The End of the World
The parable of the sheep and the goats is often shied away from due to the perceived nature of its context. Much of this is down to the final few lines which seems to spell eternal damnation for those whose actions let them down. This focus on what happens at the end means we miss the point of what happens in the rest of the parable.
Here Comes the King
The parable starts with an image straight from the book of Daniel. The Son of Man arrives in glory on the clouds. It is an image used throughout the bible and is most often found in a style of writing know as Apocalyptic. This image was important for the Jewish people because it marked the breaking into history of the Messiah. At this moment everything would be set right and the people of God would be returned to their rightful place. So it is in this scene that Jesus tells his parable. The promised Messiah has come and this is what he will do when he gets here…
Past, Present or Future
Whenever judgement or apocalypse is mentioned we automatically want to think about the end of the world. The problem is that this would have been a rather alien concept for most Jewish people. They had very different views to most of the theology we find today and we lose sight of what Jesus is doing here when we make it about the end times. The image Jesus uses to open the parable from the book of Daniel is not one of the ‘final’ judgement but of a judging of the people of God at that very moment. Jesus was sharing this parable because it was happening right in their mist. About 40 or so years after this parable the destruction of Jerusalem would take place in 70AD and mark a seismic event in Jewish history. This was seen by many followers of Christ as the judgment of the nation of Israel as it had failed to see the Messiah and follow his way.
This parable comes as a warning to the people of God that they are already being judged, right now in the moment of its telling. It doesn’t stop there though, we are still in the age in which Jesus has come and this judgment is still taking place. The message is as clear for us as it was for the original listeners.
If this is a message for the people of God then those who call themselves Christians are as much the audience today as the Jews were then. The sheep and the goats are separated but the have certain things in common that it is important to point out. They both recognise the Kings authority: It isn’t that one group do not recognise the king as their ruler or leader and the other do. They both see the returning monarch as Lord.
There is no mention of belief: One of the startling things about this passage is that it does not differentiate the groups on what they believe. The king does not say to them you prayed the ‘sinners’ prayer, believed in the trinity, salvation and the resurrection of the dead and so you are in. It seems that both groups believed in the king and therefore in God but it is on a different measure that they are judged.
Actions not words: The king divides the people because of their actions. It is on how these people treated others that they are judged. Those who fed, watered, clothed, sheltered and visited are praised and welcomed in. None of them realised who they had done it for but they did it anyway. On the other hand the group that neglected those in need are shocked because they had not realised who they had ignored.
It is an important lesson for us to hear and one echoed in numerous other parables and teaching from both Old and New Testament. As followers of Jesus and those who worship the living God we are called to serve the least in our society. We live in a world that would like to divide us as many ways as it could. Brexiter vs Remainer, white against black, British vs Muslim, rich vs poor. For the church there should be no division, we are called to minister to all those we meet who are need.
If we are not feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing shelter to the stranger and visiting those who are sick or in prison then we are not doing what we have been called to do. It may be that even if we believe all the right things we will still face judgement because we have not backed up our faith with works.