Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24
Today’s gospel is about judgement, an idea that has gone rather out of fashion in recent years, I could even say recent decades.
This is probably to some extent a sign of the continuing latent influence of Christianity in our culture: after all, it is Jesus Himself who says elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.
It is probably also a consequence of the unusually benign period of history that we have enjoyed since the Second World War, at least from a western point-of-view. When life for most people most of the time has been getting better, we have not had to face head on the consequences of wickedness on a large scale in the way that previous generations had to, and we have come even to question the idea of evil itself.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that this benign period of history for the west is coming to an end, as democracy and freedom and truth seem once again to be things that we have to struggle for, it will be interesting to see if people become more open to the concept of judgement.
But leaving all that to one side, the contemporary hostility towards judgement does present a problem for Christians seeking to engage with the wider culture, because although Jesus teaches us not to judge one-another, He is quite clear that there will ultimately be judgement, that it will be God’s judgement, not ours, and that this judgement is an integral part of God’s loving purposes for the world.
The image of the shepherd is of huge importance in the Bible, from the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, through Moses’ time as a shepherd in Midian, to King David, called by the Lord from shepherding his father’s flock to shepherding the people of Israel. The image is taken up by the prophets, as in today’s reading from Ezekiel. In the New Testament, Jesus is revealed as the fulfilment of these prophecies, Jesus is revealed as the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost, binds up the injured, feeds the hungry, and even lays down His life for the sheep.
The image of the shepherd is a slightly tricky one when it comes to judgement. It is hard to speak of goodness and evil when we are talking about sheep. So Ezekiel resorts to the image of the shepherd sorting the fat sheep from the thin, and Jesus the sheep from the goats.
The parable of the sheep and the goats probably doesn’t mean what most of us instinctively think it means.
Biblical scholars don’t agree on all that much, but they do for the most part agree that Matthew’s gospel was written in a Jewish-Christian environment for a mostly Jewish-Christian audience. And that turns out to be important in setting the context for today’s gospel. Most Christians quite naturally read today’s gospel as an exhortation to good works, most Christians read it as a parable demonstrating the necessity of works of charity for anyone who calls themselves a Christian. But a careful reading reveals that it is about something quite different.
Today’s gospel begins with the nations gathered before the Son of Man. But this word “nations” is as translation of the Greek word which is usually translated as “gentiles”. The judgement that is described in the parable of the sheep and the goats is quite specifically a judgement of the gentiles.
And what is the standard by which the gentiles are judged? “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” “One of the least of these my brothers” appears to refer to the Christian community.
So what we have here in today’s gospel is not a general exhortation to Christians to perform acts of charity and mercy, but rather a parable describing the judgement of gentiles outside the Christian community; a parable showing that non-Christian gentiles will be judged according to the mercy and kindness they have shown to members of the Christian community.
So where does this reading of the parable of the sheep and goats take us on this the feast of Christ the King?
In the first place, we should by no means imagine that the interpretation I have suggested lets Christians of the hook when it comes to acts of mercy and charity. The Bible is full of exhortations to be kind and generous to the poor and needy. It is beyond argument that charitable endeavour is a vital and indispensable part of the Christian calling. After all, if Our Lord tells us that this is what is expected of non-Christians, how much more does He expect of us?
Secondly, it tells us something important about the identity between Jesus and his church. “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.” What is done to one of Jesus’ followers is done to Jesus himself. This is Matthew’s way of saying what Paul says in his letters: we are the body of Christ. We are not simply pupils of a wise teacher; we are members of the body of Christ.
Thirdly, it tells us something important about judgement.
I suspect that Christians today fall into roughly two camps.
On the one hand there are those who think of themselves as conservative Christians, who cling to the belief that Christians will go to heaven because they believe in Jesus, and that everyone else will at best be destroyed, and at worst face eternal punishment.
On the other hand, there are those more liberal-minded Christians who tend to a universalist position: a loving God surely cannot condemn most of the world to eternal punishment; in this view, since the saving work of Jesus is enough to redeem the whole world, in the end the love of God will triumph over everything and everyone.
The parable of the sheep and the goats makes uncomfortable reading whichever position you take.
For the conservative, the notion that non-Christians can inherit the kingdom through acts of kindness to Christians is shocking and even heretical. And yet it is quite difficult to see what else Jesus means by this parable. The objection that my reading of this parable suggests that people can earn their way into heaven is not valid, because it is the identity between Jesus and his Church that counts: “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”. If the conservative Christian believes that it is one’s attitude towards Jesus that brings salvation, this parable just extends that basic principle by saying that the followers of Jesus represent him, and acts of kindness towards his followers will therefore bring the rewards of belief in Jesus.
But the parable is difficult for the liberal universalist too, because although Jesus in this parable seems more generous than many who think of themselves as conservative Christians would like him to be, judgement and punishment are still very much a part of the picture.
We pray for justice, we chastise God often for not acting in the world in the ways that we think God should, and yet on the other hand we are also often reluctant to accept the idea of God’s judgement.
But how can we have justice, how can we have that ultimate setting of all things to rights which is the culmination of God’s loving purposes revealed in Jesus, how can we have these things without judgement? How can we have these things without both good and evil being brought into the open and seen for what they are?
So today we thank God for the rule of Christ the King, and we pray for that day when the world will be brought more fully under his authority.
We thank God that the rule of Christ the King is not remote and austere, but is grounded in the profound identity that exists between Christ and his people.
We thank God that the rule of Christ the King brings justice and judgement to the evils of the world, and we give thanks especially that justice and judgement belongs to Him and not to us.
And we thank God that Christ the King is most especially concerned with the least of his brothers, with the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the homeless, and we pray that we who are Christ’s body may manifest his care for the poor in the world.