A sermon for November 27 on Matthew 25:31-46
A respected colleague once said to me that every decent preacher eventually shows him or herself to be either a justification preacher or a sanctification preacher; either someone who steadily proclaims that by grace we have been declared justified in spite of the unjustifiable nature of whole parts of our lives, or someone who steadily speaks of the call to holiness and a transformed life. I think that there is something to his observation, and I’m pretty sure that were he to arrive here some Sunday night he’d smile and tell me I’d rather clearly cast my lot with the justification folks. At the same time, I’m not sure that Jesus really lets us get away with such neat and easy distinctions.
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Think about it for a minute. On the one hand there’s all of these places where Jesus extends an astonishing sort of grace to people—the woman caught in an adulterous affair, for instance—or where he tells parables like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in which hard work and righteous practice take the back seat to a soul-searching cry for mercy. But then you come to the sort of territory we’ve been covering for the past few weeks—the parables of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, the Talents, and now the Sheep and the Goats—and suddenly how people act and what they do—what Stanley Hauerwas calls “performing the faith”—seems to take the priority position. And the not doing looks to have extremely dire consequences; the foolish bridesmaids find the door to the wedding feast shut, the servant who had failed to put his talent to work lands in the outer darkness, the goats in this parable tonight “go away into eternal punishment.” Oh my.
All three of these parables come from late in Matthew’s account, right before things are set in motion for Jesus’ arrest and execution. They are told to the disciples as part of a larger teaching on the looming crisis; not simply the crisis of his arrest, but beyond that to the political storm that the Roman Empire will hail down on Jerusalem, eventually flattening both the city and its temple. In fact in the same set of teachings Jesus looks beyond even that, to the culmination of all of time and all of history; those are words that we will be considering next Sunday, as the season of Advent begins.
For now, though, I think it is fair to see these crisis parables as being a kind of instruction to the disciples—and to the young church they would lead—about preparedness, a willingness to actually trust the gift with which they’d been entrusted, and a readiness to live and act as if the Kingdom had already fully come to be; as if it was already in their midst. As if Christ was already reigning as king, which is the thing that the liturgical calendar asks us to mark on this feast day of the Reign of Christ or Christ the King. Broken and sorrowful as this world may be, live now under this Kingship in sure and certain hope of the redemption of all of creation.
As he nears the end of his little book, The Meaning of Life: a very short introduction, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton turns his eye to this parable of the sheep and the goat. “The meaning of life,” he writes, “ is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living—which is to say, a certain quality, depth, abundance, and intensity of life.”
The parable begins, Eagleton notes, with a rather grand picture of the Son of Man returning in glory and surrounded by angels; what he calls “off-the-peg cosmic imagery,” by which he means an almost stock picture of holy grandeur. Yet, he continues,
[S]alvation turns out to be an embarrassingly prosaic affair—a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. It has no “religious” glamour or aura whatsoever. Anybody can do it. The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought. Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick. When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars. To live in this way is not just to have life, but to have it in abundance.
“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, “When stopped at the street corner and bought me that sandwich; when you brought that bundle of wool socks to put in the basket at church; when you talked to me in the bus shelter the day I was sitting there cold, tired and sad; when you made that pot of soup to bring me the day I got home from the hospital; when you didn’t back away from me when my life went off the rails and I was really spiraling; when you looked at the extra space at your dining room table and asked me to come and join your family for Christmas dinner; when you remembered to call on the anniversary of my spouse’s death; when you saw the deep sadness in my eyes, and wouldn’t let me get away with saying ‘I’m okay, I’m fine’”…
“When you act in this way, you are sharing in the love which built the stars.” Isn’t that a statement? I think Eagleton is profoundly right in seeing this parable as speaking to life’s very meaning. Isaiah may have received his vision of the heights of heaven and Mary may have been greeted by her angel—once—but for the most part living the Kingdom “has no ‘religious’ glamour or aura whatsoever. Anybody can do it.” Anybody can… but do we? And there we meet the goats. “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?” If only we’d known it was that important to you…
The parable is not intended to have us look smugly at our own good deeds, satisfied that we’ve done our best to be good girl or boy scouts—good little sheep—but rather to invite a deep consideration of the “goatiness” of our own lives; of my own life. I know too well those days when I don’t have the energy to talk to the person in the bus shelter or when I’m just too busy to bother to remember the extra place at my dinner table or to take the time to check in on the friend who is in a bad way. When I read this parable, I’m not sure that I’d fare all that well on the day when “the Son of Man comes in his glory,” but I need to learn to receive the parable not as a source of crushing guilt or as a call to start racking up the do-gooder brownie points that I hope might put me over there with the sheep, all the while looking down my nose at those I’ve determined are surely numbered among the goats. No, I need to hear it as a wake-up call and an invitation. To me, no less. To again cite Eagleton, “To live in this way is not just to have life, but to have it in abundance.”
And as for judgments of the goats? Not my business, not my jurisdiction. That’s up to the King, whose upside down kingship left him with scars on his hands. I’m deeply struck by something a colleague once wrote—something I cite in one of the meditations I wrote for our saint ben’s Advent book, In Days to Come: “Christians dare to say that there is only one Lamb, and the goats got him. Yet in dying exhalations that one Lamb forgave all the goats.”
The one Lamb is the King with scarred hands, and we stand under his reign, now and ever. Our call is to trust that, and then with cups of cold water, bundles of warm socks, pots of soup, caring visits and phone calls, and attentive hearts, find ways to live it.