Sheep, Goats, & Nations

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "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.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

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Reflection

As we jump into another parable this week—this one likely familiar to you—I want to reiterate a few things I said last few weeks about parables in general. They are not systematic theology; they are sometimes hyperbolic; there is not just one right way to understand a parable; they do not stand completely alone from the rest of Jesus’ teachings and the accounts of his life; at their core, they are about Jesus and the Kingdom of God; and they often take the simple and make it complex. This is the last in a series of parables that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew during the week leading to his death. Jesus tells these parables on the heels of his disciples asking when the temple will be destroyed, as Jesus predicted. What signs there will be of a new age. Jesus then tells a series of parables about timing and judgment. Immediately after, he reminds his disciples again that he will be crucified soon.

Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus had stopped on a hill and wept for the city. He cried for the city and said, “If only you knew the things that make for peace.” He then told his disciples as they walked through the temple courts that not one stone will be left on another. We often think of prophecy, especially in the Bible, as a type of fortune telling. Being able to tell the future. It is not really that. Jesus is prophetic, not because he sees into some static future, but rather prophets see the trajectory of what is to come if nothing changes. Jesus saw this for Jerusalem. He saw this for the Temple, for the religious institutions and structures at the time, for those who were ready for an uprising. He saw where it was headed. It was headed toward violence and destruction. 

Jesus saw this on his own path, too. He was headed toward the same forces of violence and destruction. His message couldn’t continue without being met by deadly force. Yet, he continues to see the trajectory of the Kingdom of God. Prepared at the foundation of the world and unable to be destroyed through violence. The Kingdom of God was not a Kingdom forged by violence and not a Kingdom that would be overthrown by violence. Rather, Jesus seemed to see (or at least the gospel writers thought) that his death was really a type of coronation as king. A new age would begin when violence was overcome by life and love in the resurrection. 

We’ll come back down to the parable itself in a moment, but I think it’s so important before we do to grasp the core of Jesus’ teachings and movement in a time when the loudest voices of Christianity do not address what the Kingdom Jesus spoke of was most about: The hope and building of a society—a people, a nation, a kingdom— without violence, without poverty, without oppression, that welcomes and cares for the most vulnerable—the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, one that is in line with God’s will for the world.

In Jesus’ final parable, Jesus paints this picture of the nations gathered before him—the Son of Man— as he sits on a throne to judge them (the nations). Our English translations unfortunately make this sound as if Jesus judges individuals in this parable, but that’s not the picture here. The nations come, and some are sorted to the right and some to the left. Those on the right are called righteous or just— they cared for the “least of these” and by doing so, cared for Jesus. Those on the left are called unrighteous or unjust— they did not care for the vulnerable, and so, did not care for Jesus.

The Temple, Jesus tells his disciples, is going to be destroyed. Jerusalem will not know peace. Jesus, the Messiah, Savior, Son of God, will be killed. That is the trajectory of the kingdom of the world Jesus lives in. The trajectory of religious elites, the Roman Empire, even the radical Zealots plotting for freedom— wealth, violence, and oppression lead to destruction. Injustice leads to this judgment. I do not believe this is about heaven and hell the way we most often think of it— as individuals going before a throne and being sorted for eternal bliss or torment. And it is not some collective version of that—where we’re all stuck before God’s throne with a stamp of “American” on us. This, like the other parables, at its heart is about Jesus and the Kingdom. And that’s what would have been most offensive at the time.

Jesus is the one who judges— he positions himself as the Messiah and as the King of God’s Kingdom. And, as Robert H. Smith says, “The Son of God stands deliberately and voluntarily in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated, the tortured. He began as a refugee and he ends as a condemned criminal.” Jesus is the king and is the oppressed. And he shows the trajectory of other kingdoms— nations, institutions, religions— some who are on a trajectory to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”— the Kingdom that is the underpinning of how things actually are and are meant to be. And the trajectory of other kingdoms, who are on a track to continue down the path of injustice, of punishment, of violence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Ultimately, King saw the Kingdom of God winning out. This parable gives Jesus’ followers the same hope—and warning. It shows the trajectory for how we collectively might bend toward justice, toward God’s Kingdom. Yet, all that doesn’t do that—the ways of ruling, the institutions, the religious systems, whatever unjust ways we order ourselves—Jesus tells his disciples, will not last.