It’s really easy to listen to our gospel reading today and hear Jesus teaching about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. The scene is this: all the nations are gathered before the king for judgment. He divides them into two groups: sheep and goats. He speaks to the sheep and tells them that they have done well. They gave him food and drink when he needed it; they welcomed him and clothed him. They took care of him when he was sick and visited him in prison. In short, they showed mercy and love to one who was in need of it. These sheep express surprise because they were not aware that they had done any such thing. The king replies, “When you did this for the least of these, you did it for me.”
And then the king addresses the goats. He calls them to task for doing none of these acts of mercy. They didn’t help him at all when he needed it. When they express surprise at this he tells them, “Just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it for me.” And they are sent away for punishment.
It is easy to hear the parable and come to this conclusion: “Those who do good deeds and are merciful towards the disadvantaged get in to heaven, those who are stingy and mean are kept out.” It’s really easy to hear that. Then, if we hear it that way, we might start thinking, “Are we sheep or are we goats? How can we make sure to be in the right group?” This is an unfortunate and, I believe false, interpretation of the gospel lesson. Apart from being wrong, it can distract us from what the scripture is really trying to communicate to us. So that is what I’d like to talk about today. Just what does this parable mean? And how does it apply to us?
First of all, and I can’t stress this enough, it is important to know the context. Who is Jesus talking to? Is he talking to a huge crowd? Is he talking to foreigners who don’t believe in the God of Israel? Is he talking to the Pharisees?
No, he’s talking to his disciples. Jesus is talking to the ones whom he has already chosen. We can learn from this that the point of the parable is not to tell them what they need to do to get into heaven. That horse is already out of the barn. And if you don’t believe me you only have to look at the scripture itself to see that this is true. In the parable, the first words out of the king’s mouth are this, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The sheep aren’t entering in because of their deeds of mercy. It is the opposite. In some way, their deeds of mercy are the result of their having been chosen. So this parable is aimed at those who are already presumed to be the sheep.
So if he isn’t telling the parable in order to get them to make the right spiritual decision, why does he tell it? What’s the point? Again, this is where paying attention to context makes a huge difference. I was trying to get a handle on the parable early this past week and so I backed up in Matthew all the way to chapter 21. And I read the almost four chapters that come before our gospel lesson. And lo and behold, things started to come into focus.
In chapter 21, Jesus enters into
. The crowds love him; they wave branches and cheer. Jesus gets into the city, goes to the temple, and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. In short, he causes a ruckus. Then he leaves town for the day and spends the night in Jerusalem , which is a nearby village. The next day, Jesus comes back. And where does he go? He goes to the temple. While at the temple, and in front of his disciples, Jesus has a series of conversations with the priests, scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders of the people. Bethany
Jesus and these leaders play a cat and mouse game. They try to trick him into saying something that will get him into trouble. He attacks their authority and shows them up in front of the people.
And then finally, after a chapter and a half of this high stakes, back and forth, verbal combat, Jesus turns to the crowds, which includes his disciples, and starts to talk to them about the religious leaders. In the presence of everyone, he starts to pronounce a series of woes. Here is one example, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy.” He mercilessly condemns them for saying one thing and doing another. He condemns them for caring more about all their rules and laws than they care for actual flesh and blood people. Again, Jesus is doing this with his disciples close by, soaking up every word.
After he finishes his series of accusations, Jesus and his disciples start to leave the temple. They bring up another subject. He takes the opportunity to talk to them about the future. He tells them parables about being prepared for this future, about staying ready. And then finally, we arrive at our parable for today.
This is what I believe to be happening here. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the future, for the time after his death and resurrection. In the confrontation at the temple, Jesus bluntly condemned the religious leaders for being hypocrites and for not caring about the people. He is preparing his disciples to be a different kind of religious leader.
So with this parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus is saying, “Dearest disciples, do not be like them! Do NOT be like them! Those scribes and Pharisees, those old goats, they get all tangled in their rules and their rituals and this and that; and they forget all about loving people. Do not be like them. Instead of helping people and leading them, those old goats just burden them and make their lives miserable. Do not be like them.
No, because you are my chosen ones, you must be different. You must be ones who help people. You must go out of your way to serve those who are the lowliest. You must feed the hungry one and give her water to drink. You must help the sick and visit the prisoners. That is your job. As religious leaders, that is your job. You must be leaders who serve.
So then, this parable is not about how to get salvation. It is about how to act because we have already been given salvation. We are not to be like the scribes and Pharisees who burden people and hurt them. We are not to get so caught up in our own lives that we fail to serve the one who is in need. No, we are not to be like that because Jesus has chosen us to be his sheep. He has chosen us to be the ones who help people. To give them water, to visit them in the hospital and in jail, to clothe them. In short, he has chosen us to show mercy and love to those who need it so desperately. And so we must take this responsibility very seriously. Not so that we will be chosen, but because we have been chosen. Amen