Matthew 25:31-46 NIV UK
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 ill 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 ill 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 ill 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 ill 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.’
I like goats. Not sure why but I do. Is it their curiosity, their what seems to be a complete disregard for safety or personal space? It’s certainly their disregard for polite etiquette that makes me smile. If I was asked to be anything I think I’d be a goat. However these 15 verses make me think otherwise.
The separation of goats and sheep is still quite a normal practice in palestine. To some extent anyway. It certainly was in the 1C. Both sheep and goats would graze together because they would feed very differently. Sheep are partial to the green lush grass and goats are known to explore and eat everything else. That way goats were more inclined to wander and get into trouble as they explored for food.
At the end of each day the sheep and goats would be separated because as I said goats were more likely to get into difficulties and the dark of night just made it worse. Also because of their coats they would get cold very quickly so to get them all together meant making sure they were warm enough to survive the night.
That’s about the extent of my knowledge of goats and sheep only to say that this so-called parable but better to describe it as a picture of the future is not about any of that. Of course it isn’t, so are we sure we know what it is about? Because I can’t lie I find this very difficult to read and not because I like goats either.
Blessed or cursed
We are as humans very good at putting others in boxes. We so easily decide where people belong. I had a conversation with my brother not that long ago about the lack of tribes in youth culture. Now that just may be two middle aged grumpy old men bemoaning that it’s not the same as when we were young. The conversations I have had recently that I promised my younger self I would not have.
You see when we grew up we had several well defined groups. The casuals, the goths, at early points there were new romantics, head bangers and we certainly had indies and a mod revival at one point. We knew which music they listened to and just had to look at the dress code to know which particular group they belonged to. Easy… Not so now…? Well I know that’s not true. We still do it and there are groups now I just don’t see them because??? Well, I’m not supposed to, I’m old. Also my brother and I are putting people in boxes of our own making by saying there are no more tribes.
We do like boxes as they make us feel safe and secure. They denote what we should or can expect from an individual or a group of people. This expectation helps us make sense of the world and how it should work. The human equivalent of everything has a place and everything in its place. Be honest now although we are happier when we are certain of how the world is and works, we really don’t like ourselves being placed in a box. Particularly if it is the middle aged grumpy old man box 😉
Here, in these verses, there are boxes. Jesus is placing people into three boxes. Ohh you say three boxes I can only read two… Sheep and Goats. Yes but I’ll come back to the third in a moment.
The first box is full of sheep. A good thing in this case because Jesus is the good shepherd, we know that. These sheep are placed to one side, the right, which you are aware is the place of special honour. Jesus sits at the right hand of God. The right hand symbolizes the hand of blessing and mercy. The right hand side is a good place to be. This box is also described as blessed. And in v 37 “the righteous…” Seems a good place to be.
The left is reserved for the …. Well, by definition the left, not so good? Well the left hand of the king normally represents judgement. But also the word sinister is derived from the Latin word for left which is, you guessed it “sinister” So left was already a box you did not wish to be in. I apologise to all of you who are left handed but you are considered sinister by simple “etymology”
I would imagine that we would all like to be in the right hand box. The blessed box. I would wait for an amen at this point so please indulge my silliness by saying a nice loud “amen, hallelujah, etc” There are a few particular problems or issues with being blessed however. Blessed in one sense is of course nice. The OT instances of blessing, signal a lot of… stuff, livestock, good harvests, slaves and offspring (especially sons). That last one we hear still but may not be such a wonderful thing really.
What do we think of when we hear the words blessed in connection to Jesus and the new testament though – the beatitudes? Which is a long list of what Jesus says are those who follow him are likely to experience. Which the first 5 are… the hungry, the poor in spirit, the truly poor, who hunger and thirst for justice and He throws in a those persecuted for the sake of justice.
Being blessed is not always what we think it might be. The acts of the apostles are littered with instances of followers of Christ being jailed, beaten, halled in front of authorities and stoned to the point of death. Jesus experienced all of those and we are asked to follow… we are then to be called the righteous because we face these things.
And when Jesus answers their query “when did I see you…” Jesus identifies Himself with the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, those who were naked, sick and those imprisoned …. The Followers, the sheep, those in the right hand box are blessed in one way and one way only. The ones who identify themselves with the same and with Jesus are blessed when they show mercy to the same in the face of their own experiences and circumstances. And like Jesus identify with the very same… the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, those who were naked, sick and those imprisoned
Only you can decide which you may identify more, those who are willing to be blessed in this way or those who are not. Right or left.
Ethics or action
But is this about ethics or actions. We might think these things are always correct to do or do we just do them. Before these verses we read the parable of the Ten virgins, the encouragement to be ready for the coming king. And then the call to be useful to the king in the parable of the talents.
And so we might suggest that of course these are a call to action? And so are these current verses a sign of what we may experience if we do not do these things? Are we liable to judgement if we do not do this or any stuff?
Is identifying with the hungry, thirsty, the stranger, those who are naked, sick and those imprisoned enough or must this identification be borne out by action?
I think here the name righteous is an important word to use. We most often fall into the trap of seeing this as an overtly religious word. A word reserved for those who believe if they do the right religious thing they are righteous before God. This can be a dirty word in non-conformists circles. But as Luke a few weeks back talked about our relationship with God affecting our relationships with each other. The vertical and horizontal aspect of our faith are interchangeable and likewise here we cannot remove our ethics and faith from our actions.
It is a story I have told before but a cautionary tale for me that years ago, I was in conversation with a young guy at work. He talked openly about faith although he did not have one and during one discussion he remarked that “ Jesus, if he were here, would spend His time in the pubs, bars and nightclubs” Now I wonder if your initial reaction to me telling you this was the same as mine was. I have to admit it was not one of agreement. However the more I thought about it I came to realise that that young man was absolutely right.
Jesus did spend His time with those who were in need of Him, the doctor to the sick, age with the tax collectors (in the old sense) those of ill repute and even His disciples were called unclean and drunkards. So our righteousness works two ways.
We are made right before God so that we might be right in what we do. You see Righteousness is the quality of being virtuous, honourable, or morally right. It can also refer to behaviour. Righteousness is the right way of action.
Sometimes instead of showing mercy, justice and love we often stand with the powerful and judge others by our meaningless standards, standards that Jesus doesn’t judge by but instead He says these people are ME. Are they YOU and if so why do you not cloth, feed and care for them.
This is the third box that Jesus talks about and places himself completely inside. He then asked will we get in it with Him? The righteous power card, judgement and lack of compassion is a box we often hide ourselves in. We believe it’s an escape pod to protect ourselves from being infected. It’s our equivalent of when the “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” Jesus’ reply was not “oh yeah, you’re right I’ll just get them to do that” No, He replies
“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” and
“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
Being on the right has its consequences
We must understand and God does not hide it from us, one other thing about being in the right box, with the sheep, it has other consequences. Suffering, danger, risk, disappointment, rejection.
These are all things Jesus experienced. It is a common experience of the apostles and 1C disciples. It was the experience of those Jesus identifies with. They were all bed fellows or should be say box fellows with these things.
We may suffer loss and be without as we serve our King. You cannot hold on too tightly to the things of the world when you are asked to give to those in need.
There is danger in losing the adulation of the world when you choose to identify with those who they feel do not deserve it.
The risk is always there that you might fail or might not get the response you think you deserve and so disappointment may not have too far to come.
And ultimately, as Jesus experiences these things, as those we are called to serve experience these things, we also may be rejected by a world that believes it is in the right box but that is not what God deems as the right box.
The consequence of identifying with Jesus here, is that when the king comes into glory we will be right there with Him… yeah I did mean the pun.