The Sheep and the Goats
‘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.’
This was our gospel reading for the Communion service last Sunday, and Mick spoke to us afterwards about 'moving toward the stranger.' Today I want to sit a bit longer with this passage, because it's stayed with me during the week, and I think there's more in it for us to explore.
Firstly I want to talk about what I think this passage isn't. I suspect for many of us, these kinds of stories in the mouth of Jesus make us pretty uncomfortable, even if we like the bit about caring for the needy, because of all the eternal fire and punishment stuff that surrounds it.
So, two things.
1. I do not believe that this passage is a literal description of something that's going to happen on some day in the future.
2. I do not believe that this passage is about who gets into heaven, and who is going to hell.
The passage comes in the midst of a number of apocalyptic stories and warnings at the end of Matthew's gospel. These are stories about the ending of the current age, and the sudden coming of the Son of Man ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. The passages are a mixture of description and parable, metaphor and proclamation. They draw on rhetorical techniques belonging to a certain kind of literary genre that's found in the Bible, one that would have been instantly familiar to its hearers. It's a genre that isn't used today, and one that we don't understand very well - particularly when we lift it from its first century context and try to apply it literally to our current situation, or to an unknown future.
Without going into all that now, what I will say is that this story of the 'sheep' and 'goats' uses the device of 'the Son of Man dividing the nations' to provoke people into self-examination about how they are living. The hearers are not so much being offered a literal depiction of some future event, but are being warned about their choices in the here and now. They are asked to identify themselves with one side or the other as the story goes along...maybe they start out thinking 'definitely sheep', and by the end of the story are left wondering... am I? Does my life look like what he just said? The focus of the story is not 'what happens to the two groups at the end' but 'on what basis are they divided?...what did the one group do right, and the other group do wrong'? For the original hearers, all sharing roughly the same worldview about the end of the age, and the cosmology of heaven, earth, and hell, the outcome of this story for the sheep and the goats would have come as no surprise.
What would have been surprising, and what I therefore take to be the point of the story, is the reason why they end up where they end up.
This story, then, for the original hearers and for us today, is mostly about what it looks like to align myself to Jesus and his 'family'. And, hidden inside it, is a powerful , even mystical, basis for compassion...that is, what we do to one another, we do to Christ.
Before I go further with that idea, I need to explain that some readings of this passage see it as having only a very narrow application. It can be read as a story about how the Gentile nations that don't know God will be judged, and that the basis for judgement is how these people have treated either the Jews, or the Christians, depending on how you interpret the bit where Jesus talks about 'these followers/brothers/family members of mine'. However, other scholarship reads this story more broadly, seeing 'the least' as meaning any person who has need. This is the meaning that Eugene Peterson is assuming when he puts in The Message translation: "Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me."
Whatever the original intent may have been, I believe that it is appropriate in our time to go for the most universal meaning of the text, and so I also assume that this is a story that applies to every person in the world.
The key twist of this story for those of us who are in the church today, particularly its evangelical corner, is that the eternal destiny of the sheep and the goats does not depend on what they believed or what they said, but on what they did. This reminder, that faith without works is dead, is crucial to developing any kind of decent concept of salvation. And in this story, it's clear that those who served Jesus through their compassion to the least likely, didn't even know that that's what they were doing. That is, their compassion was enough to grant them the kingdom of heaven. I don't think that it can be stressed strongly enough, that practical alleviation of others' suffering is a cornerstone of the Christian faith.
As, in fact, it is a cornerstone of many religions and ethical and philosophical systems. Most moral or religious people have some place in their beliefs for altruism or charity. The golden rule of 'do unto others' is hardly unique to Christ.
However, what is striking about this story, and the main point I want to make today, is that in this story there is a mystical and profound basis for caring for the least. Which is, that Christ dwells in others, so that when we serve others, we are serving Christ. When we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned and sick, we feed, welcome, clothe and visit Christ. Somehow, Christ receives into himself the actions of care we do to the stranger, the overlooked, the sufferer. And, somehow Christ receives into himself the neglect, and the indifference that others experience when we fail to respond to their needs. I believe that this is tied into the radical theology of incarnation - that when Christ emptied himself in order to be one of us, he was not only willing to be a poor, nomad carpenter, but he goes further, and dwells within every disease or despair-riddled body and mind on this earth.
It's this phenomenon that has fired the imagination, the spirit, and the lives of the greatest of the Christian saints. St Francis was repelled by the leper until he suddenly saw that the leper 'was' Christ, and he was moved to embrace him. In our own day, Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say that she saw each person who came to her for help as Christ coming to her suffering and diseased. The rule of St Benedict insists that every stranger is to be 'received as Christ' - it's at the core of Christian hospitality.
When the reason for our compassion is service of Christ in the other, our acts of care in the world become acts of devotion and worship, rather than simply out-workings of our morals or ethics. When we respond to need, it is a form of prayer, it is something we give to Christ, as spiritual and as worshipful as any song sung in the company of other Christians.
Radical care for those in need is hard to sustain in our world, in the midst of the lives we lead. And it's actually not that easy to put ourselves in the way of encountering the 'other' - the structures of our work and family and social worlds almost entirely isolate us from those whom Jesus might call 'the least'. In order to live our lives compassionately, I believe that we need a renewal of our vision of the 'other': a renewal that enables us genuinely to see Christ in each other, and to respond accordingly. Otherwise, there's just unending need, awkwardness, discomfort and exhaustion, rather than the energy flow that comes from a life lived in devotion. This way of seeing is, I believe, a grace, a gift, that rests more intensely on some than others. But I believe that when we pray and act and desire to receive this grace, it increases in us.
Something that I think is important about this way of seeing is that it fosters humility. There's something about 'giving charity' that can be kind of self-aggrandising - it makes us bigger than the little person who needs our help. It can reinforce prejudice, or at least, complacency. But when we care for others as Christ, we in some way allow ourselves to be humbler than the person we are helping. We are grateful for the opportunity to serve them.
Maybe, even if just for a moment, we can begin to see their life as just as significant, even more significant, than our own.
And finally, it might help in all of this to remember that we are part of the Body of Christ. No one of us is expected to feed all the hungry and visit all the sick and imprisoned on our own. It's as the church, and in the fullness of all our gifts, that we can live in the way that this gospel story challenges us to. The works of mercy are not shackled to any one political system, nor to one particular lifestyle. They can be done by different people, in different ways. For some of us, our best energies will go towards making our country and our world more just, supporting social and governmental initiatives that serve the poor. For others, acts of service are done one person at a time, in a hands-on way. The main thing is Jesus' words to us: whatever you do to the least, you do to me.
I'll close with James K Baxter's re-framing of the Catholic church's 'works of mercy,' which are partly based on this story from Matthew. He calls it a 'Cast Iron Programme for Communal Activity at Jerusalem, in Crash Pads, or in People's Homes.' Could it also be the calling on this community of Cityside, in Auckland, in 2008?
Feed the hungry;
Give drink to the thirsty;
Give clothes to those who lack them;
Give hospitality to strangers;
Look after the sick;
Bail people out of jail, visit them in jail, and look after them when they come out of jail;
Go to neighbour's funerals;
Tell other ignorant people what you in your ignorance think you know;
Help the doubtful to clarify their minds and make their own decisions;
Console the sad;
Reprove sinners, but gently, brother, gently;
Forgive what seems to be harm done to yourself;
Put up with difficult people;
Pray for whatever has life, including the spirits of the dead.
Where these things are done, Te Wairua Tapu comes to live in our hearts, and doctrinal differences and difficulties begin to vanish like the summer snow.