politics, there are “single issue voters”, who use a politician’s stance on one particular issue as a “litmus test” of who they will vote for.

In our scripture passage today, we see a litmus test being used by Jesus.  The scene is the Judgment of the Nations, when Jesus will come back to judge who has been faithful to his teachings and who has not been faithful.

Jesus will separate the sheep, those who have been faithful, from the goats, those who have not been faithful.   The sheep, he says, will inherit the kingdom, and  spend eternity with Jesus.

The goats, on the other hand, have a much less desirable fate.  Jesus says to them “enter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

And the litmus test that Jesus uses to separate the sheep from the goats has to do just one single issue: whether or not they showed love in concrete ways by caring for those who were in need.

At the For the Good of the Public conference Karen Zehr and I attended a few weeks ago, African American Pastor C.J. Rhodes said it this way:

 “how will they know that you are my beloved disciples?  They will know by your love.  And how is that love demonstrated?  When folks are hungry, you feed them; when they are naked, you clothe them; when they are thirsty, you give them something to drink; and when folks are in prison, you visit them.” 

And Jesus also mentions welcoming strangers and caring for those who are sick. In today’s world we could add some other examples of love in action.

I would guess that most of us here are in agreement with the litmus test that Jesus uses here.  Many of us would agree that caring for those who are in need is the true measure of a faithful follower of Jesus.

This past week, Rosalyn Carter passed away, and we’ve seen many tributes to her and to her husband former President Jimmy Carter, how they have lived out their faith in such a beautiful way through humble, loving service like building houses with Habitat for Humanity.

Using Jesus’ litmus test, the Carters certainly are on Jesus’ right side, with the sheep.  And I think the same would be true for many of you as I look around the room.

But sorry, I’m not the ultimate judge, which is a good thing, for a number of reasons.  First, I can be easily deceived, and Jesus can’t.  Second, I could be persuaded to play favorites, but Jesus can’t and doesn’t.

And third, as I look back on my life, my litmus tests, my criteria for judging people have often been different than Jesus’ litmus test here.

For example, there was a time when I was in high school and college where I believed that if you smoked or drank, that you couldn’t be a true Christian.

Or there was a time when I was a young adult where I judged how close to God a person was by how emotional they got when they worshipped, i.e. the higher you raised your hands when you sang praise songs, the more “on fire” you were for God.

There were other times when my “faithful Christian” litmus test had to do with how much time a person spent praying and reading their Bible.

Then after I came into the Mennonite Church, simple living became a litmus test of faithfulness.  The less possessions you had, and the less money you spent, the more beat up your car, and the more times you washed out and reused ziplock bags, the more holy and faithful you were as a Christian.

But to all of these litmus tests, Jesus says, “You’re majoring in the minors”.  They’re not bad things to do, but they’re not what’s most important.

No, what’s most important is how you respond to people around you who are hungry, or thirsty, or lonely, or hurting, or behind bars; things like that. That’s the litmus test that Jesus uses.

Now before I  there’s something else that this passage brings up that I want to address, because frankly, it troubles me and makes me uncomfortable.  And maybe you as well.

It’s what Jesus says will happen to people at this final time of judgment. Not necessarily the sheep, but the goats.  I mean “How could a loving God send people to an “eternal fire, this thing we call hell, that has been lit by the devil himself?”

Now this topic needs a lot more time than I have today to talk about it.  I’m looking forward to reading Skye Jethani’s new book, What if Jesus was Serious about Heaven? to wrestle with it more.

One of the first chapters is titled, “If Jesus was serious, we should focus on heaven and earth, not heaven and hell.”  The idea of heaven and hell taking place right here on earth is also emphasized in this book by Rob Bell, Love Wins.

Now I want to say a few words about God’s justice and judgment.  First, here’s a picture of a painting of the final judgment that I discovered this week.

It was in this fascinating book that I just started reading by Grace Hamman called  Jesus Through Medieval Eyes: Beholding Christ with the Artists, Mystics, and Theologians of the Middle Ages.  It’s even got a section of full-color photos!

Hamman says that throughout church history there have been lots of paintings of the final judgment, and the era that had a whole lot of them displayed in churches was the Middle Ages, from about 500-1500 AD.

And you know what they called them?  “Doom” paintings.  Appropriate, right?

The best Doom painting in the UK, is thought to be in the Church of St. Thomas a Becket, in the city of Salisbury.  Of course in that time, lots of people were illiterate so visual images were the best way to communicate stories from the Bible to the masses.

During the Protestant Reformation, many of the paintings in churches were whitewashed to safeguard people from worshipping images.  So this painting as well as many others were restored back to the originals centuries later.

Let’s look a little more closely at some parts of the painting.  The top image shows Jesus sitting on a rainbow, and putting his feet on another rainbow.

The rainbows here are believed to come from the story of Noah’s ark, and they are a sign that God will be faithful to his promises, one of which is faithfulness in bringing justice to the world.

For me, one of the keys to embracing God as a judge is remembering that God’s judgment and justice go hand in hand.

And when I think of justice and judgment, I think of Mary’s Magnificat, which is a beloved part of the Advent season that will begin next week.

After Mary learns that she will become the mother of Jesus, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, she proclaims what Jesus and his kingdom will be like:

“his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”                   –Luke 1:50-53

What do we hear Mary saying?  That God’s justice means that the judgment on the needy and the lowly is that they will be lifted up and taken care of, while judgment for the proud, rich and powerful means being brought down and sent away emptyhanded.

It seems to me that here we see clearly that God’s justice and judgment going hand in hand.  I want to share a quote from Pastor and Author Meghan Good that helped me better understand this and the final judgment of the sheep and goats.

“God’s judgment is an aspect of God’s mercy.  God’s judgment is not opposed to God’s compassion in either testament—it is an expression of it.  The Bible is a love story all the way through. 

Justice is God’s right-making energy.  It is an expression of God’s determination not to let evil annihilate all that is good about creation.  It is God’s definite “no” to the things that steal life from us and from other people.” 

There’s a lot more to be said about how a loving and merciful God appears to be so harsh in judging people, but I’ll leave it here for now.

And I want to close with a story of what can happen when people of faith pass Jesus’ litmus test of caring for those who are in need.

This story is from the life of the early church. There were two major plagues that ravaged the Roman Empire when the church was still in its infancy.

There was the Antonine plague in the middle of the second century, and the Cyprian plague in the middle of the third century.  Together, these plagues  killed 1/4-1/3 of the population, including emperors like Marcus Aurelius.

And like the Coronavirus in our day, there was a lot of panic because people didn’t understand the disease.  But the confusion we experienced during our pandemic was nothing compared to the chaos of those two plagues.

Now the interesting thing is how people responded to those plagues.  Most people who weren’t Christians did all they could to avoid any contact with people who got the disease, because it was so contagious.

So as soon as people saw symptoms in those close to them, they literally threw them into the streets, leaving them in piles to die.

Christians, on the other hand, went out into the streets and took care of those who were infected and who had been abandoned by everyone else.

Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, Egypt, described what he witnessed his fellow Christians doing during the Cyprian plague:

“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains”. 

Wow.  What a powerful display of the sacrificial love of Christ.  And you know what?  Because of this extraordinary example of love in action, there was this amazing “butterfly effect” that took place.

The Butterfly effect is when something small ends up snowballing and leads to exponential-type change.  The term was coined by a study that showed that theoretically, if a butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings, and enough other butterflies follow suit, it could lead to a tornado in Texas.

You see, one small act of kindness or love can have a ripple effect with tidal wave results.  In the case of the early church during the plagues, there were two butterfly effects that I can see took place.

First, people outside the church were so moved by the love of Christians that many ended up becoming part of the church, and as a result, the church grew like wildfire during and after that time.

The second butterfly effect has to do with health care.  Christians providing care for people during the plagues led to the creation of the first hospital, founded by St. Basil of Caesarea around. 369 AD.

Christian hospitals grew in leaps and bounds, and by the mid-1500s there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that had medical care as a central part of their ministry.

So friends, as we carry on with our lives, let us keep Jesus’ lesson in chemistry, Jesus’ litmus test in mind.  Let’s remember what Jesus said in this story, that as we care for the least of these, that we are in a real way ministering to Jesus. “

As we see the needs of people around us and in our world, let us protect our minds from getting cynical and our hearts from becoming hardened, and let us not become paralyzed by fear or by the overwhelming needs in our world.

Let us reach out with compassion and courage, sacrificial love, with our eyes wide open to encounter Jesus in the midst of the suffering in the world. We may be surprised by what he looks like, and we may be surprised by the impact of what a small act of serving others can do.  AMEN.


Questions for reflection:

What litmus tests have you/do you mistakenly used to judge people?

How have you encountered Jesus in your experiences of serving and caring for others?

How have you seen the “Butterfly Effect” through acts of love and service by yourself or others?