|Weekly Bible Devotional
“Godspell: The Sheep and The Goats”
February 23, 2020
Scripture for Sunday: Matthew 25:31-46
“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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And 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.’ 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.’ 44Then 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?’ 45Then 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.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Notes on The Text:
This is the last parable according to the Gospel of Matthew. And like all parables, Jesus used it to give his listeners a new perspective on life and faith according to his vision of the kingdom of God. Parables were short teachings that jarred people and woke them up to new possibilities. Yet, the meaning of the parables is not easily accessible to us because of differences in culture and time.
This parable is often misunderstood to be about judgment day when God would judge people according to their acts of compassion. We imagine that some of us, the sheep, would be sent to a good place because we cared for the poor and those in need, while the rest of us, the goats, would go to hell because we did not care about the needy in our midst. This leaves us with an image of a scary God who is ready to punish us for eternity for our infractions. It also leaves us with a teaching that says that our actions earn us God’s grace (works-righteousness theology). This is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Bible about God’s grace and unconditional love as we know them in Jesus.
One of the issues that trip us up is that we read this parable as an individual statement about each of us, while the sheep and the goats were referring to nations. In verse 32, most translations say, “and he will separate people one from another.” But in the original text in the Greek, it is saying that “he will separate the nations” and not people. Jesus was talking about nations and not individuals. His vision for the kingdom of God is not about personal acts of piety and morality. It is about a social transformation. The people in the time of Jesus did not think of the kingdom of God as a distant reality and of eternal life as something to happen only after we die. Jesus was talking about the need for the nations to be transformed in the here and now. When John the baptizer was proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, he was talking about something that was going to happen in the people’s lifetime. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2 Of course in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is often described as the kingdom of heaven because the Jews avoided using the name of God because it was too holy.
Another important clue for us in understanding this parable is how Jesus used the image of the “Son of Man” to refer to himself. This was the title he preferred using for himself. This was a direct reference from Daniel 7 about this agent of God, “the Son of Man,” who would work to judge and reform the Israelite society politically, economically, and religiously. The Son of Man is the one who comes on the side of the suffering and persecuted to reform the structures of power that oppress people.
A closer look at the story helps us see that the main thrust of this scene is not punishment but presence. When people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond, to Christ. The whole scene is a metaphor to help the early listeners and to help us see that the kingdom of God is not something that is very difficult to experience. It is as simple as loving our neighbors. Knowing Christ does not require spending 10 years in solitude. All we have to do is be present to the needs around us, especially as a society.
Also, in Middle Eastern cultures, sheep and goats are equally good. According to Diane Christian who is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo, “Both animals are kosher and fit for sacrifice. Sheep aren’t good and goats bad. Sheep aren’t chosen because they’re meek and gentle whereas goats are randy and rambunctious. Sheep and goats are different kinds of animals. They only signify difference. Sheep and goats look a lot alike. What they represent does not. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, clothing the naked, helping the sick and visiting the imprisoned are corporal and spiritual works of mercy-simple actions. Sheep and goats are a very useful measure: goodness depends solely on what you’re doing.” Shepherds kept flocks consisting of both sheep and goats, mingled together. Eventually it would be necessary to separate the two. But this was not to say that goats were going to be thrown away. So, we can’t take this metaphor literally.
With this background we see that the parable is not about the judgment of souls as was imagined by medieval Christians or the coming of the rule of God in another time, after death. When we are able to take the parable in its social and historical context, we can hear it with fresh ears. We can pay attention to the element of surprise for both groups mentioned in the parable. Both groups: the sheep and the goats did not realize that what they were doing was directly done to Jesus himself. The ones who cared for the needy did not know that it was Jesus in disguise that they were caring for. In the same way, the ones who did not care for the needy did not know that it was Jesus in disguise that they neglected. This is the shock of the parable. Jesus was undercover and they did not know it. This is a common motif in many ancient stories where the king goes around in disguise to see how people act or what they think of his rule. Kings often did not want to take the word of their advisers. They wanted to see for themselves what was actually happening on the streets and in daily life. Jesus was using that theme to help his followers understand that it is not enough for nations to just say godly things. It was important for nations to practice God’s laws of love and care for the poor and oppressed. That was the true measure of a nation’s love for and loyalty to God.
The Jewish tradition was concerned with the justice and compassion of the whole nation and not just of individuals. They believed that being in a covenant with God was a community affair. The structures and laws of their community were supposed to be set up according to God’s vision for the world where all would be taken care of. In fact, the whole book of Deuteronomy is concerned with the social structures and laws to ensure justice for all, especially the most vulnerable in society.
The parable for this Sunday is not telling us about individual judgment at the end of times, but of God’s vision for all the nations of how to live by the values of justice, compassion, and love. In light of this parable, we are invited to consider how we judge success in our world today especially when it comes to economic success.
According to Jesus, compassion for our neighbors is the way to know God and to be successful in life. The presence of God is as close to us as the person we feed, clothe, protect, or visit. How we structure our communities has everything to do with God’s vision of justice and compassion. What will bring us fulfillment in life is living by the values of the kingdom of God, receiving God’s love and sharing it, especially with those who are on the margins of society or who cannot repay us for helping them. Our lives will bear fruit when we practice compassion in our everyday life by serving and connecting with our neighbors who are suffering.
An important aspect of this work is how we structure our society. There are a great many philanthropists and charitable givers in our country who do not see the need to change the laws and structures in our communities to ensure justice for the most vulnerable. Churches are often guilty of focusing only on personal acts of charity instead of working for social transformation and justice. It is easier to focus on our individual actions than to work together with others in society to bring about social change. There are many obstacles to fulfilling God’s vision for society. Consider for example our political divisions and how they make it so hard for us to work together for social justice. Yet, the challenge of this parable is to work on both levels: the individual and the social.
I am reminded of the book/movie Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has fought hard against the unjust structures of racism in our criminal justice system. He used his education not to benefit himself, but to challenge the system that put many innocent people in prison and on death row because of prejudice. Check out the website of the organization he founded at https://eji.org/. Reading the book and watching the movie were heartbreaking, especially that these are things that continue to happen today. As Christians, we have to wrestle with the principalities and powers that exist in our human systems.
Theologian and writer Walter Wink believed in the importance of transforming and redeeming our human systems. He argued in his book Naming the Powers that the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament refer to human social institutions, belief systems, and traditions. These systems are often fallen and in need of redemption. They have the capacity for good, but they often get manipulated by evil in the world and thus need to be redeemed. He notes, “We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen. We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed.”
Cornel West writes, “We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”
These ideas may seem like lofty goals that are higher than us and harder than we can commit ourselves to, but through the power of community, we can help each other to fulfill Christ’s vision for justice in the world one step at a time. Consider this week how this parable challenges you and our community of faith to act. How would we act on a daily basis if we took this parable seriously? How would we work for justice on a social level?
Prayer from the Iona Community:
God of justice, give us voice, take away our fear, shake up our prejudices, and move us to a different place, to stand on common ground with those who struggle for justice. Amen.