Thinking Anglicans

A sheep or a goat?

What is it about sheep and goats? Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 25.31–46) for the feast of Christ the King portrays the Son of Man, Jesus himself, coming in glory and seated on his throne, taking up his kingship, separating the people into two groups: the sheep who are to enjoy eternal life, and the goats consigned to eternal punishment.

I’ve come to see this story as part of a commentary on, or explanation of, the Summary of the Law. In the famous passage in another gospel, Luke 10.25–37, Jesus gives the Summary (essentially: love God, love neighbour) but is asked in response Who is my neighbour? He answers with the story of the Good Samaritan: our neighbour is whoever helps us, and by implication whomever we help. In today’s passage from Matthew, on the other hand, Jesus turns to the implied other question: What does it means to love God?

Jesus’s answer is that we love God when we love our neighbour. We take God’s name in vain when we say we love God, but don’t feed the hungry, don’t house the homeless, don’t nurse the sick, don’t visit the prisoner, and so on. That’s taking God’s name in vain because it is saying we love God, but not actually doing so, because loving God is doing those things. And those things are the things that happen in God’s kingdom, so when we do those things we live in the kingdom – the kingdom is truly at hand. When we do this then our allegiance is truly to God and God’s principles, rather than those of this world. When we don’t do them then we are not dwelling in the kingdom, and instead are far from God, condemning ourselves to live apart from God. That’s the scenario, in highly rhetorical and apocalyptic language, that Jesus presents us with in this passage.

And when does this judgement happen? In the apocalyptic language of the passage it happens when the Son of Man comes in glory – at the end of the age. A friend once pointed out to me, however, that the story does not have to be interpreted as about a final judgement. That is Jesus’s rhetoric of hyperbole, catching the attention of his hearers and getting them to think, to remember and to act. Instead we can see it as judgement here and now on each act that we do or do not undertake. At each moment, each act or non-act, when we do these things we are close to God, participating in the kingdom, and when we do not then we are far from God.

The same theme can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s name is hallowed when his will is done here on earth as it is in the heavens. And what does that mean? It means when the hungry each day have bread to eat (and by association, or the rhetoric of synecdoche, the other needs are met too – sheltering the homeless, protecting the oppressed, and the like) and when we live at peace with each other, forgiving and being forgiven. That is when we dwell in the kingdom, and we pray that we will not be tempted away from it by the glamour of worldly evil.

That is when Christ reigns. That is when Christ is king.

Image of sheep and goats from Bucheit Agri.

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Shamus
Shamus
1 day ago

Like many I preached on this text today. You will be relieved that I am not posting my sermon, but I ended with something I found helpful, which is Mother Theresa’s phrase, which is seeing Christ in “distressing disguise” in the poorest of the poor. I understand this parable was very important to her.

John Wallace
John Wallace
1 day ago
Reply to  Shamus

I also did, linking it to the Ezekiel passage. I emphasised that those who were condemned had not committed great ‘sins’ but rather this parable like that of the talents, the priest and the Levite in the Good Samatitan were guilty of ‘sins of omission’. They played safe, they lacked faith. I cited Milton’s lines in Lycidas ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed. There are many humgry sheep both in our congregations and the community at large who need feeding – but so often we as a church fail in this vital task. We are the guilty… Read more »

Toby Forward
Toby Forward
22 hours ago
Reply to  Shamus

The problem with her is that she let the poor suffer, to unite them with the suffering of Christ, but fled to a western clinic for pain relief and care when she became ill. She was a monster.

ACI
ACI
18 hours ago

One of the challenges of the passage is precisely that the ‘goats’ replied that they had, in actual fact, tended to the needy. ‘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?’ The others were not aware that they had been of service. Were the goats lying or is the fact that they so readily pointed to their deeds, unlike the others, why they are separated as ‘goats’? I tend to think the parable is more subtle than I often hear preached. ‘Here I… Read more »

ACI
ACI
17 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

So they were lying?

ACI
ACI
16 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

Mr Kershaw. I do not disagree with anything you say. It is just that the logic is subtle. They would in effect be saying, I am not guilty of not having ministered to you; I did not minister to the sick etc thinking in doing so, I was ministering to you. For this they are guilty.

It is specifically a parable about the nations. Those outside the covenants. Some have acted properly as if they were, and the King grants them entrance to his kingdom.

ACI
ACI
15 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

All very interesting, but it is not my reading. “I see nothing that suggests or even hints that those on the king’s left had ministered to the needy but had not realized they were ministering to the king in doing so” — something I never said. Read again. This is a parable about the nations. On one side, those who did not know the king, the king says, in ministering to the needy, you ministered to me. Enter with joy. On the other side, it is stated, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or… Read more »

ACI
ACI
15 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

No, I wrote, ‘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?’ You seem to confuse the claim of the goats about having ministered to the king, with the rebuke that they did not in fact care for the needy. It is a parable in the sense that a prophet like Ezekiel means it: an illustration give to warn/exhort. It is about the nations at the end of time. Some served the needy and they learned that in doing so they served the king.… Read more »

ACI
ACI
14 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

“Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Yet they may have guessed even more closely than the sheep the true basis for judgment. Very likely they are sure that it is good works. They know that God is interested in the poor, the down-trodden, the oppressed, and they are all ready for him. Already they have been making long mental lists of the many times they have ministered to those in need about them. They can recall… Read more »

ACI
ACI
12 hours ago
Reply to  Simon Kershaw

This is what texts like this are about. Probing the hearer/reader. Getting us away from our first instincts. People who were doing good deeds had no idea that they were doing them for the King, and express their utter amazement when they are told this is so! By Him. Others claim to have been at it, learn they missed the boat.

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