There was a moment, a couple weeks ago, when I thought I was going to be away for the sheep and the goats and I was terribly disappointed. It's such an enormous and strangely beloved parable. We've got the heavenly throne and the angel armies, the King of Glory establishing his kingdom fully and finally. It's quite a situation!
This is the pinnacle of this series of parables, towards the end of Jesus' ministry. It's similar to the previous ones, about the kingdom of God and what happens at the end of things as they are, but if we're listening carefully, we can't help but notice that the language changes. This is not, "The kingdom of heaven will be like..." or "It's as if a man went on a journey..." like the last two parables. This is, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, this is how it will be..." It's like Jesus is suggesting that if we haven't been paying attention, this would be a good time to listen up.
I still think we should stop short of jumping into literalism here. This is still Jesus talking about things that are beyond us, using images and metaphors to describe things well outside the bounds of our experience, things our words can't fully capture. If nothing else, the logistics of it all are mindboggling--dividing up every person from every nation that ever was; it's a good thing we've got eternity ahead of us--this could take a while. And although we may want firm answers about where all this is heading, although inquiring minds would really like to know what's going to happen when the trumpet sounds, I think that's not the main point. What I think is important is that this is the climax of Jesus' teaching. This is the last parable; it's the end of his last great sermon; and he's bringing it home. He's making plain what he is about, making clear what it means to be aligned with his kingdom, one more time.
Let's pray: Holy Lord, thank you for this day, for this time together. Shape us more and more according to your kingdom. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be true to who you are. In the name of Jesus, our Rock and Redeemer, we pray: Amen!
This parable tends to be a favorite of those of us who aren't terribly big on doctrine. It's hard not to notice that entry into the kingdom isn't gained by passing a beliefs test at the Pearly Gates. The Son of Man clearly already knows what's in folks' hearts; he doesn't need to know about what they think about the Virgin Birth, or Incarnation, or Resurrection, or Ascension. It seems, for the moment, like it doesn't really matter what you believe; it only matters what you do.
Maybe. Or maybe not.
There's a kind of internal irony in the parable isn't there? Jesus is telling anyone who hears it, the disciples then and us right now and everyone in between, that both the sheep and the goats are going to be surprised when it's all said and done. Neither group is going to have any idea what Jesus is talking about, which sounds about par for the course. "When did we (or didn't we) do these things to you, Lord?" Except that anyone who's hearing the parable isn't going to be surprised. At least we won't be able to say we weren't warned. If Jesus is King and Lord, this, he says, is how things are.
And it's important to acknowledge that the way he says things are is not self-evident. Perhaps that's where the surprise comes in. It's totally counterintuitive. It's just as hard for us as anyone in history to believe that what Jesus says is true about the order of things. It's a nice idea if the last will be first (though, I'm not as keen on the inverse), but when we look around it seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?
Of course it does and it always did. There's a bit of historical amnesia at play when we say things like, "It only matters how you treat people," as though we just came up with that idea, as enlightened modern folks, freed from silly old beliefs. Because the truth is that treating some people well has always been a good plan--even the most reprobate people manage to do that, Jesus said a while back. And the idea that we ought to care, not just for those who can care for us, but for the "least of these" has always been a dubious claim. There's precious little evidence that giving everything to the poor is a good idea for us. Water for the thirsty and food for the hungry seems like a pretty good idea, and the fact is that we know more or less what it would take to do that: apparently, something around the amount of money Americans annually spend on ice cream. The trouble is, we just can't imagine the world being otherwise than it seems to be. That would require a sort of sacrifice that doesn't make sense in the current order of things.
So, I think that this is about so much more than just how we treat people, though we could do worse. It's about a new possibility for how we live and move and have our being in this world. And I actually do think that it has something to do with doctrines, something fundamentally to do with what we say we believe when we talk about things like Incarnation and Resurrection and all the other weird, dusty church words we throw around. This has something to do with that odd language and even odder convictions that don't always make perfect sense based on the observable facts. I believe that, because I don't believe that it was any easier for the first disciples listening to Jesus to really believe that he was the Son of Man who would come in judgment and glory, or--for that matter--that God shows up in beggars and prisoners.
Most likely, they believed, just like we do, that God must surely show up in the rich and the powerful, that being divinely blessed has something to do with never being thirsty or hungry--that's the image of God that we've always wanted, not one that shows up in the haggard and the desperate. We like God on the heavenly throne, but not so much in the ash heap.
I find it hard to imagine that those first crowds, no matter how highly they revered Jesus, looked at him--an itinerant preacher, who was surrounded by all manner of frazzled and fickle followers, who in a few days would be tortured and killed-- and said to themselves: "That's the King of Glory, right there. Commander in Chief of the Angels, for sure." Of course, they didn't. If they really did, then they wouldn't have all cut and run when things got messy; which the gospels are bold to tell us they did in fact do.
But then something happened that changed everything, before and after. Jesus who was dead, was impossibly alive. Those are the conditions in which Matthew is writing his gospel. One of the odd bits of evidence for some of the wilder doctrines of the Church being rather more than weird, ancient beliefs, is the fact that almost immediately people who had experienced Jesus as dead-now-living and then impossibly ascended and improbably reigning, who got caught up in the intoxication of Pentecost, began to change the world. A group of nobodies started creating a new world in the shell of the old. They began to have an imagination for a world that was otherwise impossible. (Read what happens in the Book of Acts! These Christians are accused of turning the world on its head!)
The truth is that while things like resurrection and ascension are improbable, certainly outside our regular, anticipated experience, it would actually be harder to explain what happened if in fact nothing really did. If Jesus isn't crucified, and risen and reigning, if he is not present in the power of the Holy Spirit, it's a bit mystifying to try to explain how a band of fishermen and prostitutes ultimately took down the Roman Empire, without ever lifting a sword, but simply by bearing witness to a new world order, a way of being with God and neighbor that had no prior precedent in the world around them. At the end of the day, the very fact that we can say, with conviction and in spite of the evidence, something like, "It's how we treat people that matters," has essentially to do with the fact that a gaggle of first century Jews, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, came to believe recklessly that Jesus is how God is in the world; that his stories and teaching were a glimpse into something wholly unanticipated and unstoppably true: that the crucified and risen One, is King, and that his world-inverting kingdom is coming.
This is the wild truth that this parable ought to shock us into. All of these parables that Jesus has been piling on top of each other work to snap us to attention, to open our eyes to see the oddness of his glory, the unexpectedness of his kingdom which has been prepared from the foundation of the world. And this one isn't devoid of doctrines; our doctrines are implicit. This tells us something about what it will look like to live them, what it will look like to say and sing and pray and then live things like "The Word made flesh," "Jesus is Lord," "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven."
As Jesus speaks, we're teased into alertness and urgency for another way than has been advertised. We're jolted awake to what God is about. We're shown a way that is truer than the markets, truer than stock portfolios, truer than unfettered upward mobility, truer than anything else. If Jesus is King, then it's actually true that how we live with others matters, how we care for the destitute and the disheveled matters, how we use our resources matters, how we welcome the unwelcomeable and forgive the unforgiveable and love the unlovable matters, cosmically. It's no longer a nice sentiment, or a lifestyle choice. It's basic to who we are and what we're made for.
If Jesus is King then we are perfectly free to imagine other possibilities for how things are and ought to be. If King Jesus says straight up that he shows up in people we're trying to avoid and trying not to be, we need to let that challenge work on our hearts and shape us into new ways of life. If Jesus sets the pattern for the kingdom of heaven, if his way is what true glory looks like, that feels like a fairly significant call to consider and reconsider how we move in the world.
I think that the parable is not as prescriptive as it sounds. Let's not treat the list of things done or not done as complete. I think it's an invitation, even a call, to bear witness in our lives to the way that Jesus is in the world. We need to let this parable shine light on the places in our hearts and lives that are closed off and self-centred. We need to let it shape our prayers and guide our listening. This parable and the others that Jesus has been working us through are sufficiently powerful to break chains that bind us to fruitless ways of living; they are powerful enough to lift off heavy burdens of self-concern and fear of scarcity, so that we can move freely into the wide space of God's grace and live lives of holy abundance.
I think these parables can and should startle us towards some holy mischief. If we've heard Jesus, we should leave this morning eager for opportunities to undermine the self-centered, individualistic, consumerist, divisive ways of the world as it is, with a kind of exuberant love fit for the world as it will be. Having heard King Jesus, we should be eagerly praying, with open hands, about how God wants to use what we've got, for the healing and hope of the world. I suppose we could walk out of here afraid that we're accidentally (or intentionally) missing opportunities to care for Jesus, which may end in our eternal condemnation. But I don't think that's going to get us very far. Fear is paralyzing. And in any case, perfect love casts out all fear, St. John reminds us.
This is a call to love as we've been loved. Jesus says that the righteous are the recipients of God's kingdom that's been prepared since the foundation of the world. We are invited into God's economy of extravagance, called to know the kingdom that we're really a part of--the kingdom of love and justice and righteousness; the kingdom ruled by a slaughtered-Lamb of a king, who didn't consider power something to be grasped at, but emptied himself for the sake of his broken and beloved world; the King who has destroyed, in the power of grace, everything that binds us to empty, fearful self-concern, and frees us for radical, world-changing love: Love of God and neighbor, wherever we are, with everything we've got.
Come, King Jesus. Amen.