A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46 & Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 by Nathan Nettleton
I have preached more often on the last judgement story we heard of the sheep and the goats than any other passage of scripture. If my records are accurate, this will be the twelfth time, so you might think I would have it sorted by now. And you might think I should, too, because it appears to be one of the most straight-forward and unambiguous things Jesus ever said. But if you were to read my collection of sermons on it, you would probably conclude that I’m pretty confused by this passage, because they go every which way, and some of them openly back away from things I said in others of them. Tonight’s contribution to my catalogue is only going to make it worse because there are more new questions puzzling me about it, and I want to wrestle with some of those with you tonight.
It has been said by some joker that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. It’s cute, but it is also kind of serious. One of the things that religions stand justly accused of is always dividing people up into two groups, the insiders and the outsiders, the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned. The history of Christianity does not show it to be any less guilty on this score than any other. Just like the rest, we have repeatedly found issues over which to divide up the world into saints and sinners, and then we have turned all our hostility on the sinners. The end result is more division, more hatred, more victimising, and an endless spiral of conflict and bloodshed.
Not only is this a disaster for the world, but it must be, at some level, a pretty major betrayal of Jesus himself, because one of his clearest messages was that God’s love and mercy were for everyone and there were no more insiders or outsiders. One of the things that got him in most trouble and led to the conspiracy to have him killed was his steadfast refusal to cooperate with the religious divisions between the clean and the unclean, the acceptable and the unacceptable. And the first apostles picked up this theme strongly too, especially Paul. If we had continued reading from the passage we heard from the letter to the Ephesians tonight, we would have heard one of Paul’s classic teachings about how Jesus “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross.” (Ephesians 2: 14, 16)
But there is a problem, isn’t there? Maybe it hasn’t struck you yet. I mean, I’ve preached on this passage eleven times before and I’ve really on stubbed my toe on this one this time. The problem is that however much Jesus and the apostles talk about breaking down the dividing wall and reconciling everyone to God in one body so that there is no more jew nor gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, nor any other division of insiders and outsiders, in this story of the last judgement, we have Jesus himself depicted as dividing the people up into sheep and goats, insiders and outsiders, saved and damned. You can’t get much more utterly divided up and unreconciled than “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” and “Depart from me, you that are accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
What are we to make of this? Is this some kind of two-faced Jesus, who on the one hand sets himself up as the friend and champion of victims and outcasts, but who later comes back to divide everybody up and create a new class of cosmic eternal victims and outcasts? What are we to make of it? Well, I don’t expect that I’m about to neatly solve it to anybody’s satisfaction, and I won’t be at all surprised if the next time I preach on this passage I feel some need to repent of something I said this time, but let me offer you four different angles on it, some of which might prove helpful to you.
Number 1. Whatever else we might think about this story, it does not give us any justification for going about the task of dividing people up into saints and sinners ourselves. We must read this story alongside another parable from the same gospel, the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13: 24-30). You will remember that in that parable, Jesus acknowledges that the good and bad grow up alongside each other, even in the church, but he warns us against any attempt to weed out the bad now, because we would have trouble telling which was which and we would inevitably uproot the good in our attempts to weed out the bad. In that parable, and in this account here, it is abundantly clear that whatever sort of judgement there is to be, the judging is not to be done in advance, and it is not to be done by us. So if your reading of this story leads you to think that you can judge who is going to hell, you’re reading it wrong.
Now I think that is important and true, but it still leaves us with Jesus appearing to actively divide people up and condemn some of them to hell, which still seems rather inconsistent, so let me try another angle.
Number 2. It is not necessary to hear this depiction of the judgement as representing an accurate description of exactly what Jesus thinks will happen at some point in the future. When Jesus said these things, his purpose was not to describe a future event in such a way that the journalists could get their stories three quarters written in advance. His purpose was to open his followers’ eyes to those who had been cast out and abandoned by the dominant culture and to exhort them to respond with love and compassion and hospitality. Most of what was said by the biblical prophets had a similar function. Think of miserable old Jonah who, against his will, was sent to preach a message of judgement and doom to the city of Ninevah. The apocalypse that Jonah foretold for Ninevah never eventuated. Why? Was Jonah a failed prophet? Not at all. He was far more successful than he wanted to be. The point of the prophesy was not to predict the outcome, but to motivate Ninevah to repent and change, and it worked. They changed and their city was saved, despite Jonah’s desire to see them all burn in hell. Jesus is communicating his message within a culture that is awash with apocalyptic stories of judgement, and he frequently uses those stories with their violent images and expectations, and tweaks and subverts them from within. So don’t read this story as a news report of a future event, but as an exhortation to put faith into practice in the ways you relate to others.
Which brings us to Number 3. While Jesus’ teaching here might leave us with plenty of uncertainties about the nature of the judgement, there is nothing uncertain about the implications for how he wants us to relate now to those who have been cast out and abandoned by the world around us. Jesus identifies himself with the victims of a harsh and divisive world. He entered as fully into that identity as it is possible to do, hanging on the cross as a hungry, thirsting, naked, outcast, prisoner. And here in this teaching, he identifies himself so fully with all who have been similarly mistreated that he assures us that every time we encounter such a sufferer, we are encountering a living icon of Christ himself, and we are to respond as if it were recognisably him. And I should qualify that, because when I say “every time we encounter such a one” it can be misleading. You see, our world is structured in such a way as to reduce the incidence of us actually encountering the victims of the systems. We make them invisible. We divide up our neighbourhoods and try to keep such undesirables in places where we will never go. And if that doesn’t work, we imprison them. But note that Jesus speaks of an active seeking out of the victims. “I was in prison and you came and visited me.” The biggest barriers we have erected are national borders. We too easily fall for the lie that our responsibility to care for the needy stops at the borders. Christ is king over the whole earth, and our borders mean absolutely nothing to him. Wherever there is misery and brokenness, there is the Christ, seeking our compassion and hospitality.
But as soon as I say that, I stumble again, and as I take you to my point Number 4, I have to admit that this final point is rather speculative and goes beyond what we find in the text of this story as Matthew records it. You see, I stumble, because when I say “wherever there is misery and brokenness”, I look back at this story and surely by the end the greatest misery and brokenness is with those who have found themselves condemned: those who thought they were religious and righteous and who called Jesus ‘Lord’, but who now find themselves being sent across the abyss to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
And I find myself wondering whether there isn’t something more in the back-story here; another scene that is not recorded but which fills out the missing pieces and completes the picture. (The following speculative scene is adapted from Proclaiming a Cruciform Eschaton, by Frederick Niedner, published for the 1998 Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University, pages 5-8) Like perhaps there was a scene like this, but when the sheep and the goats were divided and the goats were being sent off to eternal punishment, the sheep cried out in protest. They cried out in protest because they saw in the goats exactly the same kinds of outcast victims they had been reaching out to in love and mercy and compassion. And because their love and mercy and compassion were real, they were heartbroken to see them being lost and damned, and they cried out to God and said ‘No!’. And they reminded God of those images we heard in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel, images of the good shepherd who never gives up on his lost sheep but who seeks them out and “rescues them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” And they cry out saying, “No God, you can’t write them off. If we can no longer reach out to them, you will have to go across the abyss yourself and seek them out and gather them back from every last hellhole of hatred and hostility and bitterness and callousness where they have been lost and bring them back, no matter what it takes, no matter what it costs you.”
And after a long brooding silence, God slowly stands up and steps across the abyss, and takes on human flesh, born of Mary, and begins the long journey searching through the world’s darkest hellholes, all the way to the cross.