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.