Ezekiel 34:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46
This morning’s message is part two of last Sunday’s message about the Parable of the Talents. We interpreted that story in light of today’s story, affirming that the reign of heaven was with the third servant who was cast into outer darkness, rather than with the master and first two servants, as traditional interpretations see it. Jesus went to the cross for refusing to accept the world’s view of who should be judged. The third servant was considered lazy for not showing ambition about the world’s agenda of making a profit. Jesus turned judgment on its head by saying the third servant was the only one who understood that the world’s agenda was wrong; that world is passing away; it makes no sense to participate in it.
Today’s story presents a similar alternative. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is even more clearly a judgment scene. But we need to understand how judgment works for Jesus. And we need to explore more deeply this parable that is so well-known but so rarely examined. There are two kinds of messages about the final judgment: Apocalyptic Eschatology and Prophetic Eschatology. Eschatology refers to final judgments in the end times. Apocalyptic Eschatology says things are already decided – usually in a fairly predictable way. Good folks will be rewarded, and bad folks will be punished. And everyone knows who’s good and who’s bad. Religion focused on apocalyptic eschatology was as popular in Jesus’ time as it is in ours.
Jesus taught Prophetic eschatology. Prophetic eschatology also describes what the future will look like if nothing changes. If things proceed as they are, this will happen. But prophetic eschatology doesn’t believe that things are already decided. People can bring about a different future if they wake up, pay attention and behave differently. In Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, the three ghosts show Scrooge the past that led him to his present and his possible future given the trajectory of his behavior. Scrooge changes his future by changing his behavior. The third ghost didn’t show him an apocalypse that locked him into a certain fate. It prompted him to change his ways, so a new future could be written. Jesus didn’t announce judgment to lock us into a certain fate but to lovingly invite us to repent.
Prophetic eschatology also turns things on their heads in terms of who is good and who is bad. Ezekiel shows this clearly in God’s judgment between fat and lean sheep. God seeks wholeness among the flock. This involves uplifting the weak and challenging the strong. Fat sheep have flourished because of their intimidation and manipulation of the leaner sheep. It’s not difficult to see how this functions in our society. Justice work provides an environment in which the lean will be able to flourish. That is one reason God shows preference for the weaker members of the flock.
But Jesus takes us to another, more basic reason. The living Jesus comes at us by surprise and holds us at the same time as he allows our masks to melt away. The identities that lead us to us/them thinking die. We’re no longer over against anything at all. We begin to see Jesus not as “for us” over against others, but as one who is in our midst and catches us off guard. The comfortable world of us and them begins to collapse. The people who we used to be able to identify as lousy shepherds are now just other sheep like us who need someone to shepherd them. Jesus allows our identity to collapse so that a new “we” may be born, a “we” not over against any one at all, but a we that is being called into being.
One way of putting the message of the parable is to say that those who understand the way of Jesus are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims and have reached out to help them. (James Alison) The parable of the sheep and the goats follows in Ezekiel’s prophetic tradition. The systems of the world have already judged those in prison – that’s why they are in prison; the world in which Jesus lived labeled people who were sick as “sinners” because they saw illness as a direct consequence of sin; that world also believed that the naked and hungry and thirsty were poor because their unrighteousness had excluded them from God’s blessings. Our culture has its own justifications for accepting those conditions but it’s the same dynamic.
Once again, Jesus turns all those judgments on their head by saying that those who, with all their spirituality and religiosity, have accepted the world’s judgment on those people, and therefore stay away from them, are the ones God judges. Whenever we separate ourselves from our sisters and brothers in need, we run grave risk of terrible consequences, especially when we give religious reasons to do so. People who pay no heed to who the world calls good and bad have already passed through judgment, and it doesn’t affect them. And it doesn’t matter whether those people have heard of Jesus or not, or whether they have an explicitly religious motivation or not.
Lest we think it’s simply a matter of an intellectual understanding of the basis of God’s judgment, we must realize how threatening all this is to the powers-that-be. Jesus’ way is scandalous because he eliminates the distinction between good people and bad people, calling into question the way social order has been constructed until now. Those who attempt to follow Jesus will be hated and denounced by those who want to keep the good good and the bad bad. This becomes very clear when we look at I was sick, and you visited me. World AIDS day is coming next week. Those who were at least teenagers in the 1980s remember that there was a lot of religious talk of AIDS as a punishment from God on certain behaviors. It was suggested that, since these people deserve what had befallen them, it’s not appropriate to do something to alleviate the problem. The irony evident in today’s parable is that God’s judgment is indeed very real, but it works inversely to what such people imagine. AIDS might be interpreted as a judgment of God, but it works as a question: a catastrophe has occurred; are you prepared to ignore the judgment of this world and stretch a hand toward those who are on their way out of existence? Or are you separating yourself into goathood, thinking yourself a sheep?
We could make the same observation and ask the same questions about many of the crises that have happened since AIDS, including Ebola, murderous hornets, wildfires, and COVID. Ironically, however, the ones who have called many of these crises God’s judgment on some group of humans, are silent about COVID. Could it be that the coronavirus is not an apocalyptic crisis because the leader they see as God’s chosen one said repeatedly that it was not a crisis? If it was, they would have to take it seriously, split with him, and close their churches — which they will not do. The coronavirus is not the crisis they are waiting for.
But what about the rest of us? How do we live into God’s judgment on the nations? Where is Jesus showing up in our world? There are inspiring stories of people seeing Jesus in nurses and doctors who show up every day to care for COVID patients. If you hang out in Echo Park, you see the unhoused multiplying. I was inspired this week by some St. Athanasius youth who plan to provide a Thanksgiving meal to the unhoused living in Echo Park. It can get overwhelming to think about all the hungry, thirsty, naked, lonely, and imprisoned around us. Jesus invites us to start by taking the next step. Maybe it’s changing our priorities, from earning the most talents to showing the most compassion. Maybe it’s doing something concrete for someone that’s been on our mind lately. Let’s allow Jesus’ story to lead us to action, so we might alter how the final judgment will look.