Last week we looked at Judgment and the End Times in the ‘Parable of the Talents’ and I alluded to the fact that the lengthy passages of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel on this subject ended with the story of the sheep and goats. It is this story that we will look at more closely today. The story itself, in rounding off the passages on the End Times, introduces the main drama of the Gospels – the plot to kill Jesus, his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 26-28).
The ethical reasoning in the sheep and the goats’ narrative demands further exploration. It seems to pose the question: why should humans treat each other with compassion, love and charity? The answer given is simple and clear: because humans are made in the image of God:
‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who
are members of my family, you did it to me’.
As Christians we believe that the image of God has been revealed fully in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, and so in showing love and compassion to each other we are honouring Jesus. Similarly, in rejecting, ignoring and turning away from the needs and suffering of others we are rejecting Jesus himself. Having seen and encountered the glory of humanity in Jesus we are commanded to remember that that image is present in all God’s children. Jesus’ rationale for asking that we behave in a certain way is because divine life runs through all of creation.
This is a transformative and radical ethical teaching especially when placed in the context of the legal presentation of right behaviour that Jesus was consistently challenging in the Pharisees. More interesting still, in a peculiar reversal, the rationale for the teaching undermines the punishment which is foretold at the end of the teaching: if man truly reflects the glory of God then how can man be subjected to eternal damnation and hell fire? Surely then the divine is being subjected to such a punishment? God is killed.
And that is one way in which the crucifixion of Jesus can be understood.
Jesus, as the Son of Man, reveals in human form the glory of God, present in all of creation. At the same time, the Son of Man is destroyed by the sin, hatred and corruption which is to be found in the human heart and in human relationships (this is made to clear to us in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and in Peter’s denial of him, even his closest followers are unable to do the right things). Jesus’ actions acknowledge that despite his teaching, we humans will continue to deny and betray God. Nonetheless, by entering into death, he reveals that God’s life cannot be subjected to death – Jesus’ descent into death, the harrowing of hell and Jesus’ resurrection transforms our understanding of Judgment and the End Times.
For, being in Christ, we are in God, and being in God we cannot be subjected to death.
We cannot save ourselves, we cannot be perfect, yet, as we have been created by God and bare his image we are granted his life and not our own. What we are commanded now has evolved from ‘you must behave like this or be damned’ to a divine commission. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his disciples:
‘Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had commanded them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.
Jesus here is Lord of all the universe, with all authority in heaven and on earth being handed over to him, and yet he does not offer words of condemnation, nor a threat of punishment, rather he commissions and authorises. And what we are commissioned to do as Jesus’ disciples is significant; we are not asked to deliver a programme of ethical teaching, rather we are commissioned to baptise, teach and obey. Furthermore, Jesus promises his eternal presence with us ‘to the end of the age’. His presence is one of encouragement, empowerment and peace.
And so, we can see how judgment has been turned on its head. From being faced with unachievable goodness or death, we are led into the story of sacrifice and forgiveness; and from that place we are commissioned to talk of love and not condemnation; to teach forgiveness and baptism from a place of humility; to model compassion and charity; to recognise the inevitability of failure and to lament, but in all things to recognise Jesus as Lord.
|Italianate Landscape with a Goat and Sheep, Philipp Peter Roos|
17th century, wiki free picture