Read the Text Here: Matthew 25:31-46
We have come to the last Sunday of the church year and the last Sunday of our year of Matthew. This Sunday is also celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of Christ. The text is the prophecy of the sheep and the goats and is a judgment prophecy. The context of this passage is important in that it is contained in the very last teaching discourse that is contained in Matthew. Immediately following this – in chapter 26 – we move into the passion narrative. This is important to recognize this on a day in which we are celebrating the “Kingship” of Jesus for Kingship looms large in the Gospel of Matthew. The kings of this world (like Herod in Chapter 2) are enthroned in glory and splendor and have power and authority concentrated in them. Some of them were considered to be gods. But Jesus, our King, is enthroned on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns. Jesus does hold the authority and power of God, but gives it up out of love. The resurrection enthrones Christ at the right hand of God, but not before the Passion. This context is very important for understanding this judgment prophecy.
Judgment is a part of our faith and certainly influences our understanding of God. Some of us have come to understand the Gospel only in terms of judgment. For these people the Gospel is a series of rules and regulations that MUST be followed or else. For others of us we downplay judgment to the point that it becomes little more than a slap on the wrist. The prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats makes clear that judgment is real and that both of those understandings are incomplete. This teaching along with the parables that we have been studying since July helps us to understand a couple important things about judgment.
1st – Judgment is the consequence of Sin. Judgment is the consequence of our actions, our behaviors and our decisions. This image of God giving out earned but basically unjust punishments that seem out of proportion to the infraction itself is simply a incorrect understanding of the Gospel. Sin is our putting ourselves in the place of God and pushing God out of our lives; the results of Sin are the sins of hurting others as we push our selfish agendas. The consequence is that we will destroy ourselves and others. We bring judgment on ourselves. Thus, earthquakes and hurricanes are NOT a sign of God’s judgment. The goats here are not destroyed by a tornado. We will learn that the goats are separated out and judged because they have consistently put themselves in the center of their own universe pushing God and others out in the process. They have brought this judgment upon themselves.
2. We are thus completely dependent on Christ’s love and grace. As Paul states in Romans – we are all guilty and deserving of judgment. The Gospel is about to move into the Passion during which Jesus suffers the ultimate consequence in our place so that we might be forgiven and be free to live lives as disciples which reflect this grace and love. Think, for example, of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (yes it’s from Luke). The younger son deserves punishment and judgment and actually fully expects it. What he receives instead is unexpected and abundant grace and love and forgiveness. In fact it is so abundant that it is offensive to his older brother. We deserve judgment, but because of Christ we are saved from it and forgiven and showered with abundant and undeserved grace and love.
3. And, it all comes as a big surprise! The part of this prophecy I love the most is when both the sheep and the goats respond to the judgment with surprise: “When was it that we….?” This brings it right down to the level of our everyday lives and relationships. Our discipleship is to become 2nd nature – we do those acts of mercy and grace, we live in ways that reflect God’s love not because we are trying to be good so God will love us. But rather this behavior comes naturally to us – so naturally in fact that we are surprised when Christ tells us that it was He, Himself that we served and cared for in love – or not!
What then can we do? If there is not a list of things to do; if God doesn’t base our acceptance on the good and wonderful things we do and if Christian discipleship is to become 2nd nature how do we accomplish that? The Gospel and St. Paul have answers for this question too: We pray – we study the bible – we attend worship – we partake of the Sacrament – we remember our Baptism – we practice acts of mercy – we give of ourselves in small or large ways to the work of ministry – we contribute our time, talents and money to the work of the church - we celebrate and participate in community.
This prophecy is one of judgment and is a call for us to look and evaluate ourselves and our lives and priorities. It is also a call to community – to be in a community to rests on the love and mercy and grace and love of Christ, who is the King of Glory.
Notice in the picture above how the sheep are clustered together working together to protect each other from the hot sun. Notice how the goats are pretty much the rugged individualist. Dr. Bruce Shein (my NT professor in seminary) used to say he never saw a dead sheep in the field, but often saw lots of dead goats!
Also - note: The judgment is based on caring for others - feeding, providing water, visiting, reaching out to those who are excluded and so forth. Funny, Jesus never says anything about having right doctrine, or believing the right things, or understanding, or being morally pure or being a part of the right denomination or associating with the right people - it's all about Faith in Action reaching out and caring for others - those who are excluded, those who are hungry, those who are suffering. Funny how this text never seems to come up in the rather self-congratulatory and vacuous political dialog that we are currently enduring. I wonder why that is?