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The Standard

Thomas J Parlette

“The Standard”

Matthew 25: 31-46



What comes to your mind when you think about standards?

Perhaps you think about ethical standards, or maybe your dating standards. Maybe its educational standards. Or it could standards of measurement.

Some standards of measurement we take for granted – an inch is an inch; a foot is a foot. But it actually took quite a long time to arrive at an agreed upon standard for even these common measurements.

For instance, an inch was described as the width of a man’s thumb – but of course, everyone’s thumb is a little bit different. So in the 14th century, King Edward the II of England ruled that an inch equals three grains of barley placed end to end lengthwise. And that’s how we got an inch.

A foot was the average length of a man’s foot – which used to be about 11 inches, but today, a foot is 12 inches.

A yard was originally the length of a man’s belt. But in the 12th century, King Henry 1 of England fixed the yard as the distance from his nose to the thumb of his outstretched arm. Today, a yard is 36 inches, which is about the distance from nose to outstretched arm of an average man.

In the late 1700’s, people wanted to have a more consistent standard when it came to measuring length and distance – so the meter was born. The meter came from a calculation made in 1799 of one 10 millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator at the longitude of Paris. It was a little difficult to go out and measure that distance every time a new 1-meter measuring stick had to be made, so the International Prototype Metre was constructed out of a bar of pure platinum. The bar was kept in Paris, near the headquarters of the newly formed International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

Some years later, scientists discovered that the International Prototype Metre was a little off – by less than 1 millimeter, but enough to require the construction of a new prototype in 1889, made of iridium and platinum – an even stronger and more durable alloy than pure platinum. Until 1960, representatives of various countries were required to travel to Paris to calibrate their own prototype 1-meter bars against the original. Finally, in 1989, a meter was defined based on a fraction of the speed of light.(1)

It seems like a very complicated way to come up with a measurement as simple as a meter, but it just goes to show, in science, as in every aspect of life, we need standards.

Standards have been around from the very beginning. When archaeologists excavate ancient cities, they often find stone or metal objects that were used as measuring standards for weighing out agricultural produce.

Even in scripture, we have references to standards, as the prophet Amos once railed against those that “practice deceit with false balances” or scales.(2)

We have discussions about standards still. Just in the last couple of weeks, the Rochester Public School District has announced they will send out a survey to find out what a high school should know. What should be the standard for an education in Rochester, Minnesota. It will be interesting to see the results.

If you’re a jazz musician, that word “standard” might mean something just a bit different. In the jazz world, a standard describes certain melodies that serve as starting points for improvisation. Aspiring jazz musicians are expected to learn the standards, these timeless tunes, before they join in the jam session. I did a google search of what would be a jazz standard – and as you might expect, there was quite a variety of opinion. Every website I found seemed to have their own top 10 list. But there were a few tunes that popped up again and again:

St. Louis Blues, Stardust, Body and Soul, Round Midnight, All the Things You Are, Cherokee, Blue Bossa and Autumn Leaves were a few of the tunes that made many of the lists – but there are certainly others that could claim a spot on the jazz standard list.

Although the melodies undergo many alterations as jazz musicians improvise, they remain recognizably themselves. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine precisely where a jazz standard ends and where improvisation begins. No analysis of individual notes, no matter how meticulous, can reveal that borderline. The standard is definitely present, but in jazz its edges are indistinct.

Having mastered the standards, jazz musicians spend the rest of their careers playfully adapting them, but the essence of the standard is always there.(3)

Perhaps it would be helpful to approach this text today as jazz musician would approach a standard. For what Jesus lays out here in this final judgement scene is the standard for a righteous person.

This is the only time in the Gospels that we get a clear picture of what this final judgement will look like. Jesus will be seated on his throne, surrounded by angels. All the nations will be gathered. Note that Matthew does not say “Christians”, or believers or disciples or followers. He says “all notions” – everybody, Christian or not. Everyone will be gathered. And people will be separated into 2 groups, like a shepherd seperates sheep and goats. The standard used in this judgement? – how did you treat the hungry, the thirsty and those in need? How did you welcome the stranger? How did you treat prisoners?

If you treated others with grace and compassion – you’re in.

If you didn’t – sorry.

Christians, like jazz musicians, learn these standards of how to live our lives meeting the needs of the least of these – and then we spend the rest of our lives creatively improvising and adapting around those standards. The melodies, the ways we meet those needs are always changing, always evolving in new and interesting ways – but the standard is always present. How did you meet the needs of those among you?

When  we hold these standards from Matthew alongside Paul’s belief that we are saved by grace alone, we might say that our standard for eternal life, what gets us through the pearly gates, is the grace we RECEIVE – from God through Christ, and the grace we GIVE – to each other and to those in need.

John Buchannan has written that these familiar, yet uncomfortable and always challenging words of Jesus contain three profoundly important ideas.

The first is a statement about God. The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of one of the least of these – the vulnerable, the weak, the children.

The second statement is about the practice of religion. You cannot keep up with current events and not be concerned about the role religion plays in the world. Terrible atrocities are committed by people shouting, “God is Great.” Religious officials hide clergy abuse, deny sacraments to those whom they disagree. The list goes on. Notice in Jesus words here that there is nothing about ecclesiastical connection or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, policies or orthodox belief. There is only one standard here, and that is whether or not you saw Jesus in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.

The third most important thing about this subject, however is not social, political, economic or religious. It is personal. God wants not only a new world modeled on the values of Jesus. God wants us – each of us. God is not a social engineer but a God of love who wants to save our souls.

God wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life – true, deep, authentic human life.

God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love. God wants to save us by persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us.

God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.

That is God’s favorite project – to teach us the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth, the standard, that to love is to live.(4)

We are saved by the grace we receive, and by the grace that we give. That is our standard. May we learn it well, and continue to improvise on that melody for the rest of our days.


May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 6, p37

2.    Ibid… p36

3.    Ibid… p37

4.    John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p334, 336.