The life of faith
For the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing parables about the ‘coming’ or parousia of Jesus. We heard the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins; the bridegroom was delayed, and five bridesmaids missed his coming because they’d ran out of oil. We heard the Parable of the Talents, and of the third slave whose fear of the master kept him from the risky adventure of faith that he was being invited into.
Today, we reach the pinnacle of Matthew’s teaching: the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
Remember, parousia means ‘being alongside’; the parousia of Jesus is the ‘being alongside’ us of Jesus. This parable teaches how Jesus is alongside us right now. We don’t have to wait to meet him! Isn’t that good news!?
Let me just offer one warning when we’re reading parables: when we interpret a parable, we are meant to find its central theme—and then we are meant be surprised or even disturbed by it. We are not meant to look at every detail and make each detail have a meaning.
So this parable is about how Jesus comes to us now, and how the judgement happens here and now in the events of our lives. It’s not about ‘getting to heaven’; it not about ‘who goes to heaven and who goes to hell’.
This parable is about how we should live by faith now, since Jesus is coming to us every single day of our lives. It shows us that people of faith have a responsibility for the world. Jesus comes to us incognito, hidden, unknown: he comes hungry and thirsty, he comes a stranger, or naked, or sick or in prison. Christ the King comes to us in rags, and bids us to serve him by faith.
In some ways this is a frightening parable. Nobody knows when they have met Jesus, neither the sheep nor the goats!
I was on Oxley station some months ago and a young man struck up a conversation with me. He proceeded to ask me if I were a Christian, and then asked for money. Against my better judgement, I gave him some. A couple of weeks ago he was back. He didn’t remember me; and this time, he had the most offensive case of body odour I’ve encountered in years. He wanted to shake my hand. I declined, and walked to another part of the platform. Upwind!
Sometimes I wonder how incidents like this relate to our parable.
Are the sheep the do-gooders who give to charity and buy Remember Seven gifts for Zambian children? Are the goats the ones who turn away from smelly beggars in railway stations?
If so, I can be both. I could be a sheep and a goat. I have no idea whether the King would invite me to stand on the right or the left. Boy, will I ever get a surprise when I find out which it’s to be!
But wait—didn’t I say this parable isn’t about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? That it’s about meeting Jesus now?
It’s about how prepared we are to meet Jesus now. And it says that we’re quite likely to miss him when he comes our way. The parable is about the way Jesus walks with people, and guides them through his Spirit. It’s about the way people can care for him when they care for others, even if they don’t realise it.
So did Jesus meet me on Oxley station? Perhaps he did, and I missed the appointment. He can certainly meet us in the person of a smelly beggar. And if my continuing need to wrestle with my responsibility is any guide, he certainly did meet me there.
This parable is about how Jesus is there in the muck and the mess of life. We may or may not recognise him. He is there in those who call for our compassion and understanding. He is there in the Zambian orphan, in the hungry, the poor. He is there in the unemployed, and in the mentally ill. He is there in the asylum seeker, and in the gay Christian who wonders if he can ever be honest about himself with his church.
I said before that this parable is the pinnacle of Matthew’s teaching. Let me explain what I meant. It’s the final teaching before the story of the Passion of Jesus, but it’s not just that. It seems to me that it makes a kind of ‘bookend’ to the teaching right at the beginning of Matthew, the teaching on the Beatitudes that we looked at earlier this year:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who live according to the Beatitudes of Jesus are sensitive to those in need. They share the heart of Jesus because they have allowed the Spirit to work in their own hearts. And in the end, that’s what faith is. This parable is about living a life of faith. Faith that the crucified one alone is the King of kings.
It doesn’t say in this parable that we’re judged by our works, not by faith—whether we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit those in prison.
No, it says that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and tending the sick are what the life of faith is about.
We get faith wrong when we think it’s first and foremost about believing facts about God. Faith is about trusting that the story didn’t end when Jesus was crucified. Faith trust that the risen Lord is the crucified Jesus, and that he identifies with those who are at the bottom of the heap. Whoever they are.