Parents, teachers, and others dealing with children on a daily basis regularly face the dilemma of how and when to reward and how and when to punish. Did Johnny mean to hit his sister with a cricket bat or was he provoked, or was it an accident? Shall I dock his pocket money and give him half an hour on the naughty step or remonstrate his sister for being so silly. In a class of 30 children most of whom have done something worthy, how can I choose just one to be ‘seren y wythnos’ star of the week. Gemma really deserves it but then she’s already had the accolade three times this term.
The issue is not just confined to the home and the classroom. When the new year’s honours list is out, most of us will criticise it because an outstanding charity worker from our local area has been omitted while some stuffed shirt of a banker who’s given millions of pounds to the party in power is given a peerage. We are aggrieved when we see a celebrity getting off a drink dive charge on a technicality because she can afford a swanky lawyer while a mother caught shoplifting in order to feed her family because the universal credit has not come through gets a jail sentence.
Where is the justice? We cry.
Our gospel reading is the final part of the fifth section of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel. It brings down the curtain on what Jesus wants to say to his disciples and the crowds which followed him so we should pay special attention to it. It concludes the section on the end times. Jesus has spoken of what is to be, the importance of waiting and watching. He has also spoken of reward and punishment. The parable of the talents, last week’s gospel reading, speaks of the reward for those who invested their talents well, who made return on their capital but punishment for the one who had simply buried his in a hole in the ground.
Today, we come to the story of the sheep and the goats, a piece of Jesus’ teaching told only by Matthew. Unlike some of the parables, it is simple to understand. Sheep and goats were often kept in the same flock in Jesus’ day. Such mixed flocks can still be seen in the middle east and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea today. If it was to be a cold night, it would be necessary to separate them because the goats with their hairy coats needed extra shelter whereas the fleece on the sheep gave them added protection from the chill. Sheep were worth more than the goats and are placed on the shepherd’s right, always the place of honour in biblical speak.
But once we get into the meat of this teaching, we hear no more of shepherd, sheep and goats. What emerges is simply the king and those on the right and those on the left. The ones on the right are the righteous ones and destined for reward, to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25.34) The ones on the left are the accursed ones and destined for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25.41)
The language is graphic and makes us feel uncomfortable. It is meant to do that even though the imagery would have been part of the cut and thrust of the rabbinic discussions of the day. This is not Jesus meek and mild but Jesus wanting to challenge some of the comfortable assumptions of his own people, to challenge assumptions in the church today.
What is the basis for the reward and punishment? Surely Jesus makes it almost mind numbingly clear by the laborious repetition of the teaching. It is whether a person has given food to the hungry, a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick and visited those in prison. In short, the distinction is between those who have shown mercy to the oppressed and those who have not.
We can see this as a clear theme in Matthew’s gospel which reaches it conclusion in this passage. Back in chapter 5, in the sermon on the mount, he talks of the righteousness of the disciples exceeding that of the scribes and the pharisees, that is that their righteousness should be in action, not words. He backs this up in chapter 7 speaking of good trees being known by their fruit. In chapter 9, recalling words from Hosea, the prophet, Jesus says that he looks for mercy towards the poor, not the sacrifice in the temple, something repeated in chapter 12. In chapter 16, Jesus talks of the son of man coming with the angels in the glory of the father to repay everyone for what he has done.
So, when we reach chapter 25, we have this powerful image of Jesus, the good shepherd separating the sheep and the goats. He is the son of man, the one who in the old testament book of Daniel comes on the clouds. He is the king on his throne, the one to whom the father has conveyed the right to judge. He divides up the people on the basis of how merciful, how caring, how tender they have been to the most needy and vulnerable in society.
This leads us to another key point to note in this reading. Who is he judging? All the nations of the world. (Matthew 25.32) This was important for the Jewish people amongst whom most of Jesus’ earthly ministry took place and are the intended readers of this gospel in particular. They would have thought they were the sheep on the right-hand side and the gentile sinners the goats on the left. No, Jesus is the judge of all the nations and the clear implication is that the righteous and the accursed might come from any quarter. There is no partiality towards any nation, race or gender. All stand before the king who will decide their fate. The pharisees as the Jewish teachers of the law had tended to sieve out some of the laws more radical demands often making it easier for people of means to keep it than the poor. This was and is an anathema to Jesus. He judges on the basis of mercy shown.
It is all about mercy. After this teaching, Matthew tells us of Gethsemane and Golgotha, of the king who offers himself for the sins of the world. We might well consider our own lives at this point. How much mercy do we show to the needy? How much forgiveness to those who sin against?
Taking in the broader sweep of scripture, we know that our place on the right hand side, in the kingdom of the king is not ours because our deeds have earnt it but because Christ in his mercy on the cross has bought it. But we must not take it for granted. Jesus’ words here are stern. The true nature of our hearts known only to him, the measure of our repentance is shown by the grace and mercy we show to others, the cost we are willing to incur to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick and visit the prisoner. We are called to radical costly servant discipleship following in the ways of Jesus himself. While we may face many quandaries in being a fair judge, let us take comfort in that we all stand before a king who has reigned from the cross as well as one who will reign in glory for eternity.
22.11.20 Christ the King