Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46
The thing about the parable of the sheep and the goats is that there is so much in it, so many way of approaching it, so many little observations that might change the whole way you read it, that it’s very hard to know where to start; or, for that matter, where to go, and where to end.
Perhaps the best place to start, therefore, is at the beginning. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. It’s an apocalyptic vision, more in tune with the book of Revelation, or of Daniel in the Old Testament, than with most of the writings of scripture. And that’s a difficulty for us to start with – for apocalyptic literature really isn’t part of the canon of the English language. It’s writing by and of and for the oppressed; rich in imagery of violence and judgement, giving hope to those who find little to hope for in the current world. For Matthew’s audience – Jewish Christians, persecuted by their own people as blasphemers and by the Roman authorities as revolutionaries – visions of judgement were a reassurance that they would be vindicated, in the end.
There is a great exegetical danger here: when words written by and for the powerless, those at the bottom of the ladder, are read by the powerful. So let’s not lose sight of that as we read.
Because I think there are two big theological difficulties that most Christians have with this parable. The first lies in the tension between the heart of this story – in which the basis of judgement, of salvation or damnation (which, incidentally, is the second problem), seems to be entirely determined by actions. The sheep and the goats are divided on the basis of what they did and didn’t do.
But how does that sit alongside the profound statement at the core of the Christian faith that we are saved not by what we do, but by the grace of God; that for those who live in Christ there is nothing that can separate them from the love of God?
And I’ve heard some fairly unsatisfactory readings of this parable in my day. I’ve been told that the sheep and goats are divided on the basis of faith in Christ – and then that Jesus sees only the good in the sheep (for they are the forgiven ones) and only the bad in the goats (for they are not).
But you’d have to wonder why, if that was the meaning of the story, that kind of crucial point was left out. Why the story was told without the least hint that the judgement actually had nothing to do with the feeding of the hungry, the visiting of the sick and the prisoners, the welcoming of the stranger, the clothing of the naked; all the things that actually seems to be whole point of the story.
But perhaps there is a clue at another way of reading in the next words: All the people of all the nations will be gathered before him.
All the people of all the nations. I’m guessing that when you hear those words, you hear “everyone”. Everyone, no matter where they are from. That seems the clear meaning of the words.
But it is not what a first century Jew would have heard in them. It’s not what one steeped in the Old Testament scriptures would have heard. For to them “the nations” was not everyone; it was “everyone else”. The world was divided into Israel and “the nations”. It’s not the whole world gathered here – it’s them, not us.
This isn’t about the judgement of God’s people. This is about the judgement of everyone else. And for the early Christian Church, it was easily and obviously translated in the judgement of those who were not followers of Christ.
And when you hear it like that, not only is the problem of judgement by works against salvation by grace through faith set aside, but the rest of the story takes a slightly different shape as well.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… the consistent message of Jesus through the gospels about the Kingdom is that it is a present reality – or perhaps, an almost-present almost-reality; at hand; ready to be entered into; forcefully advancing. But here, almost uniquely, it is portrayed as something for the end times, for the final judgement. Why? Because these words are directed towards those who never encountered the kingdom, or never entered into it. The nations, not the people of God. But here, at the end, they are invited into a kingdom that has been prepared for them.
The people of God, the people of Jesus Christ, the people of the kingdom; preparing it, making it a reality, so that in the final analysis those of the nations – the rest – who can enter.
And their response: when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? – that too makes a different kind of sense. For we – I hope – would not ask that question. We, who are steeped in the gospel, for whom the idea that service to others – especially service to those most in need – is service to God – would not need to ask that question. We’ve already heard this story, after all; we know the punchline.
But those outside, the nations, they haven’t heard this story, they need to ask.
But they, the outsiders, the ones who never lived as part of God’s kingdom, they are invited into the kingdom in the final judgement (at least, some of them). And why? What is it that makes the sheep, sheep?
Basically, it seems to me, the judgement is that they will fit. That they have lived the kingdom without ever knowing that that is what they are doing.
In the last of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, The Last Battle, a servant of Tash, the enemy of Aslan’s people, is surprised to find himself in Aslan’s country. Aslan, the Christ figure in the books, explains it:
I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
The sheep are the ones who have lived the kingdom. They are the ones who have met the physical needs of those most disadvantaged – for in the kingdom of God, all have what they need to live and flourish; who have offered welcome and hospitality to the stranger – for in the kingdom of God, all are welcomed and included; and who have offered comfort to the sick, and even to those in prison (and I note in passing, that there is no condition placed here on why they are in prison – for in the kingdom of God even those who have done great wrong are not left to face the consequences alone).
And those who are condemned are not condemned for evil actions that they have done (and, for that matter, there is no suggestion that the sheep have done no wrong, just that they have done right) – their sins are those of omission. They have simply not lived lives that would find a fit in the kingdom of God.
And if this is a description of the kingdom, then even though we may not be the target of the judgement described (for it is in the grace of God that we trust), it would be worth asking ourselves how we would fair, whether we are sheep or goats.
To which, of course, the answer is “no”. We are not sheep or goats. All of us are geep (and yes, that really is a word, a hybrid of goats and sheep, that has fairly frequently been bred – gotta love Wikipedia).
Which is why, in the end, I believe that Jesus’ teaching on judgement is a blessing, not a threat. For the reality of God’s judgement is not that we need fear destruction – for there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – but that there will, finally, be an end to all those things in ourselves that we would love to change, all those besetting sins, all those moments of jealousy or greed or dishonesty that we are ashamed of but return to, like a dog to its vomit, those destructive attitudes and patterns of life that we find ourselves drawn back to like magnets; all in us that is goat; all that is wrong, twisted, broken, will be put aside, so that we can live, finally, as complete citizens of the kingdom of Christ the King.