SJF • Proper 29 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
When I was a child, and behaved badly — at least the first time around — my mother and father would usually let me off the hook with a warning rather than a punishment. But they would always describe the punishment that would fall upon me the next time I behaved badly in the same way. And they would end that warning with a pointed reminder, “That’s not a threat; that’s a promise!”
Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew is one of the greatest of the threats and promises made by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. It is a vision of the end of all time, when the Son of Man will return in glory with his angels to take up his place on the judgment seat, and judge the nations of the earth.
The passage portrays the king of heaven as a shepherd dividing sheep from goats, to one side and to the other. The sheep are told that they have done well even when they didn’t know they were doing so; and the goats are similarly told that they have done poorly, again even though they didn’t know what they were failing to do. And the doing or the not doing, whether by the sheep or by the goats, isn’t about how well or poorly they have treated their own kind, or about how the sheep have treated the goats or the goats the sheep. Rather it is about how they each and all have treated the members of the king’s family— and the least of them at that.
In other words, this vision of the final judgment contrasts with that portrayed in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. For the prophet, it is about the various members of the flock of sheep, and how the fat sheep have mistreated the lean sheep. The fat sheep have pushed and shoved and butted with their horns at the weaker animals and scattered them far and wide. And those pushy fat sheep are in for punishment when the shepherd judges between sheep and sheep.
So Jesus is using language similar to that of the prophet, but with a very different point. Obviously, as Ezekiel shows, it is wrong for the fat cats of this world to trod on the poor — the One Percent on the Ninety-Nine Percent — to take advantage of the weak, to push them out of the pleasant pasture to which all of the sheep are entitled.
But Jesus is making a rather different point — a more challenging point — and the threat and the promise are equally more demanding. It is not enough just to be good and fair to your fellow sheep and be content with your share of the pasture. It is not enough just not to butt with your horns or push with your flank and shoulder in taking advantage of the weaker sheep. The goats in Jesus’ parable suffer eternal punishment — and let’s be clear that that’s what Jesus is talking about here in his parable of the end of the world — they suffer this terrible punishment not because they’ve done bad things to the weak, whether sheep or goats, but because they haven’t done good things for those who needed good things done for them — and who those in need are, I’ll get to in a moment.
But first note that these goats are not punished because they’ve imprisoned people or stolen their food or stripped them of their clothing. They are punished because they haven’t visited those who were sick or imprisoned, or fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty or clothing to the naked. They are not guilty of any great crime or tyranny, but of neglect.
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And now the other matter: who are those towards whom the sheep and goats have done or failed to do good? First we might well ask who these sheep and goats are. And the text reveals they are “the nations.” These are those of whom Jesus will speak at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel — and we are almost to the end with this chapter — when he orders the disciples to “go and baptize all nations.” The sheep and the goats are the people of the nations — those on the receiving end of the ministry of evangelism — the ones to whom the evangelists will go to bring good news and baptize. So the ones towards whom the neglect of the goats and the generosity of the sheep is shown, is not each other, not the nations gathered for judgment — but rather the disciples themselves, the “members of Christ’s family” — those who are sent to baptize and bring good news to those nations.
This parable, then, is not simply a lesson for Christians to be good to one another — to visit the sick and those in prison, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked — those are things we ought to do anyway under the commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbor.
This parable is offered as a threat and a promise: a comfort to the disciples themselves, who in their coming ministry in the early days of the church would be going out into the world to carry out the commandment to baptize and spread the good news out there — out among all those sheep and goats of the nations. It is offered as a warning to those who would treat the disciples well or badly in their hour of need. Though they were ignorant of the fact that in relation to the disciples — by visiting and feeding and clothing them — or not — they had the king himself with them, in the person of the members of the king’s own family: as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.
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Now, before we breathe a sigh of relief that this parable may be more about how we as Christians are to be received in the world when we bring the good news of the Gospel, than about how we are to behave towards one another, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we stand in relationship to one another much as the world stands in relationship to us. How we treat each other does matter — and it matters eternally — and that’s not a threat, that’s a promise. For if it is so vitally important that people treat strangers well, how much more important is it that we treat the members of our own family well. For all — all — strangers and family and friends — are under the rule of the great Shepherd of the Sheep. He is Lord of all. How we treat the members of the family to which we all belong is a judgment upon us — whether we know it or not. So the safest course is to do good to all, to visit and comfort those who are sick or in prison, to feed all of those who hunger and give drink to all who thirst, to welcome all strangers as well as all of our friends; and to clothe all who are naked.
As the beautiful prayer attributed to Saint Francis reminds us, “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Where else are we to comfort the sick than at the bedside of the sick? Where else are we to comfort those in prison except in prison? Whom are we to feed except those who are hungry? To whom shall we give drink but to those who thirst? And whom shall we welcome if not the stranger or the homeless who seek us out? These may well be members of the family of the king whom we do not yet know, long-lost relations or distant cousins who have wandered far from home — and we can welcome them back, and treat them as we ought. God help us if we fail to serve the king in the person of those who are least among the members of his family. And God bless us when we do. He has not only threatened; he has promised!+