Ps. 55; PM: Ps. 138, 139:1-17 (18-23)
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ — Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV
All the readings today deal in some way with God’s judgment and punishment. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly Advent-y kind of reading although I suppose it could be looked at as a group of readings that deal indirectly with anticipation. It just isn’t the joyous anticipation we expect in Advent but rather a warning that Mama would have given as “You’d better straighten up and fly right or else.”
God spoke through Zechariah about the punishments of past generations for their sins but also spoke of compassion to the two kingdoms — Judah and Israel– and promised them blessings for speaking truth, true judgments that promote peace and not discord, restraint from carrying grudges and not searing false oaths. Revelation opens the seven seals and looses the four horsemen and the return of chaos to the world as a result of God’s wrath. Matthew shows Jesus at the end of a series of teachings on judgment, most of which, it appears, the disciples just don’t get.
Jesus’ list of charitable acts, which are also the acts of kingdom builders, show him standing with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the stranger, the naked (shamed), and the imprisoned. In each instance, he gave the action which would have helped to build the kingdom but the disciples could only see the surface, the accusation that they had somehow shirked in their duties to Jesus himself.
I’ve often heard the interpretation that the separation of the sheep and goats as that of separating the Christ-believers from those who are not, but I have also read an interpretation* that states that the teaching (and the illustration) was aimed at those already within the “family”, as it were. Followers of Christ would be judged on their reaction to need within the family, sheep being those who followed the command to care for the less fortunate, the goats being those who did not. It makes sense to me, given the time and place where the teaching occurred. While Jesus reached out past the Jewish community from which he and many of his followers came, it was primarily to those who were local and Jewish that his teachings were aimed.
I think that now, though, it isn’t enough to reach out only to fellow Christians, even though we don’t always do that as well as we might. I believe our mandate is to care for members of our “family” as well as those that are outside our Christian tradition. My question to myself is, “What kind of kingdom of God on earth would there be that puts an impenetrable wall around one group, giving it a paradise for them to watch over and enjoy, when beyond the walls there are those still desperately in need? I remember the old saying that, “Your actions may be the only Bible some people ever read,” as well as how people in Paul’s time were drawn to Christianity because of how they loved one another and worked to help one another.
The beautiful part of the gospel story is that it is simple, it is profound, it is exemplary, and it is something that would benefit everyone, not just one group. Scripture tells us we are all created in the image of God, not some of us or even a few of us, but all of us. If we truly receive this as true (and as scripture has told us is true), how can we turn our backs on the image of God present in even the poorest, sickest, most needy people on the streets of our cities and the farthest corners of our world? “… [J]ust as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Sheep or goat? That is what I will be judged on, not whether I say the right words or support popular causes or even profess the right beliefs. Am I a sheep or a goat? I have a choice that not even the four horsemen can take away. Now what am I going to do about that choice?
* Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L., Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, (1992) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, (151).