Last week, Claire looked at the Parable of the Talents. Three slaves are given large amounts of money by their master while he goes away. This parable has traditionally taken to be about how we should respond to the gifts and talents that God gives us. Claire was struck by how unsympathetic a character the master seemed, the unrestrained capitalism of requiring the servants to increase their original holdings, how we tend to sympathise with the servant who just buried the money, and how out-of-proportion his punishment seemed. It is not an easy passage,
Neither is today’s parable of the sheep and the goats. Partly because it seems to say that eternal judgement is based on what we do, and partly because it consigns the unrighteous to eternal punishment.
Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of a collection of Jesus’ teaching on the end times, spread over two chapters. It depicts Jesus (the Son of Man) on a throne in heavenly glory, with all of mankind before him. Jesus separates the people into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Shepherds and sheep are quite a common biblical theme, from Psalm 23 – the Lord’s my shepherd, the shepherds coming to the manger, to Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd. Separating sheep and goats may sound a straightforward shepherd’s task. Sheep and goats here are pretty different here (picture of UK sheep); even we could do it – if we could make them go where we wanted. In other countries it is more of a challenge (picture of sheep in Israel). We have lived in both Kenya and Nepal, where the sheep are, like these, a bit scruffy, not always white, and can have horns. Goats can be many colours, quite shaggy, and do not always have horns. You can usually work out which is which, but it can be challenging. Mind you, sometimes the goats make it quite clear what they are (photo of goats in a tree).
The Son of Man, who is now referred to as the King, welcomes the sheep people into their inheritance, the kingdom, prepared before the creation of the world. And he says that this is because they had cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick, in need of clothing, or in prison. The sheep, now called the righteous, have no recollection of ever having looked after the King. But, he says, whatever you did for the least of one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
The king then becomes distinctly goatist, and tells them that they had never cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, sick, a stranger, in need of clothing, or in prison. They again say, but we never ever saw you in such need. The King tells them whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me. The goats are sent into eternal punishment, the eternal fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.
We discussed Claire’s sermon and the Parable of the Talents in our homegroup this week, and I found it really helpful. Two things came out for me.
- Parables are stories.
They are not specific instruction on how to live. They are imaginative pieces that speak to different people differently. In our homegroup it was intriguing that some people found the parable spoke to a specific part of their current experience, highly relevant now, while others took it more generally.
Not every point in the parables means something. There is no one-to-one correspondence the details and real life. Actually, this parable is a bit of a muddle. How often do you find a king hungry and thirsty, or in prison? And the terminology is all over the place: is it the Son of Man/the King/the Lord/or Jesus? Are these people/sheep/goats/righteous/cursed. (And why is he so down on goats?)
The parables are usually making a wider point, but their format allows them to speak to you individually.
- You need to take the gospel as a whole.
It is dangerous to take one verse from the Bible, one saying of Jesus, and to make it the foundation of our belief. Particularly when that verse is an imaginative story that we are slightly uncertain about.
When we allow the parables to speak to us, the problem is that we often feel inadequate, unworthy, miserable sinners, and think that any warnings within are aimed directly at us. Resist this!
It is not the thrust of Jesus teaching, or the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, or even the Old Testament, that God is watching you in order to judge you and condemn you. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, forgiveness is given freely to the son, despite his selfishness in running off and squandering his inheritance (Luke 15:11-31). In his ministry, Jesus offers forgiveness to the sick, to those in trouble. Jesus says to the penitent thief on the cross, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, not because of the life he had lived, but because he had turned to Jesus at the end (Luke 29:39-43).
You can note that several of the parables about judgement – the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-36), the Ten Virgins (25:1-13), the Wheat and the Tares (13:24-30), the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35) – are only in Matthew, a gospel which appears to be written with a Jewish readership in mind. Part of the meaning of these parables follows on from the Old Testament prophets in scolding Israel for its rejection of God.
Nevertheless, in any approach to the gospels, we have to take Jesus’ words seriously. There are parts of the Old Testament that are difficult, and do not seem to reflect the God we see in Jesus. Paul seems a bit cranky sometimes, and does appear to be speaking to his time and culture in some of his pronouncement. But we are Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ. We need to try and understand what Jesus was trying to convey in the parable, and not dismiss it.
There is clearly a warning here. The Kingdom of Heaven is for those who are kind, caring, generous.
I notice a couple of other things, though. The righteousness are not doing good because of a fear of hellfire. They were not even aware that they were doing good. When Jesus rewards them for their kindness to him, they have no idea what he is talking about. This is not forced, grudging charity, only done because they have to do it. It is a natural, joyful outworking of the Kingdom, a response to God’s great generosity. It is a sign of the Spirit within, not a requirement.
The unrighteous do not get this. If they had known it was Jesus, of course they would have fed him or given him a glass of water. Durr. But that is not what Jesus is getting at. In the goats, there was no sign that the gospel has touched them. Their hearts had not been changed. There was no love.
Still, we end up with eternal punishment. Last week it was darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Here we have the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. How do we reconcile a loving God with this?
Well, remember, this is a parable, a story. What does it mean in reality? I do not fully know. I am encouraged by views like that of C.S. Lewis, who in The Great Divorce, has one of the characters say “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.” Maybe that is it.
Today is the festival of Christ the King. We celebrate Jesus the Christ, who, as the second person of the Trinity, God’s Son, is given all power in heaven and on earth. But he was not one to stand on the status of his majesty, but was born as a baby to show us the Father. Yes, there are some warnings in his words, but also a lot of encouragement in his words and his actions. May his love grow in us.
Jeremy Thake, St. John & St. Stephen
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”