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The King of the Sheep and the Goats

November 22, 2014

Preached at Coastal Unity Parish on the Feast of Christ the King, 2014

Matthew 25: 31-46

 

Jesus paints fascinating pictures. Pictures of a world about to be interupted, about to be shown up and caught by surprise. In this section of Matthew he talks about bridesmaids who are caught unprepared. He then talks about those who hide their resources in the ground rather than using them for the kingdom. And today he paints this grand image of the King’s judgment. We call it ‘The Sheep and the Goats’ – and I don’t know about you but that phrase still sends a shiver up my spine.

 

If there is a common background to all of these stories I think it is Jesus’ profound sense that we are called to action and to constantly expect the arrival of God’s kingdom at any moment. However long it might be till all is revealed and judged and healed. And we never know how long it will be! But however long it might be we are told not to settle … for the long haul but to live in a less than settled manner, anticipating the surprise of God’s arrival.

 

And so the nations of the world are gathered before the King, as Jesus tells the story. For his Jewish audience of the time, I suspect many of them felt pretty good about that idea. The word for ‘nations’ (ethne) is the same word we sometimes translate as Gentiles. This is the judgment of the Gentiles. Jews breathe a sigh of relief… perhaps… at least until they learn how the king goes about making his judgement and populating his kingdom

 

In the forefront of the grand scene is the Son of Man – some translators choose the simpler translation, the true human, or even just ‘the human being’… the Human Being, who is also the King of the whole world with ultimate authority, separates out the nations one from another… Sheep, goat, sheep, goat… like a farmer in the yards drafting.

 

Some are fit for the kingdom of God and others are not… Literally, and I stress this is the simplest literal translation, some are destined for a ‘period of life’ and others for a ‘period of correction’. There are two important words here that have often been translated overdramatically. Firstly the word ‘aionios’ is sometimes translated ‘eternal’ but basically means ‘a period of time’ – it can be a long period of time – but a period of time is the simple translation. Secondly the word often translated ‘punishment’ is better translated ‘correction’. The Greeks had another word ‘timoria’ which Matthew could have used and which specifically meant punishment – but he didn’t. The word used here ‘kolasis’ means correction or even rehabilitation – it’s a gardening term originally used for pruning trees.

 

So lets be clear about his great picture of judgment… the gentiles are gathered so that the truth might be known… who has been made fit for the reign of God (for a period of life) and who needs a period of rehabilitation.

 

So now that we have that out of the way… let’s ask the big question… Where is God in this story? The last few Sundays we have been asking this question. We found God sending people out into risky situations in vulnerability. We found God at work in villages opening doors and setting tables. We found God throwing feasts… and calling us to throw feasts. And now we find God in two places. Where?

 

Two places: God is judging. God is the judge – telling the truth to those who can’t tell it to themselves.

Listen to the surprise of both the sheep and the goats. We didn’t see you Lord? When were you in prison and we visited you? When were you sick and we cared for you? Both the sheep and the goats are ignorant of God’s place in the world. They cannot imagine the King of all the world in such a place. They need this moment of revelation. God’s judgment tells us something surprising. It tells us the criteria by which we are judged and it tells us where God is in the world .

God is not simply the judge in this story. We also see God in all sorts of places (similar places perhaps)… God is the stranger, God is starving, God is thirsty, God is in prison, God is naked. If you are looking for God… look no further than the most vulnerable member of your community. The nations of the world have God’s of all kinds… but their God’s have this in common. They are not to be found among the destitute and the naked, among the trash of humanity, among the enemies of the state in their prisons.

 

In this vision the judge of all the earth is himself the victim of all the earth. The nations are judged by their victims.

 

In this vision the True Human… who judges us all… is not just a God who is theoretically in favour of the hard done by… not just a distant philanthropist. He is one who in his flesh and blood, gets naked with the naked, is imprisoned with the prisoners, is thirsty with the thirsty, and a stranger in his own country hanging out with its outsiders, with its immigrant community.

This is a God not holding onto property rights on Godness… who moves out of his rights and towards the least… who gives himself with complete abandon to those in need… and whose ripped open body on a Roman cross sends up a cry of protest against the world.

 

And those who enter his kingdom, whether they know it or not… are his followers. They too move out from their upward mobility and visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide hospitality for the strangers and refugees.

 

If you want to get political… you just need to remember that this is the judgment of the nations (not just individuals). Nations are being divided one from another on the basis of how they have responded to their most vulnerable. Nations will be judged not on how they have encouraged their citizens to be upwardly mobile out of poverty, but on how they have created solidarity among citizens (even downward mobility) that reflects Jesus self-abandonment for the sake of his weaker neighbours.

Its not just that the rich are being encouraged to look after the poor… but even the poor are called to follow Jesus towards the poor, the sick to care for the sick, prisoners to visit other prisoners. It’s not just a redistribution of resources its a way of being human. All of us need it if we are to be part of God’s reign.

Our downwardly mobile God, stands in judgement on us both as upwardly mobile individuals and nations. This truly human judge who has abandoned himself for our sake… comes says Jesus to surprise the world… both those who know and those outsiders, those gentiles who don’t know … and to surprise us all with the truth that God has been ahead of us all along… living amongst the victims of our society and that’s where we will continue to find God.

That’s the problem with reading this story and taking it seriously as God’s word to us today. We can no longer plead ignorance. We are being given eyes to see God and we have been given a way to walk to eternal life.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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