“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40
This well-known excerpt from the 25th chapter of Matthew – sometimes called ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ – is Jesus’ very last teaching in Matthew’s gospel before his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It marks the climax of Jesus’ preaching to his followers, and it is the only detailed account of the final judgment offered by Jesus in all of the New Testament. All of which is to suggest that we probably ought to pay close attention to what Jesus is saying here.
Drawing on the apocalyptic vision from the Book of Daniel, in which the Son of Man comes in glory at the end of times to make manifest God’s reign, Jesus paints for us a vivid picture of the glorified Son sitting on the throne of judgment. Surrounded by God’s angels, the Son of Man then gathers peoples from all the nations before his throne and, one by one, separates them, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, into two groups: those who are blessed and who will inherit the kingdom, and those who are accursed and who will be forever separated from God’s presence.
What separates the sheep from the goats? The key verses are 40 and 45, where Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And likewise, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Feeding the hungry, it turns out, is to feed Jesus; giving water to those who thirst is to quench our Lord’s thirst; welcoming the stranger is entertaining Christ; clothing the naked is to warm the Body of Christ; caring for the sick is to tend to our Savior’s wounds; and visiting those in prison is to befriend Him as well. In the final analysis, this is what matters.
I have three observations about this text and its implications for our lives:
First, notice how little the Son of Man seems to care about whether we’re Gentiles or Jews, Protestants or Catholics, high church or low, man or woman, gay or straight. We spend so much time and energy quarreling over our theologies and creeds, fighting over who is in and who is out, splitting into endless numbers of denominations and factions, and fussing over the best way to worship; yet, if Jesus is to be believed, the only question we will be asked when we approach the throne of judgment is this: ‘so, tell me, how did you treat the least among you?’
It is what we do for those in need that matters to Christ. This is not to say that what we believe and how we worship are irrelevant. Thinking clearly and coherently about who God is and who we are, and adopting practices of worship that allow us to stay in right relationship with God and each other are helpful, but only insofar, Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel, as these beliefs and practices support us in what we do with our lives. Our ultimate aim is to do God’s work in the world and right beliefs and right worship are but a means toward that end.
So, if our actions are what matters, does this mean that our works save us and not our faith? No, that conclusion does not follow from the premise. To say that our deeds matter is to say nothing of whence they come. And Jesus makes clear elsewhere, as does St. Paul, that our capacity for doing works of mercy, for caring for the other, for loving our neighbor, depends crucially and initially upon our faith in Christ, upon letting him abide in our hearts, so that we may become instruments of His grace. Remember that the two great commandments are, first, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, so that we might, second, love our neighbor as ourselves. The order is important. It is folly to think that we can earn our way into God’s heart through our own efforts apart from first allowing Christ to work in and through us by faith.
Second, notice what this text says about God and where He may be found. God is emphatically not some distant spirit, far removed from the experience of humanity, as we sometimes imagine Him. In our lesson today, Jesus tells us, as directly as he can, that God is fully present in the struggles of human existence. If you want to see the face of God, you need look no further than into the face of a neighbor in distress, for the living Christ is mysteriously there.
When we gather in church, we devote much of our time to experiencing God’s reality in word and sacrament. We believe, rightly, that God is present in Scripture (and so each Sunday we listen with care to lessons and psalms from our Bible) and that He is present in sacrament (and so, after we hear the Word, we gather around the table to share the bread and wine). But in today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to expand our sacramental theology by seeking Him not only in Word and Sacrament, but also, and perhaps most especially, in the sorrows and pains and needs of our world. And plainly, the emphasis in our text today is that the ultimate point of being fed by word and sacrament in church is so that we will leave church to seek Christ’s presence in the faces of all those who are hurting.
This is why the central symbol of our faith is neither the Bible nor the Last Supper, but instead the Cross. We place a cross at the center of our worship as a sacred reminder that God not only became human in Jesus, but that in Jesus’ life and death, He shared fully in our hunger, our thirst, our estrangement, our nakedness, our sickness, our imprisonment, and ultimately in our suffering and death. The crucified Christ is and always must remain at the center of our faith so that we remember that the God we worship identifies most profoundly with the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, and with victims of violence; for in Jesus God was all of these. And so, it is in persons such as these – the least among us – whom we will find Jesus still.
The third and final point I want to make about today’s text is that we should not run from the reality that in it Jesus speaks of judgment. Quite plainly, Jesus is saying not only that our actions matter, but that what we do and fail to do has consequences for our future life with God. The notion that our actions matter, and that some day we will be held accountable for our choices, is a sobering reality. It is sobering because, speaking for myself at least, I seem to act like a goat at least half of the time, maybe more. I suspect the same may be true for you. How then can we possibly hope to be on the right side of the divide between the sheep and goats given our all-too-human propensity to stray from the path we know to be the right one?
If the parable of the sheep and goats were the only words we had from Jesus, I’m quite certain that we would be in big trouble. But the task of faithful biblical interpretation is to read texts not merely in isolation, but always in relationship to one another. And we would do well to remember that the Jesus who promises to judge us in today’s gospel is the very same Jesus who elsewhere promises to chase down and protect every single, lost sheep; who welcomes home with love and thanksgiving every contrite, prodigal child; who called as his followers tax collectors and prostitutes; and whose very last act on the Cross was to turn to a repentant thief and assure him of a place in paradise.
In short, while we must take seriously these parables of judgment, we must also read them together with our narratives of mercy. How do we reconcile these competing narratives? In the end, I’m not sure that we can. I’m not even sure we’re called to reconcile them. The reality of our God is bigger and more mysterious than our frail human conceptual categories. Rather than trying to explain our God in some neat and tidy theology, our task instead, I think, is merely to follow him, and to live in the tension of these narratives, betwixt the poles of judgment and mercy.
On the one hand, we have every reason to trust in the promise of God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness, to follow Christ without fear, and to hope and pray for the redemption of every lost soul, including our own. On the other hand, and at the same time, we must live our lives as if every choice matters, as if God is counting on us, as if our soul and the souls of all those we are called to serve hang in the balance.
As Reinhold Niebuhr once expressed this paradox:
“The mystery [of living in this tension] is that on the one hand duty is demanded of us as if duty not done will never be done. On the other hand faith declares that man would be undone if God could not complete what we have left incomplete and purify what we have corrupted. The cross is the perfect revelation of both of these truths. In it the sin against man is revealed as the sin against God, as something more than a casual imperfection. Yet in it the merciful purpose of God, to take human evil into himself and smother it there, is also declared.”Simultaneously both sinner and saint, we live each day in the quiet and sure conviction that God deeply loves the good we do, and that, through the mystery of grace, he also makes straight everything that is crooked in our more wayward doings. Precisely how this happens we perhaps will never understand; but we can be forever thankful that it happened once and for all on the Cross.