The Sheep and the Goats

The Sheep and the Goats This Sunday’s gospel reading, from Matthew 25, used to really worry me. If it was all about the final judgement, then it seemed to say that everything was black and white, and that you were either a sheep or a goat, either all good or all bad. I’ve always reckoned that I’m a bit sheep and a bit goat – there have been plenty of times when I’ve fed the hungry, visited prisoners and the rest, and plenty of times when I could have done, and didn’t. Where does that leave me? And how would any of us know whether we’d done enough of the good stuff to be called a sheep rather than a goat at the last judgement? In fact, since Jesus is elsewhere pretty clear that the judging isn’t up to us, it would be odd if he’s provided us here with a formula that we could apply ourselves.

That’s just one of the things that makes me think that perhaps this parable isn’t fundamentally about the last judgement at all, but is about something else. It’s about several other things, in fact, but two of them are particularly intriguing: It seems pretty clear that it’s generosity, kindness and self-giving that are the characteristics the king wants to commend. Faith without works is nowhere in the picture. Is there hope here for those who lived lives of kindness, but who never expressed an overt faith in Christ? ‘When did we ever feed you or clothe you, or visit you?’ they might say, and yet still find that Christ recognises their service to their fellow human beings as being service to him.

That’s how we get to the climax of each part of the story: ‘whenever you did (or didn’t) do this for the least of my children you did (or didn’t) do it for me’. To serve one another is indeed to serve God, because each of us is made in God’s image. For me, this is the parable that best unpacks the two great commandments: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. Because these two commandments are not two, but one. To love God is to love what God has made; to love one another is to love the one in whose image we are made. And to love our neighbour as ourselves is to recognise the divine image in others and in ourselves.

There is, in essence, only one great commandment, the commandment of love, and real love is always manifested in action. And, when it comes down to it, it’s living lives of love that will build the kingdom of God here on earth. The more we have, by God’s grace, built a little bit of heaven on earth, the less we have to fear any kind of final judgement.

2 thoughts on “The Sheep and the Goats

  1. I used to worry about this alot; especially as I have lived, moved & worked much of my life as a member of strongly conservative evangelical churches or organisations.
    But I’ve always been something of a disturber of the peace, and in this case often highlighted the paradox you identify at the very start … if you are committed (by prior enculturation, church background, socialisation or whatever) to seeing this as about the final judgment.
    Eleven years ago, not long before we were forced to leave work with the Church of Uganda after 16 years there, I preached on this passage at the cathedral of the diocese. I didn’t draw conclusions, just asked alot of questions. Some of those questions were as much to myself as anyone else. (Though if you aren’t preaching to yourself, it cannot be a very good sermon!) I got more feedback on that one sermon than on any others except two preached in any language at any location for the 16 years we were in Uganda. A great deal of it was extremely critical.
    Eight years ago, back in this country and working as the ‘teaching elder’ at my home church (I’m not an Anglican), I preached on this passage again as a one-off to fill in for a visiting preacher who had called off for some reason. I asked many of the same questions, but this time I dared to suggest that there were places to begin looking for some answers. Surprise, surprise I got more feedback on this sermon than just about any other I had preached up to that point in my home church. (With the possible exception of one on the temptation of Christ, where I suggested that if the temptations hadn’t been tempting then there would have been little point in the experience – i.e. stessing the human side of Christ’s nature.)
    But the responses were astoundingly different by-and-large, mostly along the lines of “I’ve never understood what this was about”, “It’s always made me feel uncomfortable” (well, I probably made them feel a different type of discomfort) and “That makes a lot of sense”. And I was saying much the same as you have outlined in your own blog.
    Now a lot has changed since then; I still go to the same church, but I don’t preach any more. In the house groups recently they’ve looking at Jesus’ Teaching on Judgment, and 2 weeks ago they got to Matt 25. I know, because I have spies everywhere, that at least two of the housegroups had ‘interesting’ discussions based around the premise, “That’s not what Simon preached”! I just wish, sometimes, it was possible to approach the Scriptures ‘fresh’ as a theological ‘virgin’ almost … and not with the baggage of what you’ve been taught previously, or what Simon or any other preacher said.
    I’ve rambled, but I just wanted to encourage you in your reflections on this particular Gospel reading; and thank you reminding me of important episodes in my own past.

    1. Thank you Simon – it’s good to hear more about your own experiences, and to find that we have much in common theoligically speaking! Hopefully if I get more organised, I might be able to post on the lectionary readings in advance a bit more often… I love reading lectionary blogs by other people, but have never managed to be disciplined enough to do one…

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