There is no video version of the sermon this week, and probably no more video before Christmas. I’ve begun a series that uses some copyright material I’ve bought but I think I would infringe that copyright if I shared it here.
So it’s back to the old ways and a text-only version of the sermon this weekend.
I might be able to separate out my talk and just post that part of the video, I’m not sure (I’ll need to check what my WordPress account allows.) But I can’t do that this week, as I’d deleted that video before thinking of that possibility!
Anyway – here is what I hope to be a fresh take on Jesus’s story about the sheep and the goats.
This is one of those passages where we think we know what it means, but the popularly accepted meaning is a bit off-kilter.
We’re used to hearing that this is about how at the end of time Jesus will judge everyone on the basis of their treatment of those in need, and that this is important because Jesus is present in every human being.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions in that summary, and the popular interpretation needs a fair bit of tweaking.
I’m not about to say that we’re going to be let off treating the poor and the suffering with dignity – nothing of the sort! – but just as your car may need tuning up and cleaning at its MOT and annual service, so there are some things to clear away and see better in this story.[i]
Firstly, let’s not call this a parable. This isn’t the most important point I’m going to make, but just to clear this up at the outset: we often call this ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’, but there is no parable language here. Jesus’ characteristic expression, ‘The kingdom of God/heaven is like …’ is absent. There is nothing ambiguous here about the meaning. The meaning is not hidden from the hearers.
Some writers have called this a ‘vision’. What we can be sure of is it’s not a parable. For simplicity, I’ll call it a ‘story’.
Secondly, when is this happening? We are used to saying that this is a scene of the Last Judgment. It’s certainly true that this leads to eternal consequences, for the story ends with the goats going away to eternal punishment and the sheep to eternal life (verse 46).
However, we also need to pay attention to the beginning of the story:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. (Verse 31)
We have assumed that this means the Son of Man (Jesus) coming again. But this is language based on Daniel 7 where the exalted Son of Man comes not to earth but to the Ancient of Days (Almighty God). It is language not about the Second Coming but the Ascension. Jesus is already reigning from heaven.
You may think that is just a technicality, but it has an important application. Yes, there are eternal consequences to people’s actions, but know that even at this moment Jesus is watching and judging. The Last Judgment is merely the climax of the judging Jesus is doing even now.
So that means – well, what specifically? Hang on while we clean up a few more parts of the story, and eventually we’ll have a fuller picture.
Thirdly, who is being judged?
All the nations will be gathered before him (verse 32a)
We assume from an expression like ‘all the nations’ that this means everybody. This is how everyone will be judged.
But not so fast. ‘The nations’, or ta ethne in the Greek, is a technical expression. The Greek translates from Hebrew the way in which Jews talked about everyone who was not part of Israel. It’s close to saying, ‘The Gentiles.’
That would mean that here we have in view how Jesus will judge those who are not part of the People of God. And when we put that in the context of Jesus’ whole teaching, it would mean not so much ‘The Gentiles’, that is, all non-Jews, but rather, those who are not a part of his reconstituted Israel, namely, his disciples.
If that is true, then this story is about how Jesus judges those who are not his disciples.
How is he going to judge them? Let’s keep going, and things will become clearer.
Fourthly, who are ‘The least of these brothers and sisters of mine’? We have commonly taken ‘The least of these’ to mean all the global poor and suffering.
But that is to wrench these words out of the context of Matthew’s Gospel. For this is an expression Jesus uses more than once to refer to his disciples. He expects that his followers will end up as hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill, and imprisoned. He has a lot to say about the cost of discipleship.
If you doubt that, come back from here, which is the climax of the fifth and final teaching block in Matthew’s Gospel, to the beginning of the first teaching block, namely the Sermon on the Mount. There, where Jesus addresses his disciples, he describes them in the Beatitudes as poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted. (Matthew 5:1-12)
The way of Jesus is not easy. It has a price.
Hence, when Jesus says to the sheep,
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (verse 40)
he is saying, ‘you did this to my people’. That’s what ‘you did for me’ means – not that Jesus lives in all human beings, but that he is with his people.
So the nations here are being judged by how they treat the disciples of Jesus.
It’s consistent with what Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel:
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matthew 10:42)
Of course, it all rather assumes that we Christians are actually living as disciples of Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom of God, calling people to repentance, ministering to the sick, the demonised, the poor, and so on. The nations are being judged on how they respond when they see the People of Jesus living like that.
This is not about whether the Church is accorded political privilege. It is not about Western Christians rushing to scream ‘Persecution!’ the moment we don’t get our way. Nor is it about the world legitimately criticising the Church when she has done wrong, such as with child-abusing clergy and officers.
The point is: when Christians act like Christ, how do the nations respond? Because Jesus is watching and judging.
Right, I think we’ve tuned up our understanding of the passage now. Where does this leave us?
We have a picture where the Last Judgment has begun, even now. Jesus is watching and judging from his heavenly throne. What people do now will seal their fate for eternity.
The story emphasises how he is watching those outside his disciples for how those nations treat his followers. Perhaps these include those who – despite, perhaps encountering Christians – never really hear the good news. They will be judged on the light they have received, seen in how they respond the disciples of Jesus.
We can be sure that Jesus is watching as China under President Xi arrests and unjustly imprisons Christians. He is doing the same as North Korea persecutes and often kills Christians. He is watching as the Iranian regime locks up Christians, and as Christians in Pakistan are subjected to spurious charges of blasphemy against Islam, while Imran Khan’s government does nothing. However much these nations get away with their violence now, Jesus is sealing eternal judgment for them at this very moment, if they do not repent.
But Jesus is also blessing those who stand up for his people, especially the suffering church. And on this front, it is worth us praying and campaigning that Boris Johnson will replace Rehman Chishti MP, who resigned as his Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief in September. So far, there is no known movement. Under Theresa May’s premiership, her Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt received the Mountstephen Report on the persecution of Christians and started to act on it. How will Jesus judge our nation?
All that said, although there is a specific focus of this story, that doesn’t mean I’m saying Christians don’t have to care for the poor. There are plenty of Bible passages to make it clear that’s a priority for us. What I’m saying today isn’t a ‘Get out of jail free’ card on that one.
In our case, Jesus calls us into his kingdom through repentance and faith in him, based on his work at the Cross. Then, having received his free grace, we respond in gratitude by aligning our lives more closely with his kingdom. And that includes our care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned.
So even as we learn that Jesus has a way of judging those who are not part of his people, it is also worth us reflecting on whether we are showing our gratitude for the love of Christ by living in his kingdom ways, giving prime concern to the last and the least.
[i] My sources this week include Michael Green, Matthew For Today; Tom Wright, Matthew For Everyone Volume 2; G R Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God; Ian Paul, The ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.