A sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by Nathan Nettleton
Over the last twenty five years, I have preached on the parable of the sheep and the goats more often than almost any other passage of scripture. And although I am about to do so again right now, I am feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed about it, because what I am going to say about it tonight could probably, and rightly, be heard as a stinging critique of most of the other sermons I have preached on this passage. However, I don’t think the problem I am sensing was really created by anything I have said about the parable; it exists in the parable itself. Whether the parable as we have it in the gospel according to Matthew is told exactly as Jesus told it, or whether it owes more to Matthew, I don’t pretend to know, but I think that it has some pretty big problems within it. And those problems are all the more significant because this is the final parable of the gospel, so it stands as the climax of the teaching ministry of Jesus as recorded by Matthew. And the problem is that this dramatic climax simultaneously reinforces one major strand of Jesus’s teaching and apparently contradicts another major strand of Jesus’s teaching. And the apparent clash of these two goes right to the heart of one of the biggest difficulties the world has with getting its head around the message of Jesus.
You may be hoping at this point that I will now not only explain what the problem is, but then proceed to explain it away and help you to see that it is not really a problem after all, and that everything can be satisfactorily reconciled, but I’m not going to do that, because I can’t. I will explain what the problem is, but I can’t explain it away. All I can do is address the question of how we might faithfully live with the problem and seek to negotiate our way through the dilemma it creates.
The easy part of my task is to point out how this parable reinforces a major strand of Jesus’s teaching. I’ve preached that side of the parable many times before. In this image of a final judgement, the people or nations are divided up on the basis of how they have demonstrated compassion and practical care for the least: the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the homeless poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. And the judge not only commends and rewards those who have shown compassion by responding with practical care for the needy, but he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” Now, as a clear call to be a people of compassion who respond in generous and meaningful ways to the plight of the world’s poor, this parable is clear and compelling, and completely consistent with the words and actions we have seen from Jesus throughout his ministry. That much is clear. And in all probability, this parable is not supposed to be pushed any further than that. It simply calls us to show deep and genuine compassion to the needy in both our attitudes and our actions.
But the parable doesn’t stop there, and neither do the people who read it. The parable goes on to hammer home its point by restating it in the opposite form. Not only will those who have shown compassion in action be commended and rewarded, but those who have turned away their faces and withheld compassion and practical care will be declared guilty and punished. And again the judge emphasises the idea that our response to the needy is in fact experienced by the judge as our response to him. “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.” Now again, as a message reinforcing the call to put compassion into practice in caring for the needs of real people, this is a good strong exclamation mark on a major strand of Jesus’s teaching. But what happens then?
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Okay, now we have a problem. A serious problem. How can the guy who has been teaching us to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us turn around now and say that if anyone mistreats him, he’ll send them off to eternal punishment? How can the guy who has been telling us to not return evil for evil, but to treat others the way we would like them to treat us, now turn around and treat the people who have treated him badly in a way that no one would want to be treated? How can the guy who has worked so hard at getting us to see God as a God who desires mercy not sacrifice, now turn around and mercilessly sacrifice those who have not measured up to his standards of compassion and care? And how can the guy who has urged us to see God as unfailingly loving and gracious so that we can be set free to be joyously and enthusiastically good and loving instead of just fearfully and rigidly obedient, now turn around and threaten us with eternal punishment if we don’t comply with his expectations? How is this not the height of hypocrisy?
Well unfortunately, as I said, I don’t have any answers to those questions. I’d love to be able to now show you the hidden bits of background or the hidden meanings of the Greek words that magically make the problems vanish and the teaching all appear perfectly clear and consistent, but I can’t. I think the contradiction is what it is. So I think what we need to do, rather than try to find a way out of it is to find a perspective on the contradiction that prevents it from paralysing us and instead allows us choose a way forward that is faithful to the gospel.
For me, one of the reasons that the contradiction was the thing that jumped out and hit me between the eyes this time was my recent attempts to begin educating myself about Islam. Muslims recognise Jesus as a prophet and the gospels as sacred scripture, so this story is one that many of them would know too, and it is a story that would easily fit into the Muslim worldview. Islam has a very strong sense of God rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour in a quite consistent and inevitable way. Gaining rewards and avoiding punishments appears to be a normal motivation for good behaviour in Islam, and this parable works at exactly that level. So, for me, as I have learned that about Islam, I have become much more sensitive to how prevalent that same thinking is, not only among followers of Jesus, but in our Bible too. And even in the teachings of Jesus at times. So here we are, and here we have a huge example.
One of the things that that says to me is that that mindset is deeply embedded in human understandings of religion, in almost any tradition. The expectation that there is a God somewhere assessing our behaviour and keeping score seems to be so prevalent that I wonder if it is one of the things that produced religion rather than something that religion produced. It seems that we have great difficulty escaping that view or getting our heads around any alternative view of God. And so I wonder whether part of what is going on with this parable is that Jesus is simply working with a well known image and a well known story and using it to make a point that he wants to make, and the other implications of the story are not really his focus at this time, and can be left for another occasion. If he is to get through to these people, he needs to use categories and images that they understand, even if that causes some other issues that he will have to address at another time.
So for this parable, his point is all about the importance of generous and practical care. He is not trying to give us a roadmap of a future day of judgement. But of course, the story takes us there, whether Jesus wanted it to or not. And I wonder whether part of what the resulting contradictions teach us is something about how human society, and especially our political leaders, use these kind of images. There is an interesting little quirk in the wording of this story that may give us a hint of this, and the quirk is part of why this reading is set for today, which according to the church calendar is the feast of Christ the King. You see, in the opening words of this parable, the central character who does the judging is first introduced as the Son of Man, or the New Human. But as soon as he opens his mouth in the story, suddenly his identity changes, and he is described as the king: “the king will say to those on his right …” So I wonder whether what we are seeing here is something of what happens when human society tries to take the judgement into its own hands and turn the teaching of the gospel into a system of law. This is a big issue for Islam, because it is quite mainstream for Muslims to believe that the religious law can and should be policed and enforced by the state. That view is probably less common among Christians nowadays, but we have a very long history of it too and it is still rears its head pretty often. Just listen to the debates about marriage legislation and notice how often Christian voices insist that the national law should enshrine a Christian understanding of marriage. The view is far from dead.
But what actually happens when kings or parliaments see themselves as God’s representatives on earth who have been entrusted with the authority to carry out God’s judgement on the citizens? Well, perhaps this parable illustrates exactly what happens. Even if you managed to miraculously get a regime whose legislation was so thoroughly shaped by the teaching of Jesus that they made generous compassion compulsory, and failure to show compassion was made illegal, we still remain incapable of imagining any way of policing and enforcing the law that doesn’t violate Jesus’s teachings about God being outrageously merciful to everyone, regardless of what they have done. We remain incapable of expressing within our social or legal structures the idea that absolutely everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and is equally deserving of eternal punishment, but that although you deserve nothing more than punishment, God mercifully and scandalously showers you and everyone else with rewards that are completely undeserved, unearned, and even unfair. You can’t turn that kind of stuff into a legal system. A legal system requires that some can be judged guilty and deserving of punishment, and that others can be judged righteous and deserving of reward. And the whole purpose of a legal system is to work out where everybody fits on the scale from good to bad, and to deal out the rewards and punishments accordingly. And so, if we try to take over God’s role as the judge, even the best possible scenario will inevitably end up violating the grace and mercy of God who forgives extravagantly in Jesus Christ, and will end up instead where this parable ends up: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So, by all means hear this parable as an urgent call to follow Jesus in caring for the poor and the needy and the broken-hearted. It is undoubtedly that. And in that context, and that context alone, if it helps you to imagine that God is awarding you rewards points for your acts of compassion, then feel free to do so. But if you truly want to be a follower of Jesus, then be very cautious about reading this parable as a snapshot of a future event, because most of what Jesus has to say about judgement goes in quite the opposite direction to this parable. And therefore, this parable should probably stand as a warning against our tendency to reward ourselves for our good deeds by imagining ourselves better than those who seem less compassionate, and against our tendency to begin relishing the prospect of seeing such people punished and ourselves rewarded. Because if we begin enjoying the prospect of other people being eternally punished, then we have clearly parted company with the spirit of the one who tearfully prayed for the forgiveness of his torturers, even while they were torturing him to death. The thought of anyone being lost is always a grief to Jesus. Anyone.
In fact, if the sheep of this parable have truly been completely formed in the image of Jesus so that they consistently embody and express the compassionate spirit of Jesus, then when they hear the ‘king’ consign the goats to eternal punishment, they will almost certainly begin bleating their grief and loudly imploring the ‘king’ to have mercy and grant forgiveness to the goats. And if they have become completely and utterly Christlike, they would probably even begin offering themselves in ransom for the goats, to receive whatever punishment the grinding wheels of inevitable punishment have determined must be dished out. Because the only hope that goats like you and I have is that Jesus’s self-offering really does prove that God’s mercy will triumph over the powers of judgement and punishment, and that whether we deserve it or not, God’s love will snatch us from the fires and gather us all into the eternal life and love of God.