Some of the scariest perspectives in all contemporary Christianity find their foundation in these concluding parables of Matthew’s Gospel. Some of the people who are into “the end of the world as we know it” to quote one of the Mutant Ninja Turtles, believe that all the signs that have to be accomplished before we witness Christ’s return in power, the rapture and eternal damnation of the unbelievers, have been accomplished with one exception – the renewal of Jewish ritual sacrifice on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And what makes this so scary is that they sincerely believe that we should do all we can to bring about the destruction of the worship center presently on the Dome of the Rock and under the control of Islam so construction on a true Jewish Temple can begin, so ritual sacrifice can be resumed – so the end of the world can come – soon.
In the year we count as AD 70, as a consequence of a revolt against Rome, Herod’s Temple, which in Jesus’ day was not yet complete, was destroyed. Because of the historic nature of that event the opening content of Matthew 24 and 25 seems to be Jesus prophesying the destruction of the temple. One tradition, of course, argued that it was Jesus himself who would destroy the Temple. Another view is that Jesus was making reference to the whole system of Temple worship and yet others suggest he was looking forward to a spiritual faith free from the limits of physicalities. It’s important for us to remember that for two thousand years the one thing that all the forecasters of the end of the world have had in common is that uniformly they have been wrong. This group aren’t just predicting the end of the world, they are intent on making it happen. That’s why I want to suggest pretty strongly that our text for today is a parable, not a prophecy. A parable of judgment to be sure, but a parable.
One big difference between a prophecy and a parable is that a parable is a word game we play. Through story we enter a mystical, mythical and imaginative world where by as storytellers and listeners we can safely play the game and because the consequences to the story’s charactiers can be so much more egregious than what we might experience in real life, vicariously we can survive the consequences and learn from them. If it isn’t a story, a parable; if it is real time prophecy, it ceases to be good news from which we can learn and becomes a threat. Our story of the sheep and goats is good news because we have the opportunity to see ourselves in it, learn from it, and grow from it.
Before we read it, a little more contextualization may be helpful. Messianism was not new with Christianity. The Jews were looking for the Messiah to come when Jesus arrived on the scene. He just didn’t look, sound or act like what fit their preconceptions. The present age and the age to come was the subject of innumerable Jewish apocalyptic writings. Such common imagery provides the setting for what is a parable, not a prophecy.
“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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, 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?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In the Old Testament sacrificial system kids of both sheep and goats we equally employed. What is the big difference? One of the earliest mention of an animal in the Bible is found in Genesis 4: 2, 4 where it tells of the animals Abel kept and brought to God as a sacrifice. Often rendered ‘flock’, the Hebrew word that is used here is a generic term that refers to a group of domestic sheep and/or goats. It is used 275 times in the Old Testament. There are a variety of other terms used in the Bible for an individual sheep or goat. We know the difference between sheep and goats – don’t we. Separating sheep from goats in western countries is not difficult. The sheep we encounter have been hybridize to accentuate wool production so they look quite different from goats in herds which have been bred for milk and meat. However in Asia and Africa sheep and goats are often similar in appearance. Non-shepherds find it difficult to distinguish sheep from goats. It takes a shepherd to know the difference. So one important element in our parable is the fact that deciding who is the goat or who is the sheep is beyond our capacity.
Typically sheep less offensive and easily led; they are noted for their mildness, simplicity, innocence, patience and usefulness and sometimes stupidity. Goats are naturally mischievous, wayward, quarrelsome. With just a little projection we see in them our innate selfishness, the way we give ourselves up to our own passions and lusts, and our failure to see the needs of others. Goats can be extremely destructive. These two species maintain a measure of separateness, for though they might mingle together, they are not disposed to more intimate acquaintance. At night, they settle down in separate, distinctive groups.
So, there is this difference: sheep tend to follow; goats go their own way. At the judgment, the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) will know the difference and will separate those who followed Him (Mat. 10:38) from those who went their own way.
One writer said it this was: Suppose you’re doing marital counseling and you’re talking to a young man. From a biblical perspective, you want to tell him what his responsibility is toward his wife. What would you tell him? “Love her as Christ loves the church.” Now suppose he responds to that, saying, “How many times do I have to love her?” What would that tell you? Jesus’ purpose in telling this story was to help listeners and us understand that righteousness works from the inside out.
Sometimes don’t you feel like asking, “How many hungry people do I have to feed? How many homeless do I have to take in? How many coats do I have to give to people who are cold? How many visits do I have to make to prison?” Actually this story is a neat summation of Old Testament laws and the teaching of Jesus on how to treat those who are less fortunate. The stranger, the alien, is to be welcomed just as the hungry, thirsty, naked, and prisoners are to be cared for. Seeing the Old Testament context helps us to recognize that the issue for us isn’t that we should worry about not being a goat but rather how to be the best sheep that we could be.
And it has immediate implications for us in the immigration debate – who is a foreigner and how the alien in our midst is to be received and cared for? It is about the cold, homeless, hungry and imprisoned, especially including those who are unquestionably guilty of that for which they have been incarcerated. If someone asked you, “How do I become one of Christ’s sheep?” would you urge the person to behave in terms of Matthew 25?
I found a website that I found absolutely refreshing. It was a Catholic priest who was setting forth in unequivocal terms the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. In reflection on this particular passage of scripture he rhetorically asks: “What would Jesus do?” His answer was “Jesus would send all these right-wing pseudo-Christians straight to hell (and liberals may not be far behind). Choosing to follow Christ, to live the way Jesus teaches us to live, to be converted, to be born again is to nurture in our lives a new life in which in our daily call to holiness there is no separation between faith and works. To be true disciples we must bear witness to our faith not just with words but with our lives. Remember Jesus saying that not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord! shall enter the kingdom of heaven…” There has been a long standing debate over whether conversion is immediate and complete or whether it is a process. I guess I’d argue that until we become aware of the demands of Christian life and began to work to meet them our life in Christ is incomplete. We can’t isolate ourselves from the formation of public policy. So we do have to take a position on the matter of torture, of people being imprisoned without justice, the sale of cluster bombs and other weapons of war just as much as the demand of the homeless, hungry and cold make on our lives. Were the goods of this world not created for all? Is what we call our private property not actually held by us under a social mortgage? Without excluding or favoring anyone, God gave the earth to the whole human race for sustenance. One of the greatest injustices perpetuated in our world today is that the ones who possess much are few and those who possess almost nothing are many.
Ignorance is bliss. Blissful ignorance of the injustices, inequities, and intolerable living conditions in our community, in our state, in our nation and around the world, except by a concerted willfulness, is impossible today. That is one of the curses of this interconnected world we inhabit today. We do know of the violence in the Congo, we do know of children being maimed by cluster bombs, we do know … Yes, we do know, more than we want to know and we also know that in many ways we are complicit and turning a blind eye makes goats of us. It makes us like the rich man who looks past Lazarus lying at our gate. The number of the poor in the world and within our own country is increasing. Economic Darwinism and the market economy has not fixed and will not fix what’s wrong in the world. It is not adequate to blame it all on the greedy. That gets us off the hook. What will fix things is the message of Christ lived fully by us and others. A bumper sticker that reads “Honk if you love Jesus” can be a testimony of faithfulness or a self condemnation. How am I a good sheep of the Good Shepherd?
In a website called: “Anglican Plain, Recovering the Quaker Ethos for Anglicans” I found something I thought helpful for Quakers: The author wrote:
“I am dreaming about Quaker meeting. Which is so strange, since we attend an Anglican church. Perhaps I am just dreaming about other Plain people, looking for a society in which I feel that I fit.
This is not a particularly plausible dream (fitting in, that is.) Christians in general don’t fit in, and maybe we shouldn’t. We should stand out a bit, or a lot. We should be identifiable as Christians. We should identify ourselves as Christians in a secular world. This is certainly the Biblical stance, that by our fruits the world (and the Great Judge at the end of time) will know us. The world won’t like us, may hate us, but the Judge will call us out as good and faithful servants, and the Good Shepherd that He is will know us as His own flock.
So many Christians are asking “How do we do this? How do we live?” And the Way is before them, but they choose not to see it, or choose a prettier road, and easier road, and still hope for Salvation at the end. But are they going astray?
If thee takes the easiest way, thee will invariably go downhill and to the right, and eventually thee will end up more or less where thee started, or at a place where thee can go no further. If thee seeks out the right Way, looking for the signposts, the markers, the faint blazes on the trees, if thee works at thy path and listens for the voice of the Shepherd calling thee home, thee will go on though the road is rough and dark, knowing in confidence that He waits for thee.
Thee is not called to be a trailblazer, cutting through the theological thicket, blazing some new road, for there is indeed only one Way home. Thee needs to hear the Voice speaking to thee in thy heart, and following the guidance laid out before thee in His word. All human made roads end in swamps. And there be alligators.
Beware the false prophet, the pagan siren song, the nihilistic whisper of despair that the world is right, Christ is wrong, and there is nothing tomorrow but more nothing. Keep thy eyes from straying to the fascinating lights under the trees of the distant groves, for thee will be entrapped in glamour if thee seeks them. Beware the loud-shouting preacher who makes thee promises of success and ambition; this is the road downward to depression and self-loathing.
Take thee to the narrow path, the old trail that the Saints trod, and follow faithfully. The Shepherd has provided food and water for the journey. Listen carefully over the windstorm of the world and thee will hear His voice.