This is the final parable of judgment. In fact, it's the very end of Jesus' teaching. This parable is part of what happens in between the Triumphal Entry and the last supper. In the book of Matthew, everything after this text is story. This is the end of Jesus' response to the disciples wanting to know when they can expect the "end of the age." Jesus tells them that nobody knows when that will be. So the point is how we live in the meantime. This is the grand finale of everything Jesus has been teaching: repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, we must have a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, we are called to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, not everyone who does miracles will enter the Kingdom, Jesus is the good shepherd, whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant, God invites everyone to the banquet, the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And now this:
So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God. - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)
Jesus: “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,
King: ‘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 sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Jesus: Then the righteous will answer him,
Voice 1: ‘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 sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
King: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Jesus: “Then he will say to those on his left,
King: ‘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 sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
Voice 2: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
King; ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Jesus: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The first thing I want to point out to you is that this text has no parallel passages. There's a lot of overlap among the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and so sometimes we can make sense of a passage by looking at how another author treats it, but we can't do that here. This one stands alone.
However, it does stand in the context of the rest of this book. It is well in line with the rest of Jesus' teaching, some of which I reminded you about before we read the text. In the book of Matthew, Jesus has never been all that interested in what we believe. But he is intensely interested in what we do with what we believe. People in the ancient world didn't separate beliefs from actions; we do that. And so Matthew's gospel is focused on two big, related themes, which he mentions more often than the other gospels put together: Righteousness and discipleship. Those are both about how we live, which is the only way to tell what we believe. The only way to be a follower of Jesus is to actually follow him, to take righteous action in the world.
This world is, admittedly, a mess. God seems to be taking a long time in showing up to set things right. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and yet we don't see it fully revealed. It is here, Jesus brought it, we are living in it. But it's not all the way here. A phrase I like is that we live in the "already-but-not-yet" Kingdom of God.
But it won't always be that way. The day is coming when the Kingdom of God will be fully revealed. Robert Capon, who wrote three great really easy-to-read books on the parables says that God's activity in the world is like an iceberg under the water. Sometimes we see bits of it break the surface, but there's a lot more that's still hidden. One day, that whole iceberg is going to emerge.
This morning's parable is about what happens when the Kingdom of God is finally and fully revealed. When everyone in the world is gathered to Jesus. And even though he separates them, both the sheep and the goats belong to the shepherd. Parables of judgment describe a Kingdom where God includes everyone before we ever get the chance to exclude ourselves. This is the same message we've heard before, but a little more pointed, and a little more urgent. Remember, this is the last thing Jesus teaches. All the sheep and the goats belong to the shepherd.
This parable uses multiple images and switches between them quickly, so let's be careful not to let any of them control the story. The shepherd gathers and separates the sheep and the goats. And then he becomes a king who is addressing his subjects.
This king welcomes those who are first called "blessed" and then described as "the righteous." But there's a twist: these people had no idea they were the righteous ones! Same with the ones who are later sent away: they had no idea either! When the shepherd starts to separate his flock, we should expect to be surprised, perhaps about where we end up and certainly about where others end up, especially the people we don't like. Our categories of good and bad will not be God's categories.
It is very easy to make this parable into a moral lesson: God accepts the people who do the good things. There's nothing revolutionary about that idea. Everyone in the world already believes that God accepts the good people. And that actually doesn't sound like what we've heard so far in the other parables of judgment. I am convinced that Jesus doesn't pull a bait and switch on us, his message is consistent, so if it's not just that God accepts the people who do good things, how else can we think about this?
What about this: those who go into the fully revealed Kingdom are the ones who were living in the already-but-not-yet Kingdom. God has accepted everyone, and all we have to do is trust that it's true. And that trust has implications for how we live. If we trust we are part of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom, then we will live like that Kingdom is a reality.
In the fully revealed Kingdom, nobody will be hungry or thirsty. Nobody will be a stranger; the Greek literally means "not like us," so in the fully revealed Kingdom, nobody will be an outsider. Nobody will be naked, nobody will be sick, and nobody will be in prison. Those who trust that they are included in the already-but-not-yet Kingdom will live that way now, doing everything we can to make sure that NOW nobody is hungry, thirsty, excluded, naked, sick or abandoned. We do justice now as best as we can, trusting that one day God will complete our work.
We live that way now, or we don't. One way to understand God's judgment is that God gives us what we really want. Not what we say we want, but what we demonstrate we want by our actions. And if we don't want to live in a Kingdom where everyone is taken care, whether or not they "deserve" it, then God won't make us live there. We will be sent somewhere else. Remember, we are all children to God, and so it's not unlike your kid acting sulky and mean and distant and so you send them to their room. Clearly they don't want to be with the family, so you send them away from the family. Makes sense?
If we think about it this way, the fact that people are surprised about whether they get in also makes more sense. Think about the people you know who you most expect to be in the Kingdom. Those people who just radiate justice and love and humility. Isn't it true that those people would also be the most embarrassed if you said that about them? Not because they don't care about being in the Kingdom, but because they simply are not focused on themselves. They are genuinely doing justice and loving mercy and most of all walking humbly with God as they understand God. Their own worthiness is the last thing they want to discuss.
On the other hand, there are people who are very convinced of their own moral superiority and fitness for the Kingdom. Often these people justify their worthiness and goodness by comparing themselves to other people who they think are not worthy. When we think about it that way, it's obvious those people are the most likely to miss out on God's party of the millennium. And let's please be honest and admit that we are often those people.
Of course, we really want to know what happens to the people who don't enter the Kingdom. According to this story they go somewhere that is described in two ways: 1. the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Here's where I ask you to keep an open mind. This phrase shows up only here, one other place in Matthew and one place in the book of Jude. We do not have time here to discuss the evolution of the concept of hell over the past two millennia. What I want you to see here is that whatever this place is, humans are not supposed to be there. It's prepared for the devil and his angels. What is prepared for us, according to verse 34, is the Kingdom. There's no reason any human should end up in the eternal fire.
The second description is eternal punishment, compared to eternal life. Eternal life is a phrase that doesn't simply mean going to heaven when you die, but living the life that is meant to last, both now and in the age to come. Now the traditional idea of heaven and hell would say that everyone has eternal life and the difference is where you spend it. That's not what this verse says. This verse says there's a difference between the life of the ages and eternal punishment. The phrase "eternal punishment" - those two words together - show up only here in the whole Bible. But the word punishment shows up one other place in the New Testament. You want to know where? Here we go: 1 John 4:18 - There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not yet been made complete in love." Whatever this punishment means, the only other place we find it is in a verse assuring us that love is greater than fear.
Now, whatever that means, the point is to remind us that God's judgment is not something we can just brush off. How we live is terribly important. The justice and love that we do in this realm, it matters. In that moment and in the future. And so also with the justice and love we refuse to do. Here at the end of Jesus' teaching, at the end of his life, before the passion story begins, his final exhortation to us is to live like the the Kingdom is already here, because it is. And if we do that now, we will live in love, and we will have nothing to fear when God one days gathers in the nations and makes everything new. Amen.