Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Series: “Jesus’ Parables and the Mystery of the Kingdom”
You’ve heard many say that in all of human history there never has been a more polarizing time than the one we’re now living in. I don’t know if that’s actually the case; humans always tend to be somewhat polarized. We inevitably divide ourselves from others in terms of loves and loyalties. You see it in everything from politics to sports teams to musical tastes and more. It’s just because we’re living with the polarization today that it just seems to be true that this is the worst of times.
I prefer to ponder the matter from a deeper perspective, one that asks the question, “Where does this human impulse to divide ourselves from others come from? Why is it that we must have some person or some group to set ourselves apart from?” Might it be that in some unconscious way our lesser divides hint at a much great one, the divide between right and wrong, the divide between good and evil? And of course, as we think about that greater divide, we’d like to think that the side we’re on is always the right side, the good side. But how do we know that we are? One way of making sure is by checking our hearts against a parable that Jesus told – the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
Now, some might say, “I didn’t know that was a parable! I thought it was a prophecy.” And a case could be made that it was more of a prophetic teaching, until you remind yourself that all parables contain a prophetic punch. But I see this teaching as a parable because of how it appears to conclude a series of parables Jesus had been telling his disciples, all of which are connected by an emphasis on the end times when each of us will stand before Jesus to give account for our faithfulness. In this parable, the last one that Jesus told before going to the cross, Jesus is emphasizing to his disciples how more than anything else he will be looking for a faith that has been lived out in unfettered kindness toward those in profound need.
The parable combines imagery from both the royal courts and shepherd’s fields of the first century world, as it invites us to see Jesus as both the Good Shepherd and the King of Kings. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” says Jesus, "and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheet from the goats.” And that’s where the story gets interesting.
The sheep this Shepherd King will put on his right and the goats he will put on his left. The right side was the preferred side in the ancient world, the side of honor, and sheep were recognized by Jesus as more valuable than goats. But the strange thing about Jesus’ teaching is that in his day most people considered goats the most valuable, so that Jesus, as he did on many occasions, was inverting the notion of value as far as God’s Kingdom is concerned. But of course, this story is not really about sheep and goats; it’s about faithfulness, and how the Son of Man will divide the faithful from the unfaithful so that we might know how to order our lives while we still have the chance.
The determining factor will be how we treat those less fortunate, those who have received a raw deal in life, those who need connection and compassion. To those on the right, the King (note the change from Son of Man) will invite them to enter into “kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I need clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
And how will those righteous souls respond? They will be surprised, shocked is a better word. “Lord, when did we see you in such distress?” Clearly, their motivation has been anything but a personal one. They haven’t been trying to earn the King’s favor. They’ve only been focused on serving his cause. And to those the King will explain, “I tell you the truth, whenever you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it unto me.”
Then the verdict will be rendered to those on the other side, the left side. To them the King will demand their departure, departure to a place reserved for the devil and his angels. They will be consigned to eternal punishment because they did not serve the King when he was in need. And they too will express surprise at their verdict. No, stronger than that, they will push back. “When did we see you in such distress?” And the King will answer them, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
It wasn’t that those the King condemned lacked opportunity to show their faithfulness. It was that they forfeited those opportunities. They forfeited them out of callousness and conceit and not for a moment did they realize that there would be lasting consequences from their disobedience, consequences that they would rue for all time.
So, what is this parable saying to us today? Is it saying that we should be discounting our evangelistic efforts and ramping up our advocacy for social justice? No, it’s not saying that; and anyone who would tell you otherwise is trying to sell you on a false polarity. The issue for the church today is not social justice at the expense of evangelism; it is instead a combining of the two so that we distinguish ourselves as Jesus’ followers by the way we promote his Kingdom causes through our words and our deeds, which ultimately are for the benefit of those who cannot help themselves, which includes all of us.
So, whose side are you on? In the end the choice is not so much between justice or injustice, right or wrong, good or bad. None of is pure enough in our hearts to be able to make those determinations anyway. What Jesus is telling us in this parable is that it’s better for us to minister to human hurt whenever we cross paths with it and wherever we find it.
When I was in high school, I remember my French teacher requiring her class to read The Plague by Albert Camus, a French existentialist who wrote this story about a 19th century plague in the country of the north African country of Algeria, a plague that to Camus symbolized the indifference that too many people have to the suffering of others, given how they would rather think that their suffering is more important. I don’t remember all that much about the story except for the takeaway our teacher wanted to impress upon us. It was a statement by one of the characters that goes as follows: “on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
Maybe that’s the same takeaway Jesus invites us to see in this parable as each day the Final Judgment draws nearer for one of us. Focus on doing all you can to show compassion to those Jesus sends your way who are need of it. Then Judgment Day won’t be for you a day to dread; it will instead be one of vindication, as the King sets you on his right hand and invites you to enter into the kingdom, “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Forasmuch as you showed compassion to the last and to the least, all the time you were in reality showing it to Jesus too.