“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘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, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘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?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” ~Matthew 25:31-46
Your pastor is a Christian Universalist. We might as well get that out of the way. I only recently learned that there was a name for my particular system of belief—which lies within the bounds of Presbyterianism, so, you relax about that. There are lots of Presbyterian Christian Universalists. I’m one.
Christian universalism consists of this: I believe there is a sound scriptural foundation that tells us that, at the end of all things, God will renew the whole world, and everything and everyone in it. God will restore every human being to right relationship with God, and will heal us all completely. God will gather us in, the faith-filled and the doubt-driven, the angry and the joyful, the lovers and the leavers, the good, the bad, and everything in between.
The sheep and the goats.
So, as you can imagine, today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel puts me in a little bit of a conundrum. And that’s ironic, because, about twenty years ago, or so, I decided this was my absolutely favorite moment in all the New Testament. (I have since learned that I have a lot of favorites.)
I love this passage, and I’ll tell you why, but it’s going to take a little time. We are at the end of chapter 25, which is the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end. These are Jesus’ last words of public preaching, public proclamation in the Temple. The past two Sundays have been given over to the parables leading up to this—the “stay awake,” parables, the “keep watch” parables. Then Jesus tells this story—which is more a tale of judgment than a parable. After this, Jesus says to his disciples: “You know that after two days, the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
So the last thing Jesus wants to tell the people is how Son of Man, at the ending of the end, he will judge the nations.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus begins, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand, and the goats at the left.” (Matt. 25:31-33).
Here is the Son of Man… the term that sounds so mysterious to us, but which, in Hebrew and Greek, simply means, “the mortal one.” But this mortal one is also, somehow, the Judge of all mortals. And he comes in glory with an angelic retinue, and sits upon his throne. And now, he is also a shepherd dividing the flocks of the nations.
Jesus, the Son of Man. Jesus, the Judge. Jesus, the King. Jesus, the Shepherd.
And as the tale unfolds, something surprising happens. The Son of Man tells those on his right—the right being, in scripture, symbolic of power and favor—he tells them, they are blessed of God, and they are to enter the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. This is because they cared for him. When he was hungry, they fed him. When he was thirsty, they gave him something to drink. When he was a stranger—and, in the bible, that means, a foreigner, an immigrant—they welcomed him. When he was naked, they clothed him. When he was sick, they cared for him. When he was in prison, they visited him. This is all very surprising to those designated sheep. They don’t remember, and they ask when all this happened.
Jesus says: “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”[i]
We meet God in the last place we expect. We find God in the poor, the hungry. The lost, the lonely. The alien, the immigrant. The suffering, the prisoner. We find God there, and we have an opportunity to open ourselves to that encounter. We have a chance to meet God there, to know the Holy One.[ii]
This is why I fell in love with this passage so long ago: Completely absent from this tale of judgment is one single word about the usual ways we divide ourselves as Christians. Jesus does not say, “Enter into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for when someone doubted the Virgin Birth you corrected them! When someone told you they were gay, you reminded them they were sinners. When someone said women could be preachers, you told them they had rejected me.” Completely missing from this scene of judgment is any notion that what we believe enters into the equation.
This is why I fell in love with this passage. It is 100% about reaching out in healing, loving, helping ways to those who need it, and it is 0% about thought policing, or faith measuring, or, my own personal favorite sin, who’s right.
But alas, this is also a big problem for me, Presbyterian Christian Universalist that I am. Because, the poor goats.
Let me tell you about Bible Study this week. On Monday evening we read this passage. We’ve been reading through the gospel of Matthew since last Advent, and it was a complete coincidence that we happened upon it. We did what we usually do, which is to go around the table, reading a verse at a time. And do you know what happened immediately after that? People started testifying, on behalf of goats. About how much they liked them, about all their good attributes… about how very smart they are, and how loving. Did you know that a recent study determined that goats are just as smart and loving as dogs? One person talked about going to a goat farm, and promptly being kissed by a goat. There was some distress expressed at the dreadful fate of the goats—the eternal fire, reserved for the devil and his angels. What did goats ever do to deserve this?
Of course, “sheep” and “goats” are metaphors in this passage, stand-ins for people, for nations—for whole communities, and the things they have prioritized… or not prioritized. I was struggling with this question this week, because I could not for the life of me figure out why goats would be so maligned—even, metaphorically speaking. I wondered whether there were superstitions about goats dating to Jesus’ day, or whether people actually viewed them negatively.
I found my answer. I was reminded of what is probably the biblical basis for Jesus’ story: Leviticus 16, which describes the ritual of the scapegoat. It occurs in the context of the Day of Atonement. Aaron the priest is directed to bring two goats, one for the Lord (to be sacrificed on the altar and burned), and another to be the scapegoat, which literally means, “the goat of departure.” After the sacrifices are offered, the ritual of the scapegoat begins:
Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:21-22)
We know what a scapegoat is. It is someone who is blamed for the sin of another. Many of us have experienced this concept as we learned about addiction, and the way it affects families. Often, one person in a family suffering from addiction is identified as the scapegoat because their anger, their acts of defiance, their behavior, which is never “good enough,” serves as the repository for the whole family’s sickness. And they are sent off into the figurative wilderness, considered beyond the family’s ability to help. And meanwhile, the addiction continues.
Organizations such as churches sometimes do the same thing. So do societies. Jesus’ list of the people who have been ignored or neglected by the so-called “goats” in this passage… the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned… that list bears a striking resemblance to many who are, in effect, our own modern-day scapegoats. The people we call “welfare queens.” The people imprisoned for life for minor drug offenses—who we would rather warehouse than actually help to find skills or employment. The people labeled terrorists en masse because of the country they came from, or the religion they practice.
What if Jesus tells this story because, scapegoating is what we do to the least of God’s children? What if Jesus tells us that the Son of Man’s judgment upon those who have turned away from their brothers and sisters in need is actually designed to say, “This is what it feels like”? To say to those who have failed to care for their fellow men, women and children, “Now you are the scapegoat.”
The scapegoat ritual was deadly serious; it was used on the Day of Atonement in the time of the Temple. An animal was chosen to carry the sins of the community off into the wilderness.
But is that what Jesus is doing here? I can never read this passage without recalling the way it is portrayed in the movie, “Godspell.” “Godspell” tells the gospel story in a contemporary medium. At the beginning of the movie, people are going about their normal day as workers at various jobs in a large and busy city. There’s a waitress, there’s a guy wheeling racks of clothing through the street; there’s a cab driver. But then hear the sound of the shofar, the ancient instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, as it happens, for use on the Day of Atonement. They walk away from their adult responsibilities and roles and follow Jesus, who dresses them up as if they were children at play, and paints colorful designs on their faces. When Jesus tells the tale of the sheep and the goats, it is told to comic effect. The sheep clap, delighted at their being honored. The goats grimace and moan, like little kids who have been told they can’t have a cookie. The goats watch as Jesus and the sheep go off happy together. And then, of course, Jesus and the sheep come back, and they welcome the goats back into the fold, and the fun. They were never really being sent to the eternal fire. They just needed to learn this lesson well.
I can’t help wondering whether that’s exactly what Jesus was doing. Was Jesus telling a story that would make his listeners giggle and roll their eyes? Was Jesus lovingly exaggerating, like a good teacher telling a memorable tale?
Jesus, the Son of Man. Jesus, the Judge. Jesus, the King. Jesus, the Shepherd. Jesus the Rabbi/ Teacher.
And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus, the Hungry. Jesus, the Thirsty. Jesus, the Immigrant. Jesus, the Naked. Jesus, the Sick. Jesus, the Prisoner.
Jesus tells this story at the end of the beginning. Look for me, he says. Even if you think I am dead and buried: look for me in those who are struggling and suffering, and cast out and isolated, and there you will find me. And then, help me. Welcome me. Love me. Jesus is telling us the solemn truth: whenever and wherever we do these things for those who are otherwise being ignored, or reviled, or rejected, we will find him there. Jesus, the Storyteller. Jesus, the Shepherd. Jesus, the King like no other.
[i] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Matthew 25:40.
[ii] Thanks to Prof. Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary for this reminder.